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How the COVID-19 pandemic changed the Oscars forever

By Harriet Piercy

Apr 26, 2021

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Entertainment ceremonies are becoming a lot less popular, whether this is because of social media and our instantaneous access to updates that swerve the majority of television watchers from sitting down for a two-hour tune in to get the same information, or simply because, generally, people have more interesting things to think about than celebrities—who knows. Either way, we’re in the dregs of a COVID-19 global pandemic, and the 2021 Oscar ceremony, understandably, hit differently, but not in ways that you might expect. Here’s why.

Why was the 2021 Academy award ceremony so different?

For one thing, the location was switched from the two decade long host Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, to the Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Yes, a train station, which is of much more relevance than you might think—I’ll get into why later on. To start with the obvious reasons: Zoom simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to the biggest Hollywood event of the year. The organisers had already pushed the award ceremony from its usual February slot to 25 April, which was yesterday, because the show must apparently go on.

Lights, camera and action were quite literally what this particular event was all about, and more than usual, because the entire thing was organised and staged like the films that were being presented themselves. Masks were to be taken off while cameras were rolling, and immediately put back on when they weren’t. The LA Times reported that the ceremony was run “like a train station, with attendees rotating in and out of the ceremony according to a carefully timed itinerary that will be given to them upon arrival in order to limit the number of people gathered at one time.”

Although attendees were instructed to waltz around maskless to create the illusion of a virus-less world, some refused.

According to Harper’s Baazar, Oscar producers also wrote a letter to nominees in March, saying “We are treating the event as an active movie set, with specially designed testing cadences to ensure up-to-the-minute results, including an on-site COVID safety team with PCR testing capability.” The guest list was obviously smaller, much smaller, than usual. From the usual 3,000 attendees, only 170 people cracked nod.

The fact that those 170 people were even able to attend was largely thanks to the COVID-19 vaccinations that they were required to have. Regina King explained all of the ceremony’s safety protocols in her opening speech, she informed the audience that everybody attending the ceremony was required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and were tested on multiple occasions to make sure they were negative.

Director Steven Soderbergh was handed the unenviable assignment of producing the Oscars (alongside Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher) this year—he is known for his quick cutting of his films, and it showed. Speeches were uninterrupted and the schedule was inflexible. For the most part, the ceremony was quiet, low key and serious, reflecting many of the films that were being honoured.

Standout nominations

The order of the awards was also changed considerably, with best director, usually the near to last prize, being given out early. Nomadland‘s Chloe Zhao took it, becoming only the second woman ever to do so, and the first of colour. Frances McDormand was named best actress for the film, which is the third time she has won the award. The film studio Searchlight Pictures in turn won its fourth best picture prize in eight years for Nomadland. When McDormand accepted her prize, she said “We give this one to our wolf,” in reference to Michael Wolf Snyder, a sound mixer that worked on the production who took his own life in March 2021. She unleashed an unbridled wolf howl too, which even I wanted to join in on.

Zhao was nominated in four categories: picture, directing, editing and adapted screenplay. Her next project is Marvel’s Eternals, which is due to be heading into theatres this November 2021. Another woman was nominated for the best director award this year, which was a first ever: Emerald Fennell made her feature debut with Promising Young Woman. Fennell has previously been known to star in front of the camera, but that has all changed. The film was shot in just 23 days while she was heavily pregnant, too. She thanked her family, including her young son, “who did not arrive until a couple of weeks after shooting, thank God, because I was crossing my legs the whole way through.”

The acting categories, which have long been (rightfully) criticised for their lack of diversity in identity as well as experiences, shone differently too. Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami…) and Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah) are among the nine performers of colour recognised for their work this year.

Yuh-Jung Youn became the first South Korean actress to win an Oscar, for her role as the grandmother in Korean-American family drama Minari, beating Olivia Colman, Amanda Seyfried, Maria Bakalova and Glenn Close to the prize for best supporting actress. Despite this, Youn told the crowd that she “doesn’t believe in competition” and paid tribute to her fellow nominee by asking “How can I win over Glenn Close?”

This year has challenged every single one of us, and sometimes, in harrowing ways, important issues are pressing boiling points with no forward way except change. Many of the films produced reflect this too. James Reed won best documentary feature for My Octopus Teacher, and Martin Desmond Roe won best live action short for Two Distant Strangers, which addresses the police killings of black people in the US.

To sum up an enormous conversation: the Oscars of 2021 have truthfully opened the floodgates to change in so many ways. The COVID-19 global pandemic has left the world with a lot to think about, and the entertainment industry, which was heavily relied on for distraction from the present day, obviously has a long way to go still. Problems were finally faced, and evidently, if the industry wants to survive, it shall have to learn to cater to an entirely different, more inclusive and demanding audience.