Oscars 2021 Review: Hollywood's Biggest Night Forgets How to Entertain With a Sluggish, Humorless Ceremony

When Regina King confidently strutted her way through Union Station at the top of this year’s Oscars broadcast with candy-colored movie-style credits popping up behind her, I got excited that this year’s show might actually be different. And indeed, it was… but that’s not necessarily a compliment.

Yes, Sunday’s Oscar broadcast on ABC comes with a big old asterisk, after a global coronavirus pandemic that devastated the movie industry and forced the annual awards show to severely alter its format. Faced with travel restrictions and safety protocols, the Oscars had a chance to reinvent itself from scratch, and first-time producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins certainly took a few chances along the way. Some of them worked out beautifully. (It was one of the best-looking Oscars in years, for one thing.) But most of the innovations fell flat, and the Oscars’ worst tendencies towards bloat and self-congratulation were only amplified in the new setting. Every Oscar broadcast has its slow parts. This year, it felt like all slow parts.

Oscars 2021 Review Brad PittTaping the ceremony at Los Angeles’ Union Station was a smart move: The setting had an elegant, old Hollywood feel and helped infuse the show with some much-needed glamour. I appreciated the lushly colorful visual palette, adorning the usual gold with vivid purples and oranges and blues. Plus, the producers did what they could to preserve the glitz of Hollywood’s biggest night, thankfully keeping the Zooms to a minimum and getting most of the nominees there in person. But the show that followed, sadly, was a painfully earnest snoozefest: a sluggish, humorless mix of overly long speeches and endless pats on the back with almost no entertainment value. Did they forget that this is supposed to be a show?!?

It doesn’t help that this year’s nominees weren’t exactly blockbusters — even if theaters were open, I can’t imagine that Nomadland or Mank would be setting box-office records — but strangely, these Oscars made almost no effort to introduce viewers to these films, with precious few clips from the nominated films and performances. (They somehow gave out an award for Best Costume Design… and we never even got to see the costumes! Films are a visual medium! Let us see them!) Instead, we got long, drawn-out speeches with presenters paying homage to each nominee in a fawning way that just felt phony. These Oscars committed the cardinal sin of telling and not showing: They told us we should care about these movies, instead of showing us why we should care.

I didn’t really miss having a host, and King did a fantastic job starting the show off strong. But the lack of a traditional monologue, with sharp zingers to take a bit of the hot air out of the room, just made the show feel even more self-important than usual. The smug tone was so rampant, it got awkward at times: While all the praise was being heaped on the nominees, they just looked embarrassed, like they were being called on in class and didn’t know the answer. And without an orchestra to play them off, most of the acceptance speeches ran on too long, which further blunted the momentum. It felt like a private party that we were peeking in on, rather than a celebration of movies where everybody is welcome.

Normally we’d at least get a few musical performances to break up the monotony, but puzzlingly, all of this year’s nominated song performances were relegated to the pre-show. So we didn’t even get that! The eventual winner H.E.R. gave a stirringly militant performance of “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah… but we didn’t get to see even a second of it during the actual show. Oh well, more time to hear Reese Witherspoon tell us about the Best Animated Short nominees’ favorite films, I suppose. The pacing was off all night, really, with the In Memoriam segment getting horribly rushed in favor of a frivolous trivia segment. (Seeing Glenn Close dance “Da Butt,” though, was a too-rare glimpse of the chaotic energy this show sorely needed.)

The Oscars are meant to be a transporting, aspirational glimpse at Hollywood royalty, and I’ve been a loyal viewer for more than 30 years now. But this one felt more like an endurance test. Less than an hour in, I was already checking the clock. When it ended, late, at the 3 hour, 16 minute mark, I felt relieved. Anthony Hopkins not even showing up to receive the final award for Best Actor was appropriately anticlimactic. Congratulations to the winners, as always… but maybe next year, let’s go back to basics, huh?

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