Historic wins and huge upsets mark the 93rd Academy Awards

A woman wearing a gray sweatshirt with short hair stands next to a road looking at a trailer driving away.
“Nomadland” directed by Chloé Zhao, won Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards. (Courtesy: Searchlight Pictures)

To start off the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, actress Regina King welcomed an 170-person audience from a transformed Union Station in Los Angeles. Reflecting on a difficult last year, King stated, “Our love of movies helped to get us through, made us feel less isolated; it connected us when we were apart.” King set the stage for the rest of the night: one that would, above all else, center the importance of film to bring people together, even in difficult times. 

The 2021 Oscars season was bound to be one unlike any other. Across the United States, movie theaters closed their doors last March, and some closed permanently. Streaming services became the chief way to enjoy the nominees. But with ratings for the ceremony hitting a record low, it seemed as though even movie lovers hesitated to tune in. 

From the very beginning of the night, it was clear that producers brought the cinephilia to even the show’s stylization. King’s entrance walking through the station was overlaid with credits; the camera quality was sharp and smooth, closer to that of a film. The mission of the night was made clear: to make the viewers feel like they were watching a movie. 

The first award of the night, Best Original Screenplay, went to Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,” the film’s only award of the night. “The Father” writers Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller won Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Most award presenters, in lieu of pausing for clips of films, gave a few words about each nominee. Laura Dern, presenting for Best Supporting Actor, thanked each nominee for their performance and shared a heartfelt comment about what she loved about their film. Other presenters shared memories of their first movies, their pre-Hollywood jobs and even memories of the nominees. While the film clips are a staple of Oscar night, this break from tradition made the night feel intimate and allowed the audience to learn more about the nominees beyond simply their work.  

Recipients, too, were given space to be personal — none of the recipients were played off stage with near-comic music, resulting in heartfelt and comedic moments from speeches across categories. 

For his captivating performance as Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Daniel Kaluuya took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Later in the night, the film also won Best Original Song for “Fight for You” by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas.

The crew of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” took home some gold for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Costume Design, with Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson awarded for makeup and hairstyling, and Ann Roth for costumes (the oldest woman to win a competitive Oscar). Neal and Wilson became the first Black women to be nominated and to win in the category. The two awards were the only trophies the film won on the night.

The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award went to the Motion Picture Television fund — the first time the award has gone to an organization — and creative Tyler Perry. In pre-recorded packages played during the segment, the two recipients were particularly lauded for the work they had done to serve people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To present the Oscar for Best Director, last year’s winner “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, spoke live from the Dolby Cinemas in Seoul, South Korea. In an inspiring segment, he shared the answers the nominees gave when asked “If you have to explain what directing is in 20 seconds, what would you say?” The responses got to the heart of what was behind all of the nominated films — a desire to beautifully tell important stories. 

“Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao won the award, marking the second time a woman has won Best Director and the first time a woman of color has won. Zhao’s speech centered her belief in the inherent goodness of the world, a theme also important in her film. 

Riz Ahmed, star of “Sound of Metal,” presented the Oscar for Best Sound to his own film, which later took home its second award for Best Film Editing. The award for Best Live Action Short Film went to “Two Distant Strangers.” Best Animated Short Film and Best Animated Film, presented by Reese Witherspoon, went to “If Anything Happens I Love You” and “Soul,” respectively. 

Brad Pitt, the 2020 Best Supporting Actor winner, presented Best Supporting Actress to Yu-Jung Youn for “Minari,” making her the first Korean woman to win Best Actress. Youn gave one of the most memorable speeches of the night, asking Pitt, a Tulsa-native and an executive producer on the film, why he didn’t visit the film’s set when they filmed in the city. Youn also corrected Pitt on his pronunciation of her name in another memorable moment. 

“Mank” won the Oscars for Production Design and Cinematography, and Best Score went to Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste for “Soul.” Actor Lil Rel Howery played a quick game of Oscars trivia, in which Questlove (who provided music for the ceremony) played a song from a movie, and actors had to answer if the song was a winner, a nominee or none of the above. 

The Oscar for Best Picture was presented before Best Actor and Best Actress, in a complete break from Oscars tradition –– normally, the category closes out the show. Nonetheless, Rita Moreno presented the award to “Nomadland.” Zhao and actress Frances McDormand gave the speeches to accept the award, surrounded by cinematographer Joshua James Richards and favorites from the film, non-professional actors Linda May and Charlene Swankie. 

“Nomadland” was one of my favorites of the year and the award is well-deserved. However, the placement of the Best Picture category as third to last took away some of the ceremonial feel of what is usually considered the biggest award of the night. 

In the last two categories of the night, Renée Zellweger presented Best Actress to McDormand, who gave a quick 30-second speech, marking her third Oscar win. 

In a major upset, Anthony Hopkins took home Best Actor for “The Father.” Presenter Joaquin Phoenix, looking dumbfounded, read a canned line on the Academy accepting the award on Hopkins’ behalf, and the ceremony ended abruptly — with viewers stunned in their seats as end credits rolled.

Producers’ decision to shuffle the award order was probably banking on an emotional ending, with Chadwick Boseman favored for a posthumous award crediting his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The ceremony ended on an uncomfortable note, as many felt Boseman was exploited in the show, only to not win the final award. 

2020 was a difficult year for movies. As Frances McDormand said at the tail end of the night, there is hope that even after such a hard year, we will all be able to sit shoulder to shoulder in a theater and watch all of the nominees together.

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