"Nomadland," Chloé Zhao’s drama starring Frances McDormand as a homeless woman living out of a van, led the way at Sunday’s Academy Awards with three Oscars – for best picture, best actress for McDormand and best director for Zhao, who became the first Asian woman to win in that category.
"People are inherently good," Zhao said, translating from a Chinese aphorism, while accepting her history-making directing award. "So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves."
The show ended with a surprise: The best picture award, usually saved for last, came before the awards for best actress and actor. What’s more, the late Chadwick Boseman, who recently won a Golden Globe for his performance as a jazz musician in "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," lost the best actor prize to Anthony Hopkins, who plays a man losing his memory in "The Father." Hopkins did not show up to collect his award.
Zhao’s win wasn’t the only first for this post-pandemic Oscars ceremony. Co-produced by Steven Soderbergh, the show threw out its usual playbook and attempted to look more like a feature film than a television broadcast. First came an opening tracking shot of Regina King as she picked up a statuette and strolled into a large hall. The venue was not the Oscar’s traditional home of the Dolby Theatre, however, but Union Station, Los Angeles’ prized Art Deco railway hub. Inside, roughly 170 socially distanced attendees sat in plush booths while the hip-hop drummer Questlove provided the evening’s music from a DJ deck.
For the third time, the Oscars had no host but relied instead on presenters. And in an attempt to alleviate the Zoomed-in feel of the recent Golden Globes ceremony, nearly all Oscar winners were required to accept their awards in person. Some beamed in from remote locations.
"We are not adhering to every Oscar tradition tonight," said Laura Dern, though she did adhere to one: As last year’s supporting actress winner, it was her job to present the award for supporting actor, which went to Daniel Kaluuya for his performance as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
"What a man," Kaluuya said of the activist he played, before surprising the audience with a moment of existential wonder: "My mom and my dad, they had sex," he marveled. "It’s amazing I’m here."
Brad Pitt helped set another milestone when he presented the best supporting actress award for the first time to a South Korean, Yuh-Jung Youn, who plays an eccentric grandmother in "Minari."
"Mister Pitt," said Youn, 73. "Finally!" The actress also praised her fellow nominees and singled out Glenn Close, who was nominated for "Hillbilly Elegy." "We cannot compete each other," Yoon said in halting English. "I have a little bit luck, maybe."
The show kicked off with a somewhat unexpected result in the best original screenplay category. The award went to Emerald Fennell for her revenge thriller "Promising Young Woman" rather than Aaron Sorkin, who had previously won the Golden Globe for his screenplay for "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
"They said to write a speech, and I didn’t," said Fennell, holding the statuette. "Oh God, he’s so heavy and he's so cold!"
The Oscar ceremony was said to be the most diverse yet. Two women, Fennell and Zhao, were nominated for best director, a first for that category. Nine of the 20 acting nominees were people of color. "Soul," Pixar’s first feature with a Black lead character (Jamie Foxx provides the voice), won two Oscars, best animated feature and best original score.
King began the evening with a nod to the recent guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer whose killing of George Floyd became a flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement. King noted that people at home might be tired of political speeches, but she said, "As the mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with. And no amount of fame and fortune changes that."
"Feeling Through," a live-action short film starring Selden’s Robert Tarango, a deaf-blind actor, lost the Oscar to "Two Distant Strangers," a time-loop narrative centered on a police shooting. "James Baldwin once said, ‘The most despicable thing a person can be is to be indifferent to other peoples’ pain,’ " said Travon Free, who accepted the award with his co-director, Martin Desmond Roe. "Please don’t be indifferent to our pain."
Tyler Perry, accepting one of the evening’s two Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards, called upon people to put aside polarizing ideologies. "Meet me in the middle," he said. "That’s where change happens." (The other award went for the first time to an institution, the Motion Picture & Television Fund.)
The closest this new Oscars came to its old self was a skit called "Questlove’s Trivia," in which the DJ played a song while Lil Rel Howery asked random celebrities if it was a nominee, winner or none of the above. Close briefly stole the show by correctly identifying E.U.’s 1988 hit "Da Butt" from Spike Lee's "School Daze," and then doing the associated dance in the aisle.