Why the Oscars Needed a Host (Column)

What a year not to have montages. And what a year to not have the anchor of a host.

The 2021 Oscars came at the end of a long year for movie fans. With traditional options for screening films scrambled, and with a sense that the conversation sparked by the nominees this time around was taking place on a smaller scale than had existed pre-COVID, this moment seemed to scream out for ties to the past, or some sort of shared recognizable reality. This was precisely the year when meaningful introduction to the movies and performers at play early on might have kept Oscar viewers attentive to a ceremony that still stands for tradition.

Instead, the ceremony felt lost and guide-less. The touches brought by executive producer Steven Soderbergh were felt from opening presenter Regina King’s stylishly filmed walk to the stage to the big bet of reshuffling the final categories. But a show that felt so willing to reinvent itself seemed consistently to choose style over user experience. The past two Oscar ceremonies had specifically shed the host; both had been mixed bags, lacking the sort of unifying structure that might have seemed even more urgent this year. Soderbergh and his fellow producers shifted to a ceremony that worked as a statement on how strange the past year had been for film culture, but failed as an awards ceremony and as advertisements for the films that won.

To wit: Presenters were tasked with data-dumps on the personal histories of various nominees, and when they came to love film. (That these biographical stories were pleasantly earnest but utterly humorless goes without saying; this ceremony may have pushed away anyone who’d once associated the Oscars with occasional envelope-pushing humor.) In most cases, the nominated work was not given the luxury of a clip, and it was left to viewers to imagine what the films in question might look like, and why they deserved the Academy’s attention. Explaining what the films even were was often left to winners, who were given unlimited time to speak but who, caught up in the moment, were not their own best advocates. While some presenters managed to make the volume of information transmitted feel somewhat natural, they seemed to be filling in for an absent figure: This year of all years, a host might have introduced and contextualized some of the films in a monologue before the final few awards. They also might have provided a touchstone for a show that too often seemed to be racing past key moments even as it allowed itself to become bogged down. Also missing was a sense of fun for a ceremony honoring an industry that has historically amused as well as edified.

To the amusement point first: When presenter Lil Rel Howery came out some two hours and 40 minutes into the ceremony to play trivia with nominees, everything felt off. There was the choice of game (trivia? really?) and the choice of participants (Andra Day, still awaiting her category’s result, seemed too nervous to play; Glenn Close, as is her way, seemed almost too game). But what felt most wrong was that it was, this deep into the show, the first attempt by the show to explain what it actually felt like to be in the room. Not merely was there no spotlight on the films, but the room itself felt socially distanced, substituting the Oscars’ general sense of a town coming together in celebration for a feeling of a group of people who’d never before met. This show did a great deal of work to gussy up Los Angeles’ Union Station and to create a verité feel, but gave us almost none of the life of the audience. A show that shoots out award after award with no space to breathe couldn’t be expected to make us sympathize with its nominees.

The Oscars are meant to be both an entertaining show and a document that preserves film history as it happens. It’s a lofty set of goals, but this year’s show seemed to pull off neither, as the show suffered from the lack of any authoritative or guiding voice, making its experimental flourishes felt feckless, especially the shuffling of the categories (Frances McDormand’s best actress win might have foreshadowed a best picture win instead of being an anticlimax; Anthony Hopkins’ best actor win might have carried more impact had we been able to see a glimpse of “The Father”).

So many of the typical elements of the Oscars were undoable this year, and perhaps there’s no time like a crisis to reinvent. But the ceremony seemed to tear the show out by the root. Even those who’ve complained about the Oscars’ typical over-reliance on history-of-film montages may have been startled that the only ties between this year and the cinematic tradition were Rolex ads featuring past best director winners — which, it’s worth noting, were made with a wit, flair, and craft that felt refreshing. What were the Oscars about? This year, a series of long presentations full of unfortunately-quickly-forgotten facts about winners from movies viewers may not have seen and that they were not convinced to see. And in place of a host, a guiding sensibility of pushing further into experimentation no matter whether or not it placed the winners and their films in their best light, or, indeed, in much light at all. This year ought to serve as a wake-up call to the Academy to bring in a figure — anyone — who can guide the ceremony and make it work for viewers at home. Call this the end of a few-years-long test and get Whoopi Goldberg on the phone, and tell her to be watching every 2021 release with an eye on a monologue that explains it all. With some jokes, please.

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