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In diverse slate of winners, Oscar is the biggest loser

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Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins (center) with co-star Olivia Colman in “The Father” (image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

We knew the Academy Awards were going to be different this year.

Forced by Covid to reimagine its traditional presentation format, the movie industry’s most prestigious awards show convened not at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre — at least, not for most of it — and opted instead to broadcast the ceremony from the relative intimacy of Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, where a small audience of nominees, presenters and guests gathered under “live set” safety protocols while other participants connected from various remote hook-ups across the world. Instead of auditorium seating, tables; instead of an orchestra, Questlove.

In addition, show producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacy Sher chose to shoot the event cinematically, employing the tricks and techniques of film to transform the evening from the stodgy affair so many of us love to hate into something resembling a movie. As promised during the week ahead of the broadcast, the show was going to tell a “story.”

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Things started out promisingly enough, it must be said, with an opening tracking shot that followed host Regina King from the bright L.A. sunshine into the cool darkness of Union Station. The motion, the music, and most of all King’s commanding presence, gave us the sense that something big was about to happen.

Then, early in her opening comments to the audience, King brought substance to the weight by commenting that “if things had gone differently in Minneapolis this week, I might’ve traded in my heels for marching boots” — reminding us (as if it were needed) of the national focus on Black justice that hung alongside Oscar’s long-lamented struggle with diversity like a shadow over the evening. The central theme of this Oscar “movie,” it seemed, had been firmly established.

For awhile, it seemed to be working. The evening’s first winners were Emerald Fennell for Best Original Screenplay, for “Promising Young Woman,” and Florian Zeller for Best Adapted Screenplay, for “The Father,” appearing to set a tone for the ceremony in which recognition would be spread around to all — something very much in tune with the presumed subplot of the “story” we were being told, in which Oscar would redeem itself from the #OscarsSoWhite associations of its past and prove itself to be a champion for fair and equal diversity, after all.

Soon after, Daniel Kaluuya took the award for Best Supporting Actor – no surprise there, as his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” had won the equivalent prize from every other major film awards so far — firmly establishing the “redemption” theme by celebrating the powerful work of a Black actor in a true-life story that addressed the corruption and tragedy of systemic racism in America.

A pair of awards for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Best Makeup and Styling, Best Costume Design), as well as a win for the police-violence-themed “Two Distant Strangers” as Best Live-Action Short, reinforced it even further. Better still, a shout-out to trans acceptance from “Ma Rainey” stylist Mia Neal in her speech, and a plea from “Strangers” writer/director Travon Free for audiences not to be “indifferent to our pain” in his, lent a powerful sense of earnestness that made the whole thing feel authentic.

Maybe this year, Oscar was finally getting it right.

Unfortunately, the Oscar “story,” in its effort to be inclusive, allowed all the winners to talk until they were done. In other words, Questlove did not start playing anyone off when they had used up their time, and the ambitious “movie” of the Oscars soon began lose any momentum it had built.

This is not to say that the winners don’t deserve their time in the spotlight, or that some of the things that were said were not worthy of being heard; but anyone in show business should know the importance of keeping your audience interested, and the Academy Awards have such a long history of running ponderously overtime that it seems some kind of middle ground might have been reached.

There were other familiar complaints, too. The annual “in memoriam” segment inevitably left out some important names (Ann Reinking, Jessica Walter, “Glee” star Naya Rivera, and former Oscar nominee songwriter Adam Schlesinger, to name just a few), and there was an awkward segment in which Questlove played “Oscar trivia” with audience members, who were asked to identify movie songs that did NOT win the Academy Award.

The latter situation was almost saved by nominee Glenn Close, who did an “impromptu” rendition of “Da Butt” that was as goofily charming as it was obviously pre-planned.

As the show wore on, the cinematic conceit chosen to revitalize the proceedings became mostly irrelevant in the face of Oscar’s usual baggage. Further, the absence of any performances of the year’s nominated songs, typically a favorite feature of fans at home, meant there was little respite from the dullness, which was made all the more apparent by the increasingly bored faces of the onscreen audience.

