The Friendly Film Fan recaps the 94th Academy Awards.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held their 94th Annual Awards ceremony on Sunday night, honoring the best in film from the year 2021, and what a night it was. Before diving into the winners list, as well as the ceremony itself, let’s start with the one thing everyone is talking about, because it can’t not be addressed, the most infamous Oscars moment since the La La Land/Moonlight switcheroo: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a poor-taste jab at Jada Pinkett-Smith’s health condition, a moment which stunned audiences and spawned every conceivable form of meme. Was this justified? Did Chris Rock deserve it? Did Will Smith go too far? My answer to all of this is that I have no definitive answer. I can condemn Smith for reacting in a violent manner towards words that I also recognize were deeply insensitive, but Black men have always been condemned for even the smallest of violent altercations when white men have been making movies about and celebrating those things for as long as the Academy has been around. Then again, far worse “jokes” have been made at the expense of Academy members and Oscars attendees (largely by white men), and none of the people who made those got slapped at all, even if they deserved to be (we don’t need to go into the Ricky Gervais or Seth McFarlane conversations here though). Unprofessional though it may have been, the Will Smith moment was seemingly fueled by a need to “protect” and “stand up for the honor” of someone who didn’t need defending (even as, in many ways, the Black woman in the United States is often the one most denied defense or protection), and many victims of domestic violence hear the same justifications for the heinous things that happen to them. The truth is, it’s not for me to say whether it should have happened or not. It did. And there’s nothing that can change the fact that it happened, live, and now it overshadows everything that the night was supposed to be about. Smith himself has apologized for the incident to Chris Rock and the Academy, as one can read about in this IndieWire article, and noted that it soiled the journey of the evening, but the damage is done and there is no changing the fact that what could have been a night about the Oscars turned into a night about a beef between attendees.
Now, I’d like to take a (brief) moment to discuss the Academy’s insinuation that they may ask Will Smith for his Oscar back, given what transpired, as well as its condemnation of “violence in any form”: this is bullshit. No, it’s not bullshit that the Academy has opened a review into an incident of assault on their stage, or that they condemned Smith’s actions – that makes sense for them to do, given the circumstances. What’s bullshit is the “in any form” part; how often did this body celebrate and recognize films which promoted violent racists in heroic fashion? American Sniper was nominated for six Oscars and nearly won some of them. And it's not as if the Academy genuinely has much of a problem with scandal tarnishing a film industry worker’s brand; Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Casey Affleck, and Mel Gibson all still have their Oscars, and some of those were won quite recently, Polanski’s (who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl) as recently as 2002 (Polanski won Best Director for The Pianist). If the Academy is genuinely attempting to get better at recognizing unprofessionalism at inopportune moments, then fine, but it is ridiculous to claim that the Will Smith moment was the awards’ darkest – as many online have been doing – when Native American Sacheen Littlefeather was publicly booed by Academy members in 1973 (as John Wayne was attempting to assault her with six security guards holding him back) after deigning to ask that the film industry not portray her people in brutalist fashions and the publicly mocked at the same ceremony and the following year by Clint Eastwood on the same stage. If the Will Smith moment is truly the Academy’s darkest, they must take a good look at why they’re considering that, and not the bevvy of darker moments staining their history, as their top choice. And Smith, unprofessional behavior or not, should not have to give his Oscar back. Now, let’s all please move on.
Several months ago, the Academy made the decision to cut eight of their categories for time, deciding instead to present them during the red carpet segment of the night, record the footage, and stitch them into the broadcast later on, edited for time. (Those categories were: Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound, Best Live-Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary Short.) This, for many reasons, didn’t work at all, and was a terrible move by Academy President David Rubin in a bid to get the show to end by 11 p.m., which we all know did not happen. Compounding the issue further was the fact that this Oscars attempted to bring a more populist audience to its viewership and boost its record-low ratings by including things like Fan Favorite Twitter campaigns which immediately became jokes in and of themselves, a frankly bizarre performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – which was not nominated for Best Original Song nor submitted by Lin Manuel-Miranda, who wrote the music for eventual Best Animated Feature winner Encanto – and some three-host bit segments that became even less successful as the night wore on. This move was supposedly brought on by pressure from ABC (which Disney owns), a move I’ve already talked about the ickiness of, which feels even ickier when one considers the only real movie-related advertisement viewers got – beyond James Bond and Godfather tributes and a second awkward In Memoriam segment – was for Lightyear, which Chris Evans was asked to present. Lightyear, notably, is Disney and Pixar’s next release. (Side note: the ad was just the second trailer for the film, which had already been released.)
More importantly, however, the move meant that viewers were robbed of seeing Dune win the first four of its eventual six Oscar victories (Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Sound) during this time, and the most unnecessary category in the whole affair – Best Original Song – took up most of the ceremony’s time again, even if seeing Billi Eilish be excited about winning was one of the night’s more adorable moments. We waited decades to see Hans Zimmer win a second Oscar, and he had to accept it in a bathrobe from across the ocean because it didn’t matter if he was there or not! Searchlight’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye also won in the Makeup & Hairstyling category, during which ABC bizarrely tried to convince people that she was being interviewed on the red carpet live, despite the fact that Chastain herself said she would be in the Dolby theater as her team was being celebrated. And of course, the shorts were presented during this time, the winners of which were The Long Goodbye for Live-Action Short, The Queen of Basketball for Documentary Short, and The Windshield Wiper for Animated Short, the only shortfall on my Oscars ballot. (Humble brag, I went 22 for 23. But it was also one of the most predictable years ever, so maybe it’s not that impressive.)
