Film critic Nicholas Barber suggests that the 2021 Academy Awards ceremony was a quiet yet groundbreaking event due to the absence of several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, indicating the unraveling of certainties in the US film industry. Although the ceremony was free from any significant controversies, Barber believes that the absence of high-profile actors and filmmakers reflects a changing landscape in the film industry. Factors such as shifting viewing habits, the growth of streaming services, and increased competition from other countries are presenting challenges to the industry. Nevertheless, Barber remains optimistic about the future of filmmaking, stating that the pandemic has compelled creators to be more inventive and that fresh voices and perspectives are emerging in the industry.
As the Oscars came to a close, host Jimmy Kimmel walked offstage and revealed a board that displayed the words “Number of Oscar Telecasts Without Incident” and placed a number one beside it. Given the past mishaps, it was unsurprising that Kimmel joked about the previous year’s “Incident,” which involved Will Smith swearing at Chris Rock. However, even without recalling that moment, the gag would have been comprehensible. In recent times, the Oscars have frequently encountered difficulties, whether it was the envelope mishap in 2017 or the gloom of the socially distanced event in 2021. However, this year’s ceremony was executed so smoothly and professionally that it gave the impression that the organizers and directors had a firm grasp on things.
Kimmel exuded a relaxed and in-control vibe, ending the ceremony by casually mentioning his talk show appearance the following night as if the Oscars were just another day at work. The absence of any embarrassing mispronunciations or gaffes, combined with painless introductory speeches and decent jokes, added to the sense of ease. John Travolta’s emotive In Memoriam introduction and Lenny Kravitz’s piano ballad provided a poignant interlude. The sparkling dresses and art-deco stage evoked the glamorous allure of Hollywood’s golden age, all contributing to a sense that the mishaps of recent years were just a bad dream.
Admittedly, some parts of the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony were tedious and repetitive, as is typical of awards shows, and certain flaws remained unaddressed (such as the infuriating practice of playing music over acceptance speeches). Nevertheless, the winners in each category were gracious and humble, emphasizing the collaborative nature of filmmaking and radiating positivity. None of them seemed at risk of being “canceled.” The director of the live-action short film winner, An Irish Goodbye, even used his allotted time to lead the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to the film’s star, James Martin. All in all, the results were generally reasonable, with few outcomes that would prompt reasonable people to hurl shoes at their TV screens while shouting, “How dare they?”
The warm and fuzzy feeling at the awards ceremony began with Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan winning best supporting actress and best supporting actor, respectively, for their roles in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Angela Bassett seemed disappointed not to have won the former, but most people were happy for Curtis, who has persevered in her career despite limited recognition, and Quan, who returned to acting after a hiatus following his childhood roles in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and The Goonies. Brendan Fraser’s win for best actor in The Whale, after years of being absent from the A-list, was also a cause for celebration. Michelle Yeoh’s win for best actress, also for Everything Everywhere All at Once, was significant for its recognition of her long career and of Asian and Asian-American talent in Hollywood.
These wins were part of a broader theme of diversity and inclusivity, with Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film about an Asian immigrant family and featuring an Asian-American co-director, taking home seven Oscars including best picture, best director, and best original screenplay. Naatu Naatu from RRR, the first Indian production to win the best original song, and the Indian documentary short film winner, The Elephant Whisperers, further underscored the ceremony’s celebration of diverse voices and perspectives.
The absence of major Hollywood players, such as Tom Cruise and James Cameron, hinted at the changing landscape of the film industry. While historic studios like Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever won technical awards, it was independent studio A24 that produced the evening’s big winners, Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Whale. The evening’s other big winner, All Quiet on the Western Front, was a German production funded by Netflix, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which won best animated feature, was also backed by the streaming service. The ceremony, therefore, reflected a shift away from traditional Hollywood fare in favor of more diverse and unconventional offerings.
Overall, the ceremony may have seemed uneventful on the surface, but it represented a quiet revolution in Hollywood’s recognition of diverse talent.