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The 2021 Oscars Were Unmistakably the Work of Steven Soderbergh

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It was late 1998 and the friends-and-family screening of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film hadn’t gone well. Soderbergh had seemingly done everything right in filming a much-admired script by Lem Dobbs, casting ‘60s icons Peter Fonda and Terrence Stamp to play antagonists in a story of revenge, and drawing on reliable collaborators to bring it to life. But it just wasn’t working. So he took it apart, smashed it to pieces and, with editor Sarah Flack, put it back together again. The result was a film of weird rhythms that played games with time and wasn’t afraid to let some rough edges show. It was also one of Soderbergh’s best films. Soderbergh has never shied away from stripping things down to their essence, and putting them back together to watch how they run. (This is someone who once reedited 2001: A Space Odyssey for fun.) That made him, in theory at least, the perfect creator to rethink how an Oscars ceremony that needed to overcome limitations created by the Covid-19 pandemic, and featured a field of nominees unfamiliar to many watching at home, should work. Whether or not he succeeded with the 93rd Academy Awards remains a matter of debate.

While Soderbergh was just one of three producers credited with the show (alongside Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher), it will always be remembered as the Soderbergh Oscars, and not just because his is the most recognizable name. The ceremony was filled with Soderbergh signatures: a jumbled chronology, familiar faces, unexpected elisions, and clever camera movements that made use of a confined space. Even the abrupt cut to the credits after the final win, however accidental, felt Soderberghian.

But did it work? It certainly opened well, with a stylish unbroken shot of an Oscar-toting Regina King striding into Los Angeles’ Union Station to a pounding beat (courtesy of Questlove) as eye-catching, movie-style credits filled the screen. King’s first comments, in which she suggested that if the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial had gone the other way she “might have traded in [her] heels for marching boots,” felt like a thumb in the eye to the suggestion that Hollywood’s alleged “wokeness” would turn off viewers. But King then smoothly transitioned into the intimate, almost cuddly, tone that would dominate the night, talking about her lifelong love of movies then describing the formative early experiences of the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. It was all so low-key that it was easy not to realize King was preparing to give out the Oscar for that category until she announced Emerald Fennell as the winner for Promising Young Woman.

Daniel Kaluuya wins Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Academy Awards, April 25, 2021.Todd Wawrychuk / Getty Images

The early moments of the 93rd Academy Awards felt like Soderbergh, Collins, and Sher had made all the right choices. The camera glided from one table to the next and the relaxed, celebratory atmosphere felt like a welcome departure from the formality and packed auditorium of the usual Oscars night—like the Golden Globes but, you know, good. But what seemed refreshing in hour one didn’t stay that way as the evening went on.

The ceremony made some cuts that felt at first bold then regrettable. Relegating the Best Original Song performances to the pre-show eliminated one of the Oscars’ most hit-or-miss elements but the musical moments also felt conspicuously absent from the show. So did the decision not to show clips from most categories. The choice, an extension of Soderbergh’s instinct to pare movies down to their basic elements, saved time and cut down on repetitiveness, but it felt insulting at times — surely the work of the Best Supporting and Actor and Actress nominees deserved a moment in the spotlight — and downright weird in others. Shouldn’t we get at least a sampling of the costumes, sound effects, and cinematography up for honors? A night designed to spotlight what movies do best spent a lot of time focusing tables inside a repurposed train station.

The most daring choice, however, was to play with the order in which awards were given out. It was also one of the surest signs of the Soderbergh touch, the work of a director who’s played with time since sex, lies, and videotape and recently made a film that killed off its protagonist with a chunk of its running time still to go. Major categories like Best Director came early in the evening and the Best Picture prize preceded the awards for Best Actress and Best Actor. This seems to have been designed to end the evening by honoring Chadwick Boseman, whose posthumous win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom seemed like the surest of sure things until Joaquin Phoenix announced an absent Anthony Hopkins as the winner for The Father instead. Cut to Questlove saying goodnight. Role credits on a breathtakingly anticlimactic final moment.

It was a strange end to a strange evening. But it was also a night filled with memorable moments made possible in part because of the strangeness. In a normal setting, would we have gotten Daniel Kaluuya embarrassing his mother with a reference to his conception? Would Youn Yuh-jung, Best Supporting Actress Winner for Minari, have been given space to riff on getting to meet Brad Pitt or to namedrop Kim Ki-young, the renowned Korean director who helped start her career? Would Glenn Close have danced to “Da Butt” after dropping extensive knowledge about E.U.’s go-go classic (a punchline that made the long, awkward set-up of the joke worth the wait)? Almost certainly not. The Soderbergh Oscars may not go down as a rousing success, but they won’t soon be forgotten, either.

The 93rd Academy Awards will almost certainly end up being an outlier. Shows that stray too far from the Oscars script — like David Letterman’s sole outing as host or the Anne Hathaway/James Franco tag team — usually result in attempts to return to the status quo. What’s more, the evening came about because the status quo would be impossible to keep up in a pandemic year, one in which moviegoing was practically nonexistent and health concerns made it impossible to have a normal ceremony. No matter how well it went, next year’s Oscars will certainly look more traditional by comparison. But even if many of the choices made by Soderbergh and his team didn’t work out, they made for a memorable night. It would be a shame if that Academy wrote it off entirely.

If nothing else, it will likely go down as a good night for Soderbergh, who’s rarely turned down a chance to experiment — or seemingly worried when an experiment failed — since putting his Hollywood career on pause to make the peculiar and unforgettable 1996 movie Schizopolis, Since then, he’s rolled with the times. He was an early adopter of digital video and the possibilities it opened up and “retired” from filmmaking only to become a kind of one-man-band for the TV series The Knick, then brought lessons from that venture into his return to filmmaking. Failure, success, praise, criticism — for Soderbergh it’s all always been fuel for what comes next, no matter what he’s had to break to make it happen.

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