By Branyan Towe
It’s been more than a week later, and the shock still hasn’t worn off.
Like many of you, I was floored when Sir Anthony Hopkins upset Chadwick Boseman in the Best Actor category at the 2021 Oscars. I felt terrible for the late Chadwick Boseman, his family, and friends after watching a ceremony that was obviously gearing up for a posthumous Oscar win to Boseman for his role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” I was always under the assumption that someone other than the accountants who tabulate the final Oscar votes would know the decision beforehand. Now, after last Sunday’s botched ending, I realize that the ABC executives and producers do not know who will win the awards before the envelopes are opened. Either way, their handling of the ending to the 93rd Academy Awards made a moment that I should’ve been able to shrug off feel like a punch to the gut.
More often than not, the person that I personally think should win the Oscar doesn’t. That’s upsetting at first, sure, but within a day or so, I’ll have gotten over it. This time, the result has lingered in my mind, making me both sad and angry. I think that has a lot to do with a particular quote that executive VP of unscripted and alternative entertainment at Walt Disney Television, Rob Mills, gave to Variety. “It was not meant to end on somebody who was not present,” Mills said. “It was a calculated risk that I think still paid off because everybody was talking about it.” He described how several categories had been moved to different spots in the order presentation in what seems like an attempt to freshen things up compared to past Academy Award ceremonies.
The risk might have paid off, as Mills put it, as many were indeed talking about the ending to the Oscars all over social media, but it was more than likely, not in the way the producers intended. Boseman and his brilliant performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would’ve been used as a talking point regardless of the outcome. Had the gamble paid off and he had won at the end of the night, the fact would’ve remained that the producers were exploiting Chadwick’s death for emotional sentiment and as a disgusting ploy to boost ratings. The broadcast structure made me, and I’m sure many others, feel as if his win was inevitable when it was clear that Best Actor would be presented last (an untraditional move as the Best Picture award has been handed out as the final award for the night for the past seventy plus years). Then Joaquin Phoenix opened the envelope and revealed Sir Anthony Hopkins as the winner for his monumental and deserving performance in “The Father,” and then the ceremony just ended.
It felt like I had just seen the series finale of HBO’s “The Sopranos” all over again, or my favorite sports team had suffered a last-minute upset defeat. The difference is Boseman and Hopkins are two of the most legendary actors of our time, and to me, both of them were disrespected by the risk taken by Oscars producers. That build-up to the final award of the evening, purposely designed so that people would be talking about it, is just as embarrassing as the Best Picture envelope fiasco at the 89th Academy Awards between “La La Land” and “Moonlight” if not more so because that was a genuine accident where this was a known gamble that didn’t pay off. It has made Hopkins appear to be an undeserved winner, which he is not. Plus, in my opinion, it disrespects Boseman’s final performance and his memory by making him seem like the favorite who was toppled at the last second. Those that paid close attention during the late stages of awards season knew a win for Boseman wasn’t as inevitable as the Oscars made it seem. Hopkins had won Best Actor in a Leading Role at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA’s) over Boseman on April 11th, a few short weeks before the Academy Awards, and “The Father” was a clearly more beloved film than “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” picking up nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, two key category nominations George C. Wolfe’s film did not receive. As Kyle Buchanan of the New York Times explained, this indicated the momentum of “The Father,” which had a more traditional approach to its late release strategy. In contrast, many of the other awards contenders had already peaked early via their streaming services. He adds that “It helped, too, that Hopkins hailed from a best-picture nominee, a correlation that usually accompanies a best-actor victory.” Jeff Bridges’s Best Actor win in 2009 for “Crazy Heart” remains the last time an actor won the prize without a corresponding Best Picture nomination.
