While it is tempting to compare the disaster ending of the 2020 Oscars with that of 2016, there is absolutely no comparison. The historic victory of “Moonlight” was not allowed to stand on its own thanks to “La La Land” being announced as Best Picture first, yet that was the extent of the collateral damage. In contrast, not one, two, three, four, five, or six, but seven legacies were either tarnished or given an ugly asterisk they should never have had, in one fell swoop of terrible closing decisions by the Academy.
By announcing Best Picture as the third-to-last award of the night, instead of the last award as per tradition for almost 50 years, this highly questionable twist will forever be part of the narrative of “Nomadland’s” historic Best Picture victory. Like with “Moonlight,” this most untraditional of Best Pictures did not get to enjoy its triumph without a shadow cast over it – one more inexcusable because it happened on purpose, not by an accidental envelope switch.
Ironic enough, just before this switch, “Nomadland” seemed vulnerable for an upset, thanks to its surprise loss for Best Cinematography and its defeats for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. All it had on its side was Chloe Zhao’s final victory for Best Director, yet even that had been slighted in the first sign of uglier things to come.
Everyone with a passing knowledge of this Oscar season knew Zhao was winning Best Director, completing the most overwhelming sweep for one major category in recent history. But in what only looked like a sign of impatience until a few hours later, Zhao’s historic run closed at the end of the show’s first hour, not near the end of the third as per tradition. By shifting Best Director away from the near end of the show and not giving Zhao the near end-of-show coronation that all other Best Director winners had in this era, it was bad optics for honoring the first POC and second female Best Director.
Given how overboard the Academy went in anticipation of Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis’s potential historic wins that didn’t happen, showing far less consideration in advance for a groundbreaking Zhao victory that did happen is quite unbalanced – which is the most generous way to read it. A Zhao coronation was still inevitable whenever it aired, but the triumph of her leading lady was far less so. By giving “Nomadland” a far too early Best Picture victory, however, the Academy found multiple ways to taint Best Actress before it even got to the Best Actor debacle.
Best Actress 2020 Race
If not for the Best Actor lunacy, the way the Academy utterly destroyed the Best Actress race at the last second should have been the outrage of the night. All season long, even as almost every other major category became predictable, the madness of Best Actress became the highlight of the year. In fact, it was honestly the biggest reason to sit through the Oscar telecast for most of the night, just to finally find out in the end whether Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Carey Mulligan, Andra Day, or even Vanessa Kirby won out at last after splitting the major awards all season.
All that glorious suspense ended the second “Nomadland” won Best Picture five minutes earlier.
In a season where Best Actress was so unpredictable for the first 99.9 percent of it, the Academy choked it all away at the edge of the finish line. The moment “Nomadland” won Best Picture after having won nothing but Best Director beforehand, there was no chance anyone, but McDormand would win moments later. It was one thing to deflate all those who were rooting hard for Davis, Day, and Mulligan all year long, long before Renee Zellweger opened the Best Actress envelope. It was quite another to put an asterisk on the history McDormand made as well.
The utterly disappointing last-second predictability of McDormand’s victory could have been ignored. It could have even been ignored that she deprived Davis and Day of their own chances to make history as only the second Black actress to win Best Actress at the Oscars. And if Best Actress had gone before Best Picture, her win would have made “Nomadland’s” subsequent victory every bit as predictable as expected before the night started. But it didn’t, and now McDormand becoming only the second woman ever to win three Best Actress Oscars, has an unnecessary shadow over it. It doesn’t even have a memorable, fiery speech from McDormand to balance it out because she had one of the few speeches of the night that lasted less than a minute, let alone less than three or four.
McDormand did make headlines at the podium for “Nomadland’s” Best Picture win by howling like a wolf in tribute to the movie’s deceased sound mixer, Michael Wolf Snyder. Nonetheless, she had little left to say or howl when she won Best Actress minutes later, which is incredibly unfair considering her history of bringing down the house during acceptance speeches. In fact, in a ceremony where almost everyone got to speak as long as they wanted, McDormand being the rare exception just does not sound right, especially after the history she had made. Maybe she really didn’t have much more to say by then, and it likely wasn’t a case of the Academy slighting the outcome to get to Best Actor – in that regard, if in few others. Nonetheless, this gigantic missed opportunity is just one more distraction from what McDormand pulled off, in by far the worst of the many Best Actress 2020 twists. In that context, the Academy is almost lucky few will remember those ugly twists compared to the ones saved for Best Actor and the legacies they interfered with.