The omission may have been due to the difficult logistics of additional Covid protocols, but surely pre-taped performances might have helped to perk things up. For the record, Best Original Song went to “Fight For You,” from “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Along the way, there were noteworthy wins. The much-loved Pixar-Disney film “Soul” took the award for Best Animated Feature, as well as winning Best Original Score for composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste.

The virally popular “My Octopus Teacher” won for Best Documentary Feature; David Fincher’s black-and-white old-Hollywood homage “Mank” took the prizes for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography, continuing the trend of spreading out the wealth among the front-running contenders.

In presenting Best Film Editing to “The Sound of Metal,” still-hunky Hollywood curmudgeon Harrison Ford gave an amusing nod to “Blade Runner,” the revered 1982 sci-fi film in which he starred, by reading the scathingly negative studio notes from a pre-release screening; and Best Supporting Actress went to veteran performer Yuh-Jung Youn for her work in “Minari,” making her only the second woman of Asian heritage to win the award (the first was Miyoshi Umeki for 1957’s “Sayanora”) — and making Close, who was nominated for her role in “Hillbilly Elegy,” tied with Peter O’Toole as the actor with the most nods without a single win.

By the time we reached the presentation of the four top prizes, there was little left of whatever enthusiasm had been drummed up by the opening segment of the show. Chloe Zhao’s expected win as Best Director, for “Nomadland,” making her the first Asian-American woman (and only the second woman, period) to receive the award, was an appreciated high point for her enthusiastic gratitude alone, but at this point, things had become pretty much business as usual, despite the grand designs and cinematic flourishes of the producers.

Then, the big twist came. Best Picture, always the final award of the evening, was being announced before the Lead Acting awards. What was happening? Was the Oscar “movie” about to give us a surprise ending?

The winner, “Nomadland,” had been favored, and star Frances McDormand helped to make the moment a highlight with a “wolf” howl (dedicated to sound mixer Michael “Wolf” Snyder, who passed away last month) when she joined the film’s other producers at the podium, but surely neither of those things warranted switching the order.

Perhaps a clue to what was really happening could be found in the choice of presenter – Hollywood icon Rita Moreno, still fabulous at 89, whose Best Supporting Actress win for 1961’s “West Side Story” happened to have made her the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. Was this reminder of diversity from the Academy’s past a sign that the “redemption” theme was about to pay off?

It suddenly became obvious. The Oscar “movie” was leading up to an emotional finale, a big and uplifting triumph that would not only be a celebration of diversity, but a tribute to a gifted young man whose talents had been taken away from us too soon.

The story of Oscar’s redemption would culminate in the posthumous awarding of the Best Actor prize to Chadwick Boseman, whose nominated performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the last work he completed before losing his private battle with colon cancer and passing away at 43 last August. That would definitely be a “wow” finish.

Best Actress came first, accompanied by some suspense due to being one of the few categories without a clear front-runner. McDormand took the statue for “Nomadland,” joining a small handful of other performers as a three-time-winner and preventing “Ma Rainey” star Viola Davis from becoming the first Black actress to win twice.

Her speech was refreshingly short and humble, a tribute to the joy of “the work” which included a quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (“My voice is in my sword”) – a play considered by actors worldwide to be “cursed,” which in retrospect casts an interesting light on what happened next.

To present the final award, last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix (looking exceptionally uncomfortable) came to the mike and, after a feeble joke about his reputation for method acting, read off the five nominees before opening the envelope to bring about the now much-anticipated denouement.

“And the Oscar goes to… Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father.’”

It wasn’t quite “fade to black, roll credits” after that, but it might as well have been.

There was no uplifting finale, no redemption of the Academy as a reward for its show of diversity. There was only another in a long-running series of gaffes (remember the “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” debacle from just a few years back?) that have made the Oscar show’s tendency to mess things up a running joke.

This one, however, was possibly the worst. In an arrogant attempt to shape a narrative out of real life events that hadn’t even happened yet, the Academy seems to have chosen to manipulate its audience into an emotional reaction — one that would have bolstered its own reputation and perhaps made up for some of its former perceived missteps — while exhibiting a cynical overconfidence in its own ability to predict the sentiments of its voters.

As a result, its “wow” finish turned into an abrupt and uncomfortable faux pas, diminishing both Hopkins’ victory for a career-topping performance (which, at 83, makes him the oldest acting winner in Oscar history) and Boseman’s searingly powerful work by obscuring their accomplishments behind a colossal fuck-up born of its own hubris.

It’s worth noting that a plan was (reportedly) in place in the supposedly “unlikely” event that Hopkins would win, in which “Father” co-star Colman – known for her disarming grace and humor in awards situations – would have accepted the award in his absence.

As reported by The Guardian, Phoenix forgot to call her to the stage, resulting in the dull thud that was the end of the 93rd Academy Awards. Regardless, the Academy has only itself to blame. In its eagerness to tell the story it wanted to tell about itself, it appears to have forgotten that you have to know the ending first.

Ironically, when removed from all the drama, the list of winners does represent one of the most diverse and inclusive slates in Oscar history. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

On that note, as a final observation, the LGBTQ community, despite recent strides in being acknowledged by Oscar, went largely unacknowledged at this year’s ceremony, with queer front-runners like “Two of Us” (a French contender for Best International Feature) and David France’s devastating “Welcome to Chechnya” (shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature) having been shut out of the nominations and no significant queer content among most of the nominated films.

Apart from Neal’s aforementioned invocation of trans acceptance as part of a possible future in which the recognition of all women for their achievements would be “normal,” the only other time we came up was during Tyler Perry’s acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Perry, whose highly popular films are frequently criticized for embracing borderline homophobic and transphobic humor and perpetuating problematic tropes about gender and sexuality, gave a speech calling for people to “refuse to hate” anyone “because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or White, or LBGTQ” or “because they are a police officer” or “because they are Asian.”

Apart from the conflation of being a police officer (a choice) with being an LGBTQ person or a person of color (not a choice), the fact that he mixed up the “B” and the “G” is a clear indicator that, while he may refuse to hate us, he’s not exactly a committed ally, either.

If the LGBTQ angle seems like a footnote to the story, that’s because it is. Once more, the queer community is left feeling like an uninvited guest by the Academy.

If Oscar wants its story to be about diversity, it’s clear that next year’s “story” needs some better writers.

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Ellen Degeneres sits down with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie

Ellen chats with Savannah Guthrie on Today about her leaving daytime television

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Ellen chats with NBC's Savannah Guthrie on Today about her leaving daytime television

BURBANK – Ellen DeGeneres announced yesterday that she will end her talk show after next season. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie speaks with DeGeneres Friday about the decision, which comes 10 months after DeGeneres faced accusations of allowing/running a toxic workplace.

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Ellen discusses her departure with Oprah Winfrey

The two powerful women television celebrities shared how each came to the decision for their shows to end

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Ellen and Oprah discuss Ellen's decision to end her show after 19 years. (Screenshot via YouTube)

BURBANK – After Ellen DeGeneres announced she would be ending her talk show with Season 19 this week, she had a discussion with invited special guest Oprah Winfrey on Thursday, whose iconic talk show wrapped in 2011 after 25 seasons.

The two powerful women television celebrities shared how each came to the decision for their shows to come to an end, and Winfrey divulged what she misses about her show, and DeGeneres revealed what she will miss about hers.

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Elton John and Years & Years give a fabulous performance at the 2021 Brit Awards

Elton John’s & Years & Years’ BRIT Awards 2021 song ‘It’s a Sin’ released in support of Elton John AIDS Foundation

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Elton John and Years & Years 2021 Brit Awards (Screenshot via YouTube)

LONDON – In a show stopping performance Tuesday, Sir Elton John and Olly Thornton both who are British musicians, singer-songwriters, actors, and LGBTQ advocates- Thornton performs as Years & Years, rendered their new version of the Pet Shop Boys classic single ‘It’s a Sin’.

John’s and Years & Years’ BRIT Awards 2021 performance of the Pet Shop Boys classic single ‘It’s a Sin’ was released in support of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

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LISTEN TO It’s a sin HERE: https://EltonJohnYearsandYears.lnk.to…

DONATE TO EJAF HERE: https://donate.eltonjohnaidsfoundatio…

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