“Why even bother?,” I thought to myself pretty much immediately after turning on E!’s red carpet Oscars pre-show. There was eight-time nominee Glenn Close, standing behind a velvet rope, six feet from Giuliana Rancic. All this desperate, vain scramble to make an Oscars night that seemed as close to normal as possible, and in that trying pushing us even further away from the reality of old.
ABC’s formal pre-show was livelier, more intimate, but still provoked glum feelings. From a lushly appointed space outside of Los Angeles’s Union Station (a still active train depot, even during the awards broadcast), we at home—we sunken into our couches for 13 months now—watched the minglings of a wan, tasteful cocktail party. There was no packed red carpet dotted, like a pointillist painting, with famous faces. It was just this tentative, quiet thing; still luxe, but not robust. It all made me think that they should have just skipped the Oscars ceremony altogether and simply set more realistic sights on reviving it next year, when everyone will hopefully be capable of a real party.
Then the show began, with a rush of director Steven Soderbergh’s trademark cool glide. It opened with a tracking shot of presenter (and past winner) Regina King strutting through Union Station as opening credits appeared on screen in a kicky, retro font. I sat forward on my couch, genuinely intrigued for what felt like the first time during this rickety awards season. Maybe we were really going to get a show, one that captured some of the glitz and glory that is the Academy Awards at its silliest, swooniest, and most enjoyable. It felt, for a moment, worth the bother.
But then it all settled into something of more languor than pizzaz. The small, cabaret-style auditorium where the bulk of the evening would take place looked nice enough, with glowing table lamps and Sunday sun streaming in through large old windows. But it was strange to see an Oscars in the sun, rendering them somehow less glamorous. And it was weird to see the ceremony playing in letterbox at a slower frame rate than most live broadcasts, and often in tight closeups as presenters stood awkwardly in spots around the makeshift auditorium. The effect was intended to make it all seem like a movie; at its worst, though, it looked more like a cable-access show. Something decidedly un-Hollywood crept in through the attempt to be even more Hollywood than a regular Oscars. Still, some of the pre-show’s woozy, amiable vibe lingered.
The show starting with the screenplay and international feature awards made some practical sense—many of the nominees were overseas, and would have to stay up quite late if their categories were announced later in the evening. But for a broadcast that was—in addition to honoring filmmakers—trying to fight the ratings slump of all awards shows this year (and, really, in many previous years), it was a dubious choice. Regina King and Laura Dern were there for star power, but the show lacked the perhaps necessary jolt of a supporting actor giving the first acceptance speech, as is often done. I’m curious how many people on the fence about whether or not to watch the show actually stuck with it after ten or fifteen minutes of this soft-lit oddity.
Throughout the evening, presenters talked at length about the nominated filmmakers and their backstories and interests. A sweet idea, but rambling and inert in practice. (This also necessitated cutting the clips of nominated actors doing their thing, or snippets of the nominated scores, which was unfortunate.) Winners and presenters alike made heavy reference to the many ills of social justice that have long plagued the nation and were brought so poignantly, painfully to the fore in the last year. Which was appreciated, regardless of whether it gave fodder to the stale whiners out there who have been complaining, from big platforms, that Oscar movies are too concerned with political virtue these days. I do wonder, though, how riveting these gentle anecdotes and sermons were from a television perspective; a half-engaged audience member might tune it all out. Not because of the messages, but because of their stilted, otherworldly medium.
I am glad that the Oscars tried something other than a collage of Zoom windows, as the Golden Globes and the SAGs mostly did. It was a noble effort. But the broadcast’s alienating effect ran in bad parallel with the fact that this year’s crop of nominated movies were seen by a lot fewer people than in a typical year. Perhaps there was no saving these Oscars from indifference, and doing something so wholly new and unrecognizable with the ceremony guaranteed that no one outside the core base of Oscar viewership would care.
Maybe some of the hoary old stuff could have been blended in with Soderbergh’s spare, elegant version of things. Regina King started the show off with the right energy, but perhaps there could have been a comedian-host monologue too, some kind of humorous broad survey of this challenging year for Hollywood. The show needed a playful amuse bouche like that before all the seriousness and congratulating set in.