Oscars 2021 Recap: The Best and Worst Moments

In between a cinematic entrance and a letdown of an ending, there were breakthroughs, heartbreaks and a wolf howl. It was a strange night.,

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The 93rd Academy Awards were already shaping up to be unusual — delayed because of the pandemic and featuring movies that, for the most part, bypassed theaters for streaming. Then the producers, including Steven Soderbergh and Stacey Sher, were asked to shake up the show. That they did, setting it at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and upending the order of awards so that best picture was announced earlier than usual and best actor was the last to be revealed. While “Nomadland” won best picture as pundits predicted, hopes were high for a sweep by actors of color, only to be dashed late in the evening.

All told, it was one of the odder Oscar nights in memory. Here are the highs and lows as we saw them.

The opening set expectations high: The camera followed the first presenter, Regina King, making her way through the depot in a long, tracking shot that continued to trail her as she wound through the banquet-style tables, surrounded by guests who had all been coronavirus-tested, tested and tested again, for good measure. King, whose directorial debut, “One Night in Miami,” was nominated for three Oscars, served as a tour guide to a scene that almost made us forget we were in the middle of a pandemic. — Sarah Bahr

ImageFrom left, Colman Domingo, Paul Raci and Leslie Odom Jr.
From left, Colman Domingo, Paul Raci and Leslie Odom Jr.Credit…Pool photos by Chris Pizzello

On the red, er pink, carpet, it was the men who raised the bar: Colman Domingo in tone-on-tone hot pink, Leslie Odom Jr. in all gold (really channeling the statuette there), and Paul Raci in all black. Including the nails. — Vanessa Friedman

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Andra Day, left, and Carey Mulligan before the show.Credit…Pool photos by Chris Pizzello

Both Carey Mulligan, nominated for best actress for “Promising Young Woman,” and Andra Day, nominated in the same category for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” tried to manifest an Oscar win in gold. Take home a statuette or just dress like one. — Vanessa Friedman

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Chloe Zhao with her Oscars for directing and producing “Nomadland.”Credit…Pool photo by Chris Pizzello

This year’s Academy Award nominees were historically among the event’s more diverse lineups: Seventy women earned nods across 23 categories, and nine people of color were nominated for their acting. And that led to a few history-making victories:

Chloe Zhao, the Chinese-born filmmaker behind “Nomadland,” was the first woman of color to win — and to be nominated — for best director. (As a producer of “Nomadland,” Zhao also won best picture.)

Yuh-Jung Youn, named best supporting actress for her turn as the wry grandmother in “Minari,” was the first Korean actor to win an Oscar.

Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who worked on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” were the first Black women to win best makeup and hairstyling (and to be nominated for the category). “I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking,” Neal said in her acceptance speech. “It will just be normal.”

Anthony Hopkins, at 83, became the oldest actor to win best actor. He won for his performance as a man suffering from dementia in “The Father.”

Ann Roth, who won for the costume designs in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” became the oldest woman to ever be awarded an Oscar. She is 89.

And finally, a losing streak: Glenn Close, nominated for supporting actress for “Hillbilly Elegy,” hit a less exciting milestone: After eight fruitless nods, she has tied the record held by Peter O’Toole for most acting nominations without a win. — Nancy Coleman

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As his mother and sister watched in London, Daniel Kaluuya accepted best supporting actor.Credit…ABC; A.M.P.A.S, via Reuters

After Daniel Kaluuya took home his first statuette, for best supporting actor for his turn in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” his mother probably anticipated he would acknowledge her. But not quite like this. “It’s incredible,” he said, after expressing gratitude to God, his family and supporters back home in London. “My mom and dad, they had sex. It’s amazing, man. I’m here. So, I’m happy to be alive.” His mother and sister were watching from London, and the cameras showed their reactions change in real time from teary pride to a confused “What did he just say?” expression and head-in-hands mortification. — Sarah Bahr

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Yuh-Jung Youn with her trophy for best supporting actress.Credit…ABC