Personally, I thought that Hopkins might upset Boseman once “The Father” took home the award for Best Adapted Screenplay earlier in the night over eventual Best Picture winner “Nomadland.” While I hadn’t expected the film to upset “Nomadland,” I and some others thought it might be the only way the Academy would reward Florian Zeller’s directorial debut that night. With those clouds of doubt forming in my mind, I continued to watch what was a fairly predictable Oscars ceremony, right up until the legendary Rita Moreno came out to present Best Picture third to last. My first thought was that I had missed Best Actress and Actor during a trip to the kitchen. “Nomadland” would go on to win the evening’s top prize, yet the show was still going on. I suddenly realized the night would end with Best Actor, and an empty feeling began to set in my stomach. When the announcement had been made that Hopkins won, I had to turn the television off (luckily, I didn’t miss much of anything afterward as the hostless ceremony abruptly ended on an awkward note). It was more of the same disappointment that I had felt so often around Oscar season before when favorites lose in a crushing defeat. Only this time, I felt more saddened and angrier than ever before because the producers preyed upon our emotions and set us up for disappointment.
I’m not going to lie here; knowing that Boseman’s widow, Simone Ledward Boseman was in the audience, prepared to give a speech on his behalf, it hurt me and, I’m sure, a great deal of many others. In my mind, I felt like Chadwick Boseman, and his legacy had been abused, and it made me sick. An attempt to create “a moment” backfired on the ABC executives and producers of the Oscars. On top of it all, it felt like I’d seen this before, and I wasn’t alone; Margaret H. Willison, podcaster and culture writer for NBC News, expressed disappointment in Hopkins’ win that kept not only Boseman from winning but also other POC actors Steven Yuen (“Minari“) and Riz Ahmed (“Sound Of Metal“). Though Willison acknowledged that Hopkins’s performance was rightfully praised, she said, “What stings is the disappointment of seeing such a familiar story recognized while three novel ones, each given life by performances strong enough to merit the award, were overlooked.” It was a far cry in terms of representation from the triumph of South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho and his Best Picture winner “Parasite” the previous year. Imagine how positive a note that Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” winning Best Picture would’ve been to end the night on. We could’ve had Chloe Zhao giving us her second speech of the night while the cast and crew took the stage. Frances McDormand would’ve urged us to all go back to the movie theaters (a sentiment which was sorely lacking on a night where movies are supposed to be celebrated during a year where theaters were predominantly closed). She would’ve howled like a wolf in tribute to the film’s late sound mixer, Michael Wolf Snyder. Instead, we ended up with something that was more bewildering and upsetting, compounded by a presentation order that Film critic Dan Murrell called “a massively bad idea.” He added it, “overshadows the fact that both Anthony Hopkins and Chadwick Boseman were brilliant and one of them had to win. The spotlight is now shining solely on the producers. Huge mistake. From In Memoriam on, this show was a disaster.
The outrage doesn’t necessarily stem from the fact that Boseman lost the Oscar, but rather how it exactly happened and how they used him, win or lose, to manufacture this moment. “What’s most distressing is that the Oscars played on the cultural significance of his passing and his legacy, and hinged one of the night’s biggest moments on it, knowing that many of us were sticking around to see how Boseman would be honored,” Ineye Komonibo of Refinery29 explains, adding that the producers were likely aware of how much Boseman had impacted the world of film and at large. The use of Boseman also took the spotlight away from Hopkins, who, at the age of 83, became the oldest Best Actor winner to date.
Honestly, I don’t feel that Chadwick Boseman needed an Academy Award or that Sir Anthony Hopkins needed a second one to cement their legacies. Their lives and overall impact on the world are so much bigger than a golden statue. In fact, I think that both men will forever be remembered for their portrayals of T’Challa/Black Panther and Dr. Hannibal Lecter in terms of the world of film. Yet, now they are forever linked in history by this unfortunate risk, which only existed for the sake of being a talking point for people all over the world. The reality is that the outcome would’ve been a talking point regardless of who won or lost. So, by changing the structure, the producers of the Oscars only managed to, in my view, disrespect Hopkins’s win and the late Chadwick Boseman. Both men deserved better than that. Hopefully, as time moves on and the week that has currently passed becomes greater, both of their performances in “The Father” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” can outlive this damaging debacle. If not, then I can only hope that the producers of the Oscars learn their lesson and don’t ever make a mistake like this again.
What were your thoughts on the Best Actor outcome at this year’s Academy Awards? How did you feel about how it was presented? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Branyan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @BranyanTowe