Moving on to the live portion of the show, some bits worked and some definitely did not. The opener of Beyonce singing her great song “Be Alive” live from Compton with all the costuming involved was great, and the show was going well for the first ten minutes or so…until it wasn’t. Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall didn’t seem to work very well together as Oscar hosts, although it was also by no means a disaster when they presented as a group, even if the movie costumes bit started strong but just got worse as it went on (the Spider-Man Schumer moment was amusing but didn’t make much sense). In all truth, Schumer ended up being the funniest and most successful of the hosts in her individual bits relative to the laughs she got and the lightness of her comedy (the ridiculous Kirsten Dunst bit and needless disrespect of animated films notwithstanding). I mean, come on, the movie flops joke? The “Melissa McCarthy said no” moment? The “Being the Ricardos wasn’t funny” material? Hilarious! Then the night turned straight-up weird when Regina Hall wouldn’t stop talking about how horny she was, even for men as young as Jacob Elordi and John David Washington, even going so far as to ask Denzel where his son was, which was gross and uncomfortable. Wanda Sykes had a few zingers like The Last Duel flop joke and her pretty good Academy Museum bit, but largely seemed there only for bits after a while, which wore thin about halfway through. West Side Story star Rachel Zegler’s joke about not having been invited to the Oscars initially was great, though, so you win some, you lose some. And, as noted, the cutting in of the pre-taped awards wasn’t a total disaster, but didn’t help the show in any meaningful way either (apparently the transcribed nominees’ speeches on the Academy’s website are, in fact, the edited versions cut together for broadcast and not the full thing).
As far as the winners are concerned, the night went largely as expected, with the safest and occasionally most boring choices winning the night. Dune added Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects to its total of six wins for the night (all of which it deserved and all the recipients of which made sure to single out Denis Villeneuve’s iconic direction of the film), and the two least interesting winners in both Screenplay categories took home their Oscars too, those being Belfast in Original Screenplay – its only win of the night – and CODA in Adapted Screenplay. Will Smith and Jessica Chastain won their first Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively, and Ariana DeBose finished her clean sweep in Best Supporting Actress by winning for playing Anita in West Side Story, making her the first openly queer Black woman to win an Oscar and the third person to win an Oscar for playing an updated version of a character which had won an Oscar before (those being Don Vito in The Godfather/The Godfather Part II and the Joker in The Dark Knight/Joker). Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar by taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film for which he won – CODA – succeeded in a clean sweep, going three for three on winning all its nominations to be crowned Best Picture at the end of the night, which it achieved without a Best Director or Best Editing nomination, breaking decades worth of tried-and-true Oscars stats (no film has done this since Grand Hotel in 1933). Unfortunately, The Power of the Dog – my #1 film of the year and the more deserving Best Picture winner – went one for twelve on its nomination-to-win translations, with its only win going to Best Director victor Jane Campion, making it the second-worst win streak in Oscars history. That said, I did really love CODA, so its win here is more of an underdog’s tale I’m happy to root for than a genuinely bad choice (it’s no Green Book over Roma, that’s for sure).
To wrap things up on the recap, Questlove won an Oscar for his great documentary Summer of Soul (that’s the moment the whole Will Smith thing overshadowed), Encanto won for Best Animated Feature (a good movie, but not better than Flee or The Mitchells vs. the Machines), “No Time to Die” won Best Original Song (Billi Eilish is an Oscar winner y’all!), and Jenny Beavan won her third Costume Design Oscar for her stellar work on Cruella (Beavan had previously won for A Room with a View and Mad Max: Fury Road), with The Eyes of Tammy Faye taking home the award for Makeup and Hairstyling.
It certainly was a night to remember, but given everything that transpired, how it was all put together, and frankly how dull the whole affair was in retrospect (minus that one moment), it probably should be one of the most forgettable. To cap it all off, I’m afraid the Academy will learn all the wrong lessons from their miniscule ratings uptick and try to do the dumb Fan Favorite Twitter polls again (which themselves got hilariously and embarrassingly gamed by the chronically online Snyder-Heads), thinking that’s the cause of increased viewership instead of the fact that people just saw way more movies in 2021 – with available vaccinations, moderately increased theater attendance, more streaming options for viewers at home, and mask mandates/revamped cleaning protocols – than they did in 2020 when the pandemic era was still just getting started and theaters were shut down for several months at a time. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen, and movies are in a better spot next year, but the next time I see Ryan Reynolds at the Academy Awards, it better not be for Free Guy 2’s Fan Favorite Awards campaign.
A full list of the night’s winners (and nominees) is below.
So, what did you think of the Oscars this past weekend? Are you excited by any of these wins? How well did you do on your ballot? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.