In 1947, everyone knew that Rosalind Russell was a lock to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra. She had even hired Hollywood’s go-to PR expert, Henry Rogers, to run her campaign. Rogers, who had gotten Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland their Oscars in 1945 and 1946, respectively, went all out to get Russell her win.
So at that year’s ceremony, after Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement had won Best Picture, the Oscars decided to shake it up: they presented Best Actress as the last award of the night. Fredric March, the previous year’s Best Actor winner, opened the envelope and practically said “the winner is Rosalind––” before reading the card, doing a double take, and saying “the winner is Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter!”
It was, at that time, the most massive upset ever to happen at the Oscars––so massive that Henry Rogers’s wife ran into the bathroom, threw up, and said to her husband, “how will we ever pay for our living room?”
I know this story because like many film lovers, I’m an Oscars obsessive, and as such, I’ve read Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar, a book chronicling the history of the awards. And if the producers of this year’s ceremony––Stacey Sher, Steven Soderbergh, and Jesse Collins––had read it too, maybe they would have known not to tempt fate and present Best Actor as the last award of the night. (They also could have just hired me to consult.) But tempt fate they did, and the result was a fart bomb of an ending to one of the best ceremonies in years.
Soderbergh and company were wise to take their cues for this year’s awards from the 2008 Oscars (the year Hugh Jackman hosted) which are still to this date the best ceremony I’ve ever seen. That year’s show took pains to highlight the individual achievements of each of the nominees, with previous acting winners saluting the work of nominated actors like Sean Penn, Penélope Cruz, and the late Heath Ledger. This year, the same courtesy was extended to nominees in all categories, which made for a lovely evening.
Regina King got the ball rolling beautifully with her epic entrance into Union Station, and her salute to the writing nominees, which led to one of the best moments of the night: Emerald Fennell’s winning Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman. In that moment, Fennell became the first woman to win a writing Oscar in 13 years, and I hope it never takes that long again. This was followed by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Father, which they accepted from Paris and London, respectively.
That leads to one of the other things that made this ceremony so great: it was international. The Academy’s membership has been growing more international over the past few years, and it was great to see people Zoom in from all over the world to accept their awards. It was not only reflective of the crazy year we had, but it reminded viewers at home that there’s a world beyond Hollywood. (I wish the people who voted for Soul over Wolfwalkers for Best Animated Film understood that, but that’s another article.)
The evening went on with one great speech after another, with no orchestra trying to play them off after 45 seconds. Daniel Kaluuya became the first Black British actor to win an Oscar, for his epic performance as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and gave one of the most memorable speeches in years––one which is already inspiring GIFs of his mom. Youn Yuh-jung became the first Korean woman to win Best Supporting Actress for her beautiful performance in Minari, and gave another one of her funny, heartfelt speeches that made her such a standout on this year’s campaign trail.
Best of all, Chloé Zhao became the first woman since Kathryn Bigelow to win the Best Director Oscar. I’ve been following Zhao since she wowed critics with her 2018 film The Rider, and while I wasn’t as crazy about the film as others, I knew that she was a major talent. With Nomadland, she created a true American epic in the style of Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Huckleberry Finn, filtered through her unique, neo-realistic filmmaking approach. “People at birth are inherently good,” she said in her acceptance speech, which seems to be a theme of her work: that even in the most trying of situations, human decency will find a way. Mark me: this is not the last time we will see her accepting one of these awards.
For the first three hours, I was thrilled by the way things were playing out. No anodyne clip packages about “the magic of the movies,” no obnoxious running jokes (I’m looking at you, Neil Patrick Harris), and a great list of winners. But the rushed “in memoriam” tribute was a sign that things were starting to go a bit awry, as the attitude went from “let’s salute everyone” to “OK, we gotta get this done now.” Then Rita Moreno came out to present the Best Picture Oscar, which made Twitter do a “WHAT?!” double take.
After Nomadland won Best Picture and Frances McDormand howled like a wolf, the vibe settled in: they’re going to end the show with Chadwick Boseman’s Oscar. It’s going to be an amazing way to end this. When McDormand returned to the stage to accept Best Actress––not an “upset” exactly, but a surprise given the competitiveness of this year’s Best Actress race––the energy only grew. Joaquin Phoenix practically had the envelope open in front of him as he came out to present Best Actor.
And then all of a sudden, he read the card, said “The Oscar goes to Anthony Hopkins! Goodnight!,” Twitter spontaneously combusted, and the ghosts of Rosalind Russell and Loretta Young started cracking up.
Now look, the disappointment a lot of us feel at this abrupt, shocking ending, has nothing to do with Anthony Hopkins. His work in The Father is beautiful. If he had won in 2017, 2018, or 2019, it would have been the best performance of the bunch, and nobody would be complaining. But they literally structured the entire ceremony around the expectation that Chadwick Boseman was going to win, and robbed us of that heartfelt salute to one of Hollywood’s greatest heroes that we all expected.
The disappointment is also because it’s been 14 years since a Black man won Best Actor, and 19 since a Black woman won Best Actress. To this day, Halle Berry is still the only woman of color ever to win Best Actress. As a 12-year-old kid in LA, I’ll never forget watching her tearful speech as she held the Oscar and said “this moment is so much bigger than me, because tonight the door has been opened.”
That victory was followed by Denzel Washington accepting his award for Best Actor for Training Day. Earlier that evening, Sidney Poitier had received an honorary Oscar, and Denzel and Halle had walked through the doors he opened to accept theirs. “40 years I’ve been chasing Sidney and they give to him on the same night,” he said. He and Poitier then saluted each other with their Oscars.
It’s my favorite moment I’ve ever witnessed as an Oscar viewer. It signaled to many of us the possibility that the playing field would be leveled. And last night I actually predicted that both Boseman and Viola Davis would win, not only repeating Washington and Berry’s triumphs, but also giving us something we’ve never had before: four actors of color winning Oscars.
But 19 years ago, that door Halle Berry opened slammed shut. It shows no signs of opening any time soon. And so the Academy, in typical fashion, took one step forward and two steps back. We have a lot of work to do reforming this industry. Last night’s show only reminded us of it.