Yuh-Jung Youn already gave one of awards season’s best speeches when she accepted her BAFTA award weeks ago and said it was all the more meaningful coming from British voters, “a very snobbish people.” At the Academy Awards, when she won the supporting-actress Oscar for playing the grandmother in “Minari,” Youn brought that same comic energy and then some. Greeting the presenter Brad Pitt, a producer on “Minari,” she cracked, “Mr. Brad Pitt, finally nice to meet you! Where were you when we were filming?” The speech that ensued was both heartfelt — “This is because Mommy worked so hard,” she told her family — and funny, as Youn mused to her fellow nominees, “Tonight I’m luckier than you. And also maybe it’s American hospitality for the Korean actor?” In an awfully dry ceremony, Youn was a godsend. — Kyle Buchanan

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Thomas Vinterberg with his statuette for best international feature.Credit…ABC

Thomas Vinterberg, the director of the best international feature winner, “Another Round,” grabbed the audience by the throat with a heartbreaking speech that belied the joy captured in his film. Vinterberg dedicated the victory to his daughter Ida, who was killed by a distracted driver shortly after production began. She was 19 and had been slated to appear in the movie. “We wanted to make a film that celebrates life,” Vinterberg said onstage. “And four days into shooting, the impossible happened. An accident on a highway took my daughter away — someone looking into a cellphone. And we miss her, and I love her.”

He explained that two months before the shoot, she had sent him a letter “glowing with excitement” about the project. He added, “We ended up making this movie for her, as her monument. So, Ida, this is a miracle that just happened. And you’re a part of this miracle. Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere, I don’t know.” — Nicole Sperling

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Tyler Perry onstage with Viola Davis, left, who presented the honor.Credit…ABC

For 16 years, ever since his “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” arrived with a box office thunderclap, Hollywood has been underestimating Tyler Perry and his work. Actually, scrap that — looking down its nose at Tyler Perry would be more accurate. On Sunday, the snooty film establishment acknowledged as much, choosing Perry to receive one of two honorary Oscars.

In a surprise to some people in the cinema capital (but not to anyone who has been paying attention to him all these years), Perry delivered a tour-de-force acceptance speech. “My mother taught me to refuse hate — she taught me to refuse blanket judgment,” he said. “I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are Black or white or L.G.B.T.Q. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian.”

He dedicated the award “to anyone who wants to stand in the middle, no matter what’s around the walls. Stand in the middle, because that’s where healing happens. That’s where conversation happens. That’s where change happens.” — Brooks Barnes

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Angela Bassett spoke of “lives lost to the violence of inequality, injustice, hatred, racism and poverty.”Credit…ABC

Regina King alluded to the Derek Chauvin verdict in her opening remarks. “Two Distant Strangers,” a live-action short about a white police officer killing a Black man, won the Oscar in its category. Tyler Perry delivered a moving speech in which he urged Americans to “refuse hate.”

And to introduce the ceremony’s “In Memoriam” segment, Angela Bassett insisted on acknowledging lives lost both to the coronavirus pandemic, and to the “violence of inequality, injustice, hatred, racism and poverty.”

In ways big and small, America’s continued reckoning with racial justice reverberated throughout the ceremony.

“I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you,” King said to start the show.

But almost three hours later, performers and others given a chance to speak had managed to get a message across anyway.

“In 2020, we were united by loss,” Bassett said before the “In Memoriam” segment played. She noted that more than 3 million had died from Covid around the world, and added, “Considering the enormity of our collective loss, and the often incomprehensible times we’re living through, we wish to also acknowledge those precious lives lost to the violence of inequality, injustice, hatred, racism and poverty.” She added, “To all of those who left our lives too soon, we cherish the moments that we had the honor of having with you.” — Matt Stevens

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Frances McDormand speaking when “Nomadland” won best picture.Credit…ABC

This year’s Oscars had splashy promos for “West Side Story” and “In the Heights” intended to convey the message that hey, the movies are back. But only one winner onstage seemed to make a full-throated plea for audiences to re-engage with the big screen.

