After COVID-19 turned Hollywood upside down a year ago, everyone knew that the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards would not only look different but also honor an altered crop of contenders. But will Oscar history brand this winner’s list with an asterisk forevermore?
The ignominious marker has come up in cultural annals. There's no best new artist Grammy winner from 1990, since Milli Vanilli had their win stripped when it was found out the duo didn't actually sing on their debut album. And one asterisk was actually carved into the ball hit by Barry Bonds for his record-breaking 756th career homer following the athlete's alleged steroid use.
But the nominated films this year are far from frauds; these gems just happen to have been released in a very weird year. Hopefully, the Academy website won't include a dreaded punctuation mark by Chloe Zhao’s acclaimed road-trip drama “Nomadland” if it wins best picture or by a potential posthumous win for beloved actor Chadwick Boseman after Sunday's ceremony (ABC, 8 ET/5 PT) that very well could prove historic in terms of diversity.
Still, the fact that many would-be contenders never made it into closed theaters last year coupled with an overall lack of strong public awareness for this year’s contenders suggests the future might not see these winners with the usual level of respect.
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Pandemic or not, this year’s nominees ‘belong there’
“Anything related to 2020 will have an asterisk,” says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “In a traditional year, you would have a lot of movies in contention that a lot of people have seen. (But) when you ask people this year, ‘What are your picks for best picture?’ you get a long pause. Because in a normal situation, people think of what they saw in the theater.”
Erik Davis, managing editor for Fandango.com, doesn’t think that’s fair. This year’s eight best picture nominees, including Netflix's “Citizen Kane” origin story “Mank” and the courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” as well as Amazon Prime’s innovative “Sound of Metal,” “belong there,” Davis says.
“Just because they came out during the pandemic and just because you may have experienced them at home vs. in theaters, and a bunch of other films were postponed, that doesn't necessarily mean they are not worthy. We should treat it as if it was any other year.”
A dearth of blockbusters
Moviegoers in 2020 definitely interacted with films differently. According to a Fandango survey of more than 1,400 film fans planning to watch the Oscars, 93% of those polled have watched the nominated movies at home via VOD and streaming.
And usually there’s a couple blockbusters in the mix, like "Joker" last year and "Black Panther" in 2019. The top-grossing best picture nominee in the current crop is Emerald Fennell’s revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” with $6.3 million.
It’s also obvious that folks aren’t digging virtual awards shows: Viewership for March’s Golden Globes broadcast plunged 64% from 2020 and this month’s pre-taped SAG Awards had half of last year’s audience. Neither stat exactly inspires confidence for the upcoming Oscars.
“All these awards shows have suffered,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “As much as people talk about Hollywood or any industry patting itself on the back, this is just not the year for that. People just don't care right now. People just want to get their life back in order. So giving out awards, it's not bad taste but it's almost like just we could overlook that this year and it'd be OK.”
Important films like ‘Judas’ were released
While the show has gone on in other tumultuous times, COVID-19 affected all Americans’ lives like nothing else in history. “Obviously, World War II had enormous impact,” says Leonard Maltin, film historian, movie critic and co-host of the "Malton on Movies" podcast. “It took some important filmmakers and actors out of circulation, but not so many that it decimated the pool of possible nominees."
(This year's ceremony was only the fourth time the Oscars have been delayed – in 1938 due to massive flooding in Los Angeles, in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1981 following the attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life – but the first to affect the roster of movies eligible.)
Gil Robertson, co-founder and president of the African-American Film Critics Association, gives props to the movie industry for not throwing in the towel and instead still releasing important, quality films via video on demand and streaming when people needed it the most in quarantine.
“Movies were the one consistent thing that people could count on as a distraction, as a source of entertainment, just to take a break from the realities of the pandemic and all of the social unrest that has plagued us,” Robertson says.
Noting the quality of this year's contenders, Robertson points out “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a 1960s-set thriller starring supporting actor favorite Daniel Kaluuya that was simultaneously released in theaters and on HBO Max in February, as “a project that speaks to a very present and pertinent issue in our country with regards to social injustice.” It’s also the first best picture contender with all Black producers.
Add in the recent SAG sweep of individual acting awards by people of color and, even though it’s “the COVID year,” change is seemingly coming.
“We want more inclusion and we want more people of color and (women) to be nominated,” Bock says. The fact that this year's best director race features Zhao and Fennell – the most female directors ever in one year – is "a positive going forward."
Maltin hopes that this year’s winners inspire the average moviegoer to check out some of these films.
“Is that just wishful thinking? I hope not,” he says. How they’ll be seen by history, however, is “going to require some time to get perspective on all of this.”
In Maltin’s perfect Oscar world, smaller movies like “Nomadland” and the Korean family story “Minari” would always be frontrunners. “So many really good films in a so-called ‘normal’ year might not be standing alongside the big boys,” Maltin says. “But they deserve to. If that means an asterisk, so be it.”