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How the first (and hopefully last) pandemic Oscars went so terribly wrong

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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The 2021 Oscars were always going to be different. But they didn't have to be like this.

The latest awards show to raise the curtain amid the COVID-19 pandemic was – like the Grammys, Golden Globes and Emmys before it – a product of the times we're living through. The 93rd annual Academy Awards, held at Los Angeles' Union Station with a reduced in-person audience and some nominees appearing via satellite, looked unlike any other ceremony before.

While it was certainly challenging to stage the show safely, last month's Grammys proved that it is possible to make something entertaining and engaging amid the pandemic. Unfortunately, the Oscars producers seemingly missed that show. The Oscars were a train wreck at the train station, an excruciatingly long, boring telecast that lacked the verve of so many movies we love. Produced by "Ocean's Eleven" director Steven Soderbergh, the show was a dull talkfest that looked more like awards for a regional insurance group than "Hollywood's biggest night."

The problems started early. The Oscar preshow was set at a loosey-goosey garden party. Hosts Lil Rel Howery ("Bad Trip") and Ariana DeBose ("The Prom") cozied up to nominees and presenters with even more Hollywood ooze than the E! hosts (that network's Giuliana Rancic awkwardly turned her back to the camera to talk to celebrities on the socially distanced red carpet).

There was an enjoyable casualness to the proceedings, but shoving the prerecorded performances of the best original song nominees into this preshow was egregious and idiotic. Not only did it relegate the deserving nominees to a telecast even less likely to be watched than the guaranteed-to-be-low-rated Oscars, it also removed the best entertainment from the actual ceremony. Anyone who happened to already have the TV on ABC for "Husavik" from "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga" or "Speak Now" from "One Night in Miami" got a heck of a show.

Molly Sandén and an adorable crowd of Icelandic children belted out "Husavik" from "Eurovision" with aplomb, but if you only tuned into the actual Oscars you missed it.
Molly Sandén and an adorable crowd of Icelandic children belted out "Husavik" from "Eurovision" with aplomb, but if you only tuned into the actual Oscars you missed it.

By the time the Oscars started, there was a bit of a pep in the Oscar step. But it lasted only for about 15 minutes. Soderbergh and his producers clearly went for a cinematic aesthetic with this year's ceremony, shooting in widescreen like a film and opening the awards with credits and a long tracking shot, as Regina King walked into Union Station like it was the beginning of "Ocean's 11." The actress and "Miami" director acted like the host, which the night sorely lacked with no comedic monologue, only brief remarks addressing the trial of Derek Chauvin. It was different, but it was moving.

Unfortunately, everything was downhill from there. King presented the first awards, for original and adapted screenplay, by praising each nominee individually. It was sweet, but it would have been quite sufficient for just those two awards. Instead, it proved the prevailing formula of the night. Rather than, say, showing the audience the work, presenters simply described it and complimented nominees, listing their favorite movies or first jobs. It was certainly well-intentioned – a clear effort to put a human face behind so many technical awards – but it backfired spectacularly.

The producers apparently forgot one of the key elements of filmmaking: Show, don't tell. An essential part of the formula for a successful awards show is showing the audience evidence of what's so worthy of a gold statue. It's especially important in this pandemic year, when many of the people watching at home have never seen – or even heard of – many nominated films. Without clips or even an orchestra tuning up movies' scores, the awards lacked context. We needed to see the costumes from "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." We needed to hear why "The Sound of Metal" had such incredible sound. We needed to experience why Frances McDormand won her third acting Oscar.

But except for a few major awards, clips were noticeably absent from the show. In general, it felt like the Oscars weren't trying particularly hard to be entertaining. The choice not to limit the length of speeches, an eleventh-hour trivia comedy bit and the dunderheaded decision to make best actor, not best picture, the final award of the night, made the three-hour-plus ceremony feel longer than usual. Sure, the people in the room looked like they were having a good time, but what is usually one of the highest-rated TV events of the year can't be one of those times when you had to be there to get it.

The changes necessitated by the pandemic were also opportunities, yet frustratingly, the producers failed to embrace them. Union Station was far more visually arresting than the usual Dolby Theatre, but the show was shot at odd angles that didn't embrace the setting. The Questlove and Howery trivia bit was funny, once Glenn Close was dancing to "Da Butt" – but it shouldn't have happened 20 minutes before the show was meant to end.

Movie theaters are hurting, but the Oscars failed to create any kind of excitement for the nominated films. There was more hype for "West Side Story" and "In the Heights" trailers during the commercial breaks.

Considering all the compromises we've had to make during the pandemic, nobody watching the Oscars was expecting the full display of glitz and glamour. But somehow, in splitting the difference between normalcy and pandemic reality, the Oscars found the worst spot.

The anticlimactic ending, in which Anthony Hopkins – a no-show, even via satellite – won the final award for best actor and presenter Joaquin Phoenix had to accept it on his behalf, was an apt metaphor for the whole night: Well-intentioned, but odd and boring as it could possibly be.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscars 2021 review: How the pandemic ceremony went so terribly wrong