The 7 Biggest Jaw-Droppers at the 2021 Oscars

After perhaps the strangest year ever for the movie business, the 2021 Oscars finally happened—and these are the biggest takeaways.

By Natalie Finn Apr 26, 2021 7:00 AMTags

Pick your jaw up off the floor because, yes, it really did happen.

The 2021 Oscars finally occurred Sunday—close to two months late from its usual lofty perch atop the award season schedule, due to the pandemic that sank its teeth into more than just the movie business last year just weeks after Parasite made history, but it happened. And it happened like never before.

With Steven Soderbergh guiding the reliably unwieldy ship as producer, the Oscar-winning director having agreed to take the reins (along with Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher) despite not knowing what sort of show they'd even be able to put on due to public health guidelines, the 93rd Academy Awards unfolded from both its usual home at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood as well as from art deco landmark Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

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See the Winners of the 2021 Oscars

But as weird as just about everything has felt for the last 13-plus months, including this strange springtime ceremony—one of many times, actually, it's been held in April, but the first time since 1988 and the second-latest ever, with the latest being the first Academy Awards, held May 16, 1929—there was a real red carpet ("It's not two miles long," nominee Glenn Close told E!'s Giuliana Rancic approvingly), a parade of movie stars, history-making wins, a conspicuous absence and almost no masks but a hell of a lot of other preventative COVID-19 protocol in effect.

But how to honor a year in which relatively few people got to see movies in actual theaters and in which almost the whole slate of 2020 presumed blockbusters (Black WidowTop Gun: Maverick, etc.) were pushed to distant, safer-seeming release dates (Tenet, finally released in September, was it, and at least won a Best Visual Effects Oscar for its intrepidness)? And in which sitting down to watch anything other than the conspicuously missing big-budget entertainments sometimes sounded more like homework than the lighthearted distraction that sometimes we'd prefer our movies to be? 

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Oscars 2021 Red Carpet Fashion

Well, you just tally up the beautiful, moving pieces of work and dive right in—and whether seriousness on Oscars night is your bag or not, neither the Academy nor Soderbergh shied away from the complicated, challenging reality of the state of our world that so many of the nominated pictures this year reflected.

And somehow, even when the questions managed to be more existential than logistical, the Oscars came together, with all the glory, tears, glamour and insider celebration that we expect from this particular night, wherever it falls on the calendar.

As Gary Oldman's hard-drinking screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz says at the end of the homage to the Hollywood of yore that is two-time Oscar winner Mank: "Well that, my friend, is the magic of the movies."

A Bittersweet Note

No, you weren't the only one who was thrown for a loop when Chadwick Boseman, who died last August, was not named Best Actor after posthumous wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. It also couldn't have felt like any more of a given when it became apparent that the ceremony was reworked to make that category the last award of the night, which has historically belonged to Best Picture.

Instead, Sir Anthony Hopkins won for pulling off a tour de force in The Father, playing a fiercely independent man losing his grip on reality as he slides into dementia. The honor was completely deserved by the 83-year-old, who previously won the award for The Silence of the Lambs in 1992 and just dethroned Christopher Plummer as the oldest actor to win an Oscar. But he wasn't even there Sunday, not even via Zoom, so presenter Joaquin Phoenix was just left to say the Academy accepted it on his behalf and close the show.

Cue the mournful wail of a trumpet, perhaps as played by the ambitious and talented but violently temperamental Levee in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the final role of Boseman's career.