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What we really learned from the Oscars (opinion)

Watch the best moments of the Oscars 2021 2:12

Editor’s note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies, and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this comment are solely those of the author. You can find more opinion pieces at CNNe.com/opinion.

(CNN) – Covid-19 wasn’t the only reason why the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony felt different than before. The event made me wonder if our expectations of what a movie is or isn’t still matter.

Or, for that matter, if Oscar night – along with everything else in our once familiar cultural landscape – will be the same again, even after we get the “all clear” signal to return to theaters.

The top awards handed out Sunday night sent mixed messages of familiarity and transformation: Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand were repeat winners of Oscars for best actor and actress, respectively.

Hopkins won a second time, in what many consider to be a crowning achievement, for his role as Azheimer’s patient in “The Father.” McDormand, meanwhile, won her third best actress Oscar as a displaced factory worker wandering the country looking for work and temporary shelter in “Nomadland.”

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The latter film also won the Oscar for best picture and earned Chloé Zhao the statuette for best director. Zhao, born in Beijing, is the first woman of color to win the award (and the second woman in history).

Although highly acclaimed, Hopkins’ performance was not considered a favorite at first. Generally speaking, that position had been yielded to the late Chadwick Boseman for his portrayal of a bitter jazz trumpeter in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Boseman died last August of colon cancer at age 43).

Even when “Nomadland” came to Oscar night as a favorite in various categories, McDormand, who had previously won best actress for “Fargo” in 1996 and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” in 2018, was considered by experts. a long shot. This, given the formidable competition she had from Viola Davis in the title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Carey Mulligan as a feminist avenger in “Promising Young Woman.”

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Those results generated bewilderment and outrage on social media, just like the ceremony itself. But complaining about the Oscars is as much a national pastime as just looking at them, no matter what kind of year it is.

Some of those who complained said acceptance speeches took longer than usual. This led to tweets that talked about how the orchestra that took people off the stage was missed. Others missed the jokes, and suggested that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might consider bringing in a comedian or two again for next year’s ceremony.

If the institution is looking for a host for the future, it could simply hand over the act to Glenn Close, who lost for the eighth time, but won the night rocking in her sequined dress to the beat of Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt” ( Close correctly pointed out, when questioned by actor-comedian Lil ‘Rel Howery as part of an interlude orchestrated by the night’s DJ, Questlove, that the song was completely ignored for Oscar nominations.) Maybe Close could turn her losing streak into a running joke as an Oscars host. It worked for Bob Hope for decades… in another distant time.

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That era belonged to an era of cinema and, indeed, of entertainment that was on the way to disappearing, even before covid-19 closed the complexes and repertory theaters. Streaming and storage clouds are no longer add-ons to large screens in dark rooms. They are the new reality. And nearly all of the nominated movies in nearly every category this year were primarily aired through Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Therefore, we were confused. This year, did we need to see “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Minari,” and other Oscar nominees in theaters to consider them “movies”? how did we know them? Or is this really how it’s going to be from now on, pandemic or no pandemic? And if that’s the case … should the Oscars still be the Oscars?

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Certainly, the show that Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh produced looked very different, with its stripped down but still elegant stage at Los Angeles Union Station and the remote locations of various nominees in Europe and elsewhere. It’s not much different from the Oscars broadcasts of the 1950s, which often went from Hollywood to New York. However, Soderbergh and company organized the event more akin to an intimate television show than to the style ceremonies that viewers are used to.

Covid-19 protocols may have played a role. But intimacy also reflected the way movie consumers have assimilated content over the past year. Less glitz, less glamor, but also less of that flashy fuss that often leads to impromptu embarrassment and painful pranks.

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And yet the proof that such embarrassment was still possible in an adapted train station full of celebrities in formal dress came with Daniel Kaluuya’s acceptance speech for best supporting actor. Thanking his parents, Kaluuya, who won for playing the martyred leader of the Black Panthers Fred Hampton, blurted out how “incredible” it was that they had sex and believed it. She then sheepishly admitted that she had overdone it a bit and that she had decided not to use her cell phone for a while, waiting for a less than accommodating reaction from her mother.

But it is exactly those moments in which we capture the actors in their most human side that make us see and remember the Oscars. Therefore, there was something comforting about Kaluuya’s blunder, which in the future will likely be remembered as charming, in an inexperienced way.

Yuh-jung Youn, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the bawdy, big-hearted grandmother in the Korean-American family saga “Minari,” also provided a charming, even captivating magnetism to her speech. of rambling acceptance, flirting with host Brad Pitt, commiserating with the defeat of his competitor, Close, thanking no one and everyone. At one point, Amanda Seyfried, also a supporting actress nominee, was seen uttering the words “so lovely.” It was the kind of elegance that assured me that whatever is meant by “old Hollywood” lives on in younger stars like Seyfried.

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Even so, despite McDormand’s plea at the end of the ceremony for his viewers to see “Nomadland” and other Oscar-nominated films on the big screens in theaters as soon as they could, “old Hollywood” and all. what is associated with it seems to be fading to black.

Of course, that’s not all bad. There is greater diversity in content and talent both behind and in front of the cameras. This is enough to suggest that some of those changes are for the better, maybe even the majority.

As for the rest … well, if something remains constant, it’s what the late screenwriter William Goldman always said was the first and only rule in the movie business: nobody knows anything. Many of the Oscar pundits who thought they had this year’s awards figured out in advance will probably agree.

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