In her role as a producer of “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand accepted the film’s best picture award while pitching the theatrical experience both to viewers and her colleagues, an acknowledgment of just how tough things have been for the industry.

“Please, watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” she said. “And one day, very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space, and watch every film that is represented here tonight.”

For an evening that felt like a muted celebration — at best — this moment stood out more than a Spielberg trailer could. — Mekado Murphy

The award for best picture was announced before the top acting prizes, not at the end of the night as it usually is. So the team behind “Nomadland” didn’t go in with the kind of show-capping momentum normally afforded to best-picture acceptance speeches. Luckily, they had Frances McDormand there to create a climactic moment: She let out a guttural wolf howl before the group walked offstage. The howl was a tribute to Michael Wolf Snyder, the film’s production sound mixer, who died in March. McDormand turned her face away from the microphone as she began howling, a great kindness to whoever was at the Oscars sound-mixing board. — Gabe Cohn

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Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher appeared via a video feed from Sydney.Credit…ABC

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” didn’t win the Oscar for best adapted screenplay (that went to Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton for “The Father”). Nonetheless, there should be an award for pulling off the announcement of the “Borat” nomination.

“OK, here we go,” the presenter Regina King said, taking a breath before reading the list of the nine screenwriters who worked on the film and who were represented on five separate video feeds, one from Sydney, another from London and the remaining nominees scattered throughout the audience at Union Station. If that wasn’t enough, King then read the film’s entire title: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” King received well-deserved applause after that, the entire affair a seeming movie production in and of itself. — Mekado Murphy

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Glenn Close showing off her dance moves.Credit…ABC

Well into the show’s third hour, the producers staged their first genuine comedy bit of the night: a music quiz in which Lil Rel Howery asked stars about songs that were Oscar-nominated, Oscar-winning or Oscar-ignored. The players included Daniel Kaluuya, Andra Day and Glenn Close. It seemed like a lot to ask of Close, who had already lost a record-tying eighth nomination, but she was game for a challenge about “Da Butt,” a go-go hit from “School Daze,” even demonstrating the dance to everyone’s delight. If only the bit hadn’t arrived when the show was already running late, prolonging the strange evening even more. — Stephanie Goodman

If nothing else, this Oscars proved that bloat does not come from overly long acceptance speeches: It comes from everything else. Sans a monologue, musical performances and cavernous venue, it turns out there’s plenty of time for winners to say pretty much whatever they want! The acceptance speeches are the show, and in this more-focused ceremony, winners having a little more time to say what was on their minds felt right. — Margaret Lyons

Usually awards shows run clips of nominated performances, offer glimpses of the hair and makeup, give us a taste of the shorts. Not so here; the ceremony included scenes from the international feature, animated feature, documentary feature and best picture categories, but that was it. (They played snippets of the nominated songs, too, but they weren’t really clips from the movies.) The clips have a purpose, and their absence meant not only did we miss out on little samples of all the movies, but also that the first hour or so of the show lacked texture. Biographical tidbits are nice, but we need clips, too! Free the clip! — Margaret Lyons

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The best actor winner, Anthony Hopkins, was absent, so Joaquin Phoenix, last year’s best actor winner, accepted on his behalf. Credit…ABC

It felt like walking out of the arena after a 10-time state champion in basketball sinks a last-second shot to beat an underdog in overtime. The producers decided the best-actor category should take the final slot of the night this year, instead of best picture, then Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) upset Chadwick Boseman and the Oscars just … ended. Hopkins wasn’t even at the ceremony to accept, and the credits rolled on a shellshocked theater. Boseman, who died of cancer in August at age 43, had been nominated for his final film appearance, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It was a performance that had been honored all awards season (there were wins at the Golden Globes and other ceremonies), and his victory seemed a given until recent days when pundits started reporting a surge in interest in Hopkins. But there was no Hollywood ending here. — Sarah Bahr

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