If Chadwick Boseman had lost to Anthony Hopkins on the next-to-last or second-to-last award of the night, it still would have garnered a lot of backlash. It still would have been considered one of the most shocking upsets in recent memory, despite how the tide clearly started turning towards Hopkins in the past few weeks. Yet if it had been presented exactly according to the usual Oscar formula, it would have been a mere speedbump at the end of Boseman’s legacy, for his work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and beyond.
Instead, now the final pages of Boseman’s legacy are linked to the Academy’s incompetence in planning ahead for an emotional climax that never came. Now, not only does it include the shadow of an upset loss after leading the race almost all season, it’s a loss forever linked to the ugliest ending in Oscars history, where a disinterested Joaquin Phoenix announced the name of a winner who wasn’t around to give any speech, let alone an emotional one.
Denying Boseman the Oscar would have been sour enough to a lot of people under normal circumstances. To do it like this, and to have such controversy and idiocy attached to the final act of Boseman’s career, is something the Academy and Hollywood, in general, will never and probably should never be forgiven for, which would have been utterly disgraceful enough without the added asterisks given to the actual winner as well.
Unlike Phoenix, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and perhaps even Casey Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, this is the rare case in recent memory where backlash over a Best Actor winner isn’t warranted – or wouldn’t be under normal circumstances.
Hopkins completed the biggest, most surprising, and sudden comeback in any acting category since Eddie Redmayne rallied over Michael Keaton in 2014. Yet while Redmayne spoiled Keaton’s “comeback” narrative, Hopkins wrote one of his own to win for the first time in 29 years and become the oldest Best Actor winner in the process.
Since most people were finally seeing and raving about Hopkins and “The Father” at the last moments of the race, a win for him under a normal presentation would have been celebrated, if not nearly as loudly as Boseman’s would have been. Unlike many of the recent Best Actor winners, almost nothing about Hopkins or his movie rubbed people the wrong way, and any speech of his would have likely gone down as a highlight if he’d been around to give one. His reps apparently begged the Academy to let him Zoom in for an acceptance speech, but the producer’s “No Zoom” policy prevented that from happening.
Instead, it took until early the next morning in America for him to post thanks and a tribute to Boseman online. The history Hopkins made is now forever attached to its disastrous unveiling. And like with “Nomadland,” Zhao and McDormand, the way Hopkins won will always cast a shadow over what made that victory earned, to begin with, by no fault of his own. With all these legacies and victories unfairly darkened, maybe it’s poetic justice that the one responsible – or at least the most obvious scapegoat – is the one who did the most damage of all to his legacy.
Exactly 20 years ago, Soderbergh was the king of Oscar season, with two Best Director nominations, a Best Director victory for “Traffic” and credit for Julia Roberts’ Best Actress victory for “Erin Brockovich.” Exactly one year ago, when the pandemic first spread through America, Soderbergh was hailed as a prophet when “Contagion” was revisited as a movie that saw all this coming eight years earlier.
What a difference a year and 20 years make now.
Soderbergh producing the Oscar telecast looked like the perfect shot in the arm, assuming the Soderbergh of “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Oceans 11,” “Out of Sight,” and “Magic Mike” was the one the Academy was getting. Instead, it turned out they hired something closer to the Soderbergh of “Full Frontal,” “Oceans 12,” “The Laundromat,” and “The Good German.”
Soderbergh could have been let off the hook, or at least earned more defenders, for all the gambles he took in the first two hours and 45 minutes of the show that didn’t pay off. Now they are part of a larger narrative of dysfunction, a lack of foresight, and big swings that led to bigger misses – ones that many others will now have to live with as part of their legacies forever. Undoubtedly, years of behind-the-scenes articles and gossip are ahead that will question just how much of this was really Soderbergh’s fault. Yet, in the opening act of this sadly likely to be never-ending story, Soderbergh appears perfectly cast as the villain, or at a bare minimum, the Academy’s henchman (there are other producers involved, but he’s the fall-guy since he’s the most famous name of the group).
Four categories, multiple winners, and multiple legends have to be attached to this unwanted backfire of an Oscars ending. In contrast, the surprising snafu of four years ago only affected one category, one historic triumph, and two movies. These sheer numbers alone, to say nothing of the infuriating stories behind those numbers, make this a far graver dark mark in Oscar history than any misread envelope could ever leave.
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