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All That Glittered Wasn’t Gold at the 93rd Academy Awards

What does one of the most diverse and equitable Oscars ceremonies really mean amid the growing irrelevance of prestige awards shows?

Chloe Zhao (2021 Oscars)
Chloé Zhao (2021 Academy Awards)
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Editor’s Note: Mary Siroky puts a bow on our 2021 Oscar coverage with an essay examining the relevancy of the Academy Awards in present day.

Opening the 93rd Academy Awards from downtown Los Angeles, Oscar-winner Regina King said, “This year, movies made us feel less isolated and connected us when we were apart.” This, of course, is true: around this time last year, when Zoom calls and FaceTime parties still felt a little novel, the discussion of “content” was inevitable and offered a way to stay in touch with the day-to-day lives of others. This has always been the purpose of art, television, and storytelling, though — to hold up a mirror to experiences, make us laugh, offer a fantastical escape, or make the viewer feel like their story matters. The role of entertainment has only felt heightened over this past year of separation as most other constants were torn away.

In the same way that this time cast a brighter light on the necessity of art and entertainment in daily life, it also exposed cracks in the systems around us, expanding already fragile fissures in education, homelessness, and healthcare. The facade of celebrity faded for a while (thanks to pandering, non-action moments like the “Imagine” video), but, come January, the feeble attempt at an “awards season” was back on track with a messy SAG Awards and Golden Globes. We have finally limped over the finish line with these Oscars.

The frustration of seeing worthy wins in settings like the Academy Awards is that it often feels like too little, too late: Chloé Zhao’s triumph as Best Director was thrilling, and deserved, but phrases like “the second woman to ever win Best Director” is not something to applaud in a 93-year history — it’s something to be embarrassed by. The same goes for the absolutely wonderful win for Yuh-Jung Youn, who became the first Korean actor to ever take home their own golden statuette (for the gorgeous Minari). This fact alone is baffling in a world in which Parasite exists, and while playback of the roar of the crowd during last year’s Best Picture win is chill-inducing in the best way, it’s worth remembering that Parasite walked away with the top prize but no acting nominations in the first place. (Justice for Park So-Dam!)

In recent years, the Oscars in particular have undergone visible improvement when it comes to inclusivity (perhaps in response to the backlash of the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign). In 2020, the same year as Parasite’s victories, beloved writer-director Taika Waititi encouraged other Indigenous creators in saying, “We are the original storytellers, and we can make it here as well.”

The term “historic win” itself is misleading if said historic wins don’t contribute to structural change, though, both at the Oscars and beyond the gilded walls of Hollywood awards ceremonies. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar back in 1939 for her role in Gone With the Wind, which is historic by any metric — but McDaniel wasn’t even allowed into the room where the awards were being held, and Hollywood didn’t award another Black woman in this category until Whoopi Goldberg in 1990, over 50 years later. The Academy has also frequently just gotten it wrong, awarding people after many nominations for weaker roles, overlooking finely tuned comedic performances altogether, or crowning hot-button films (like the notorious Crash) that seem important at the time but whose sheens tend to fade remarkably quickly. (We all know in a just world that Amy Adams would have three Oscars of her own by now.)

Last year, throughout the press circuits and endless interviews, Bong Joon Ho remarked in his trademark dry, witty way that the Oscars are very “local,” and that while he was thrilled by the recognition Parasite had received, people in his home country of South Korea might not actually care all that much. The film industry may have emerged in America, but we are certainly not the only ones making great art, a sentiment that extends beyond just film. Here, much like the Grammys, the question persists of who really needs who these days: when major acts like The Weeknd are deciding to remove their work from consideration altogether, it’s clear who holds the power.

Admittedly, I love the Oscars — but this is because I love movies more than most other things in the world, and, above all, I love watching dreams come true. The 90 Years of Movies montage from the 2019 ceremony makes me cry. It’s ok to celebrate worthy wins and uphold exemplary work, even if it’s just a fraction of the remarkable art being created these days. It’s ok to want to see representation across the board, even if it’s within a system that was built to exclude. It’s ok to be excited about positive change, even if Hollywood still has so far to go.

Last night’s show closed with one of the most bizarre moments in recent memory, even rivaling the unforgettable La La Land/Moonlight mix-up: Best Picture was presented before Best Actress and Actor in a move that seems to indicate that even the people planning the show expected the trophy to go the late Chadwick Boseman. It didn’t — it went to Anthony Hopkins, a treasure, for a great performance. But Chadwick Boseman has already won: his career is not only a testament to his kind heart and dedication to his craft, but also a legacy that will live on and impact generations to come. The 93rd Academy Awards may be forgotten by next week. Chadwick Boseman will be remembered forever.

Orson Welles said, “The cinema has no boundary; it is a ribbon of a dream.” This is what matters most — this place where dreams can continue to exist, and prosper, for all of us.

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