It was obvious when actor and director Regina King strode sassily into Union Station with credits rolling as if she was in one of Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 movies. This was going to be a very different Academy Awards.
And in a pandemic-affected year, so it proved as the poetic road movie Nomadland won best picture, China’s Chloe Zhao made history by winning best director, there were surprise triumphs for Frances McDormand and Anthony Hopkins in the lead acting categories and Australia’s Andrew Jackson claimed best visual effects for Tenet.
Introducing the 93rd awards, which took place in Los Angeles’ main train station instead of the traditional Dolby Theatre so nominees could be socially distanced, King immediately set the tone by referring to the trial that found former policeman Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd last week.
Director/producer Chloe Zhao, winner of the Oscar for best picture for Nomadland.Credit:AP
“I have to be honest,” she said. “If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded my heels for marching boots.”
It was the first of many Black Lives Matter references at a deeply political ceremony that shook off the #OscarsSoWhite tag of past years.
Winner of best visual effects for Tenet: Andrew Jackson.
Zhao referred to an inspirational phrase, “people at birth are inherently good”, that she learnt playing a poetry-memorising game with her father in China.
“Those six [words] had such a great impact on me when I was a kid,” she said. “I still truly believe them today, even though it sometimes it might seem the opposite is true. But I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world.”
When Nomadland won best picture, Zhao thanked “the nomadic community” they met making the movie on the road across America. “Thank you for teaching us the power of resiliance and hope,” she said. “And for reminding us what true kindness looks like.”
The Oscars caps an extraordinary rise in Hollywood for Zhao. Beijing-born, she was 15 and knew very little English when her parents sent her to boarding school in London. She finished high school in Los Angeles, studied film at New York University then made two movies dealing with the American West, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, before Nomadland.
Australia’s highlight was the win by Jackson, the visual effects supervisor on Tenet, who watched the ceremony from a satellite event in London.
Previously nominated for Mad Max: Fury Road, he worked on such spectacular stunts as ramming a passenger plane through an airport terminal, a high-speed car chase in reverse and a climactic battle in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster that had soldiers moving both forwards and backwards in time.
After a year when nothing went as expected – cinemas were closed for extended periods, most movies were watching on streaming services – it seemed fitting that the Oscars delivered surprises.
Daniel Kaluuya, winner of best actor in a supporting role for Judas and the Black Messiah, with his Oscar.Credit:AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
While Viola Davis was favourite to win best actress for playing a blues legend in the 1920s music drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, McDormand won for playing a woman forced to live in a van and seek itinerant jobs in Nomadland.
In a short self-effacing speech, she dedicated the win “to our Wolf” and howled like a wolf.
A previous winner for both Fargo and Three Billboards, McDormand later collected a fourth Oscar as a producer of Nomadland.
The late Chadwick Boseman had been favourite to win best actor for playing an ambitious trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but the award went to Anthony Hopkins, who was an elderly man struggling with dementia in The Father. At 83 and a previous winner for The Silence of the Lambs, he became the oldest winner of an acting Oscar.
Florian Zeller with his Oscar for best adapted screenplay.Credit:AP Photo/Lewis Joly
Given it was the final award of the ceremony and Hopkins was absent, the juggled order under an Oscars producing team that included Soderbergh did not pay off. They must have been expecting a moving speech by Boseman’s widow.
But there was nothing surprising about Korea’s Yuh-Jung Youn winning best supporting actress for playing a fiesty grandmother in the gentle immigrant drama Minari, a year after Parasite’s Korean cast were not even nominated when it won best picture and director.
“Mr Pitt, finally, nice to meet you,” she said to presenter Brad Pitt, who was an executive producer on the movie in a comically charming speech. “Where were you when we were filming?”
Youn thanked her two sons “who made me go out and work”, calling the Oscar mummy’s reward.
Britain’s Daniel Kaluuya, who won best supporting actor for playing charismatic young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1960s drama Judas And The Black Messiah, thanked his mum for giving him his “factory settings”.
He paid tribute to Hampton for his work for Chicago’s black community before he was killed at just 21. “What a man,” he said. “How blessed we are that we live in a lifetime where he existed.”
The upsets began with the first two awards.
Britain’s Emerald Fennell won best original screenplay for the blackly comic revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, about a former medical student who confronts toxic male behaviour, beating the favoured Aaron Sorkin for the ’60s courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7.
And Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller won best adapted screenplay for The Father ahead of the favoured Nomadland.
One of the most moving speeches came from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg who won best international film for Another Round, a comic drama about four teachers who test a theory that staying a little drunk is the key to happiness.
“This is a film about letting go in life as I lost control in my own,” Vinterberg said, choking back tears, in a reference to his 19-year-old daughter being killed in a car accident four days into shooting. She had been due to be in the film.
“We ended up making this movie for her as her monument. So, Ida, this is a miracle that just happened. You’re a part of this miracle.”
Another Black Lives Matter moment came when Travon Free, writer of the racially charged drama Two Distant Strangers that won best live-action short, said police killed three people on average every day in the US and they were disproportionally black.
Emerald Fennell, winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay for Promising Young Woman.Credit:AP
“I just ask that you don’t be indifferent,” an emotional Free said. “Please don’t be indifferent to our pain.”
When If Anything Happens I Love You, about parents grieving the death of a daughter in a school mass shooting, won best animated short, co-director Will McCormack dedicated the win “to everyone who has lost loved ones to gun violence,” saying “We deserve better.”
While Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom missed out in the acting categories, veteran Anne Roth won best costume design. The long career of the 89-year-old, who had previously won for The English Patient, dates back to Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Coming Home and 9 To 5. The Netflix movie also won best make-up and hairstyling.
Pixar continued its exceptional run of Oscars success – 11 wins in 18 years – when Soul won best animated feature, following up with best original score for Trent Reznor, Atticus Finch and Jean Batiste.
“God gave us 12 notes,” Baptiste said. “It’s the same 12 notes Duke Ellington had, Bach had, Nina Simone. I’m just thankful to God, man, for those 12 notes.”
Best original song went to H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas for Fight For You from Judas and the Black Messiah.
My Octopus Teacher, the Netflix charmer about a South African diver forming an emotional relationship to an octopus, won best documentary.
“It really this really is a tiny personal story that played out in a sea forest at the very tip of Africa,” co-director Pippa Ehrlich said. “But on a more universal level, I hope that it provided a glimpse of a different kind of relationship between human beings and the natural world.”
Accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, actor-writer-director Tyler Perry preached rousingly about the need to refuse hate.
“I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are black or white or LGBTQ,” he said. “Or because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian.”
Perry dedicated the award to “anyone who wants to stand in the middle … because that’s where healing happens,” he said. “That’s where conversation happens. That’s where change happens”.
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