The 2021 Oscar Nominations Hold Up a Mirror to Our Strange Times

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Photo Source: Amazon Studios

Want the inside scoop on all things awards? Welcome to Letter From the Awards Editor, our series in which Backstage’s Jack Smart takes a look at the latest film and television news, industry trends, and awards projections that matter to today’s working actor.

Dear Backstage reader,

What did you think of this season’s Oscar nominations? As I’ve been perusing and pondering the list all week, I keep playing a game reminiscent of the 1998 cinematic masterpiece “Sliding Doors”: what would the Academy’s choices have been in the alternate timeline free of COVID-19?

Let’s say a pandemic had never disrupted entire industries, including Hollywood, and decimated everyday life as we know it. In this imagined version of 2021, we would have had a normal year of moviegoing, and the 93rd Academy Awards would not have been delayed until April 25. First and foremost, that timeline’s Oscar nods would differ from our real ones simply because there would be more contenders released and seen in theaters. Flashy titles like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “West Side Story,” and “The French Dispatch” would be in the mix, and it’s possible that films deemed startlingly relevant seen through the pandemic era’s lens, like “Nomadland,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” or “The Midnight Sky,” would have been received differently. Heck, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” would have ended up with a completely altered story arc (and no Tom Hanks cameo!).

Which is not to say the actual Oscar nominees represent a deficit in filmmaking excellence; I predict we’ll look back on this year’s crop as a particularly impressive year for acting, writing, and directing. Every one of the list’s nominated lead actors and actresses deserve to win, and the Academy’s historic recognition of more than zero women directors, let alone two, is worth shouting from the rooftops.

But the “Sliding Doors” exercise is further proof that one of the fundamental maxims of Hollywood’s awards season, that voters highlight projects that reflect and refract the current cultural climate, is truer than ever in 2021.

For example, while it’s not necessarily a surprise that streaming services are faring well this awards season—because in that COVID-free timeline, they likely still would have—the redefining of screen debuts and screen audiences was accelerated in a year characterized by lockdown viewing. Netflix scored a best-ever 35 Oscar nominations (38 if you count international distribution) and Amazon followed with a best-ever 12, signaling the extent to which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and voting bodies like it watched movies on devices at home.

Plus, there’s our fascinating, evolving relationship with movies on a psychological or emotional level. If you’re like me, you saw films—maybe even relied on films—as a form of escape from the world’s unprecedented calamities. The leading 10 Oscar nominations of “Mank” speaks to its technical brilliance in recreating the golden age of Hollywood, and to this year’s audiences yearning to immerse themselves into such a sumptuously glamorous world. We fled 2020’s troubles alongside Frances McDormand’s Fern in “Nomadland,” on the Yi family’s 1980s Arkansas farm in “Minari,” even at the heavy metal concerts in “Sound of Metal.” Other best picture nominees invoked the mainstream’s newfound focus on inequity and justice, like the feminist revenge fantasy of “Promising Young Woman,” or “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Chicago 7” recapturing American civil rights movements that prove as timely as ever.

There’s plenty more about this historically bizarre awards season to unpack in a future letter, like the overlaps between AMPAS results and this year’s guilds, the so-called narratives of each best picture contender, or wading into the controversial waters of “category fraud.” So stay tuned and stay safe, reader. A myriad of potential 2022 Oscar season timelines awaits, and I’m holding out hope for the most normal one.



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