Ahead of Hollywood’s biggest, strangest night, Globe Film Editor Barry Hertz and Bigger Picture columnist Johanna Schneller battle over what the 2021 Academy Awards have to offer an industry, and an audience, in a year of unprecedented on- and off-screen drama
Barry Hi Johanna! So, this year’s Oscars are going to look very different, naturally. But I’m conflicted as to whether they should even exist. Certainly, the Academy should highlight the great films that made it into the world, and I’m confident that Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari and Sound of Metal would have been recognized any other year (sorry, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank, but you feel like semi-charitable pandemic-era substitutions). At the same time, it’s strange to act as if the Oscars should keep going because … well, that’s how it’s always been. The world’s been turned inside-out. If we’re not going to cancel this year’s Oscars, let’s turn them inside-out, too.
Johanna Hey, Barry. Admittedly, I’m an Academy Awards junkie. But I think you’re being hard on Uncle Oscar – and on Chicago 7, which I happily watched twice. Mank on the other hand – yeah, meh. Except for Amanda Seyfried, who deserves her shot at Oscar, which brings me back to your point. We’ve seen pandemic versions of other awards shows, to varying degrees of success (Emmys, yay; Grammys, okay; Golden Globes, ack). Why not Oscar? I also need to hear more about how you’d define turning the awards inside-out, because this year has certainly done that already, no?
Barry Just because other awards galas had their shot doesn’t mean the Oscars should be automatically afforded the opportunity to deaden our souls, too. So: If we must have a 2021 Oscars, why not use Hollywood’s biggest night for a good cause? Instead of routine speeches and montages, turn the night into the splashiest, most entertaining fundraiser of the year. Give out awards, sure, but make the rest of the televised gala a sincere plea to help those affected by the pandemic far more than Netflix stockholders. There’s no shortage of worthy causes: Maybe start with the thousands of independent cinemas that the industry relies upon, and have been left out to dry over the past year?
Johanna Well, now you’ve said the word “fundraiser,” so I’d have to be a misanthrope to disagree. But let me try. One of the things I’ve appreciated about humans during the pandemic is our perseverance – our cheerful, stubborn commitment to plowing ahead, to still being us. Awards shows, however frivolous, are part of that. To me, the filmmakers whose work came out in this weird year still deserve their turn to dress up and make a speech. I’ll go one step further: Streamers and television were lifelines in 2020. But movies, and especially movie theatres, suffered. They may need the Oscars now more than ever, to remind people that films are still an art form, an evolver of culture, and a window into other lives. Those are things I’ve always watched the Oscars hoping to see. I’ve never found the show soul-deadening. Because sometimes those hopes are realized.
Barry My soul may be dead, but that doesn’t mean everyone else’s has to be, too. Streamers helped fill the void, but we’re talking about celebrating films that few people have heard of, let alone seen. According to a recent report, awareness of this year’s Best Picture nominees is comically dismal, despite all the films either being streaming-first titles, or now available digitally. The creative teams behind these films deserve the spotlight, but pretending that the industry exists in a pandemic-free vacuum underlines how out-of-touch and potentially expendable Hollywood is. A savvy Oscars broadcast would make room to both celebrate artists, and acknowledge what hell this year has been, for both creators and consumers. The movies might need the Oscars, but I fear that the Oscars don’t care that much for moviegoers.
Johanna Oh, I don’t think anyone in the industry thinks they exist in a pandemic-free vacuum. I would instead say this: The pandemic has highlighted and deepened problems that existed well before 2019. Oscar-nominated films are rarely box-office hits; there’s a gap between prestige and popular that is unfortunate. Maybe the ceremony will goose more viewers to see the nominees. But I think there’s another reason people aren’t streaming films. I think they enjoy it less. Even I, who watch films for a living, am happy to stream series. But time and again, I’d go to start a movie, and then I … wouldn’t. For me, the ideal movie experience is still the movie-going experience. I want to be in a room full of strangers, bound in common enthrallment. If I were producing the Oscars, I’d build a show that reminds viewers about movie magic, and reassures them it isn’t lost forever. Hollywood has always excelled at inspiring people to yearn. And this year has been mercilessly low on magic.
Barry I have hope that this year’s producing team, including filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, can create a show that highlights great films while underlining the communal roots of the medium. (And thank goodness they dropped their ludicrous demand for all nominees to attend in person.) Then again … what happens if Netflix, whose existence directly contradicts the theatrical model, triumphs Sunday night? I’m half-expecting, or maybe hoping, for a train-wreck collision between “the magic of the movie theatre” and cold, hard reality.
Johanna Netflix could make history at this Oscars: Chicago 7 did just win the Screen Actors Guild’s top award. But many people could make history, too, which is another reason I’m on team Show Must Go On. The acting nominees are the most diverse group ever; there’s a chance that all four winners could be people of colour. Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) would be the third actor to win posthumously. Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari) would be the first Korean to win an acting Oscar. Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) is the first Muslim best actor nominee; Steven Yeun (Minari) is the first Asian-American. Seventy women are nominated across 23 categories, which is a record. Chloé Zhao alone – she’s nominated for writing, directing, editing and producing Nomadland – could make history several different ways. The drama I’d like to see has a happy ending: When theatres reopen, Netflix and other streamers use their enormous capital to release films in as many cinemas as possible, alongside studio movies and indies, and chatty throngs crowd the lobbies again, and those who prefer to watch from home keep finding exciting ways to do so, and we can all have more of what we want, not less.
Barry I feel like we just wrote the feel-good screenplay of next year’s Best Picture nominee: Cinema’s Comeback. Spike Lee could direct it. Maybe then he’d finally get nominated.
The 2021 Academy Awards air live April 25 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV/ABC.