' ' Cinema Romantico: The Anti Oscars

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Anti Oscars

The first 15 Academy Awards, up through 1943, were held not in large auditoriums or theatres, but at hotels, the Biltmore, Roosevelt and Ambassador, the latter hosted inside their Cocoanut Grove nightclub. I, for one, had always longed for another Oscars to go the Cocoanut Grove route and when the 2021 version began, hosted principally inside L.A.’s Union Station, transformed into an intimate, coolly lit room of the Oscar nominees and their limited guests at small bar tables with lamps bearing shades festooned by Oscar men, I suddenly realized this was my Cocoanut Grove Oscars, or as close as we were going to get in this modern age. It was clear Steven Soderbergh, co-producer of the telecast, wanted a casual vibe as opposed to the over-the-top vaudeville aesthetic of essentially every other Oscars of my lifetime. The closest comparison, perhaps, was the 2009 Oscars, evinced in the similar personalized introductions of the various nominees. Of course, even the 2009 Oscars had song and danceman Hugh Jackman putting on a show; the 2021 Oscars were more like a hangout the cameras happened to be recording, even if you might have wished people to be imbibing champagne at those tables, if not smoking movie herbal cigarettes to really heighten the effect. Alas, necessary precautions reminded us we remain in the middle of a pandemic.

Soderbergh eschewed clips, which in recent years have just become purposeless, pedantic montages anyway, and part of me was disappointed since he might have been a unique curator of such footage. But. The Soderbergh calculation, clearly, was that doing away with clips would leave more room for acceptance speeches, refusing to play anyone off, another Oscar ceremony dream of mine come true. Did it work? Eh, yes and no, though just as Thomas Vinterberg, winner of Best International Feature for “Another Round”, said that directing was letting go of control, I’m sure Soderbergh was deliberately relinquishing control too. If letting speeches go where they may inevitably yielded some well-meaning duds, it also rendered the telecast’s highs, like Best Supporting Actor Daniel Kaluuya’s mom’s priceless reaction to his extemporaneous crack about his parents having sex (unless you want to argue this proves why cutting them off might save them), the wife of Best Screenplay victor Florian Zeller remoting in from a rooftop in Paris suddenly sliding into the frame and kissing his shoulder, Vinterberg having the space to talk about his late daughter, and, in the high point of the night, Best Supporting Actress Yuh-jung Youn for “Minari”, giving the Korean grandmother version of the speech Olivia Colman gave a couple years ago, endearingly, entertainingly taking the piss outta the whole thing. As Youn departed the stage, rather than instantly cutting to commercial, the camera followed her into the wings as presenter Brad Pitt followed, instructing her where to go, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars cheerfully acting as Yuh-jung Youn’s footman. It was wonderful.

Simply recreating a Cocoanut Grove-ish vibe, however, for an experimental filmmaker like Soderbergh was never going to do on its own. No, he also turned the Oscars into something akin to a movie, opening with a long tracking shot of Regina King entering the room while literal opening credits splayed across the screen. Images frequently honored the ol’ rule of thirds, blocking was occasionally an actual thing, like Boon Jong-ho’s presentation of the Best Director award from Seoul, while QuestLove as the Cocoanut Grove-ish D.J. often made semi-dissonant soundtrack selections, like Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” accompanying “Nomadland’s” cast and crew departing the stage after winning Best Picture. And oh yeah, the ceremony futzed with the order of things. Like, the literal order, opening with Best Original Screenplay, usually buried deeper in the telecast, as if immediately signaling its distinctive intention. Soderbergh, after all, even in his more mainstream movies, does not typically tell linear stories and he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell one for something as fuddy duddy as the Oscars. And that is where this telecast either went really wrong or really right, probably both, where he somehow managed to unmask the majority of viewers at home, at least judging by my social media feed, as Academy Awards traditionalists, even as, he, Soderbergh, director of “Ocean’s Eleven,” would wind up looking more like Terry Benedict, egg on his face, than Danny Ocean.

For awhile there, the 93rd Oscars were moving along briskly, basking in an international flavor and making history. In winning Best Actress for “Nomadland”, Frances McDormand joined the exclusive 3-timers club, along with Ingrid, Meryl, Jack, DDL, and character actor extraordinaire Walter Brennan. (Katharine Hepburn, of course, remains the only member of the 4-timers club.) Youn was the first Korean, and only the second Asian, to win an acting Oscar. ChloĆ© Zhao became only the second woman to win Best Director for “Nomadland.” And the Oscars, the elephantine Oscars, were poised to pull off the impossible: finish in under 3 hours. Then, things started getting strange. Just when that 3-hour mark was beginning to feel plausible, the show stopped in its tracks, bringing on Lil Rel Howry for an extended comic bit of Oscar song trivia. If it led to an incredible moment in which Glenn Close doing “Da Butt”, suggesting her next go for that elusive Oscar should be comedy, it also signified when these Oscars, to quote the late sportswriter Dr. Z, “tore into the galley proofs and started ripping up big chunks of copy.”

Best Picture was presented not last, as per tradition, but third to last. This was, near as I could tell, a way to give the late Chadwick Boseman the evening’s defining moment, since it seemed likely he would win Best Actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Indeed, that was the last award presented, though the presenter was Joaquin Phoenix. This is because he won the award last year, of course, though the eccentric, oft-socially uncomfortable Phoenix is not necessarily the man to meet this kind of moment, suggesting Lou Reed presenting the ultimate Grammy. And when Phoenix opened the envelope, it was not Boseman but Anthony Hopkins for “The Father”, who was not at the ceremony and not beamed in from somewhere else. Just like that, the Oscars were over, an astonishing anti-climax that was like the inverse of the “La La Land”/”Moonlight” wrong envelope fiasco, a single decision rippling through the final few minutes by managing to inadvertently insult Boseman, unfairly turn Hopkins (who, by all accounts, gave an excellent performance and gave a gracious acceptance speech this morning) into an unwitting villain, and deny “Nomadland” its true coronation as the movie of the night. How different would the ceremony have looked if it concluded with Frances McDormand howling like a wolf? 

You know what it was like? It was like the end of Monte Hellman’s (RIP) “The Shooting” (1966), which I just watched for the first time. As I was trying to come to grips with what just happened, the credits for “The Shooting” just suddenly rolled, an anti-ending designed to flabbergast you and then quietly, wonderfully gnaw at your brain. Of course, mainstream movies tend not to have anti-endings for a reason. And I dare say most people tuning in to an Oscar telecast do not want an anti-ending either. 

I have no idea what the 93rd Oscars represent in terms of the industry. I’ll let others hash that one out. And I did not see enough of the nominees, and trended more toward indifference toward the ones I did see, to weigh in on anything as abstract as what they got Right and what they got Wrong. But I feel safe in predicting that come the 94th Oscars, it will be back at the Dolby Theater, someone like Jimmy Kimmel will be on that stage giving away a jet ski to the person who gives us the shortest speech and the telecast will drag on for almost four hours. Maybe that’s the way the Oscars should be. But here, now, at the end of the strangest year of my life, for movies and everything else, the Anti Oscars feel pretty much perfect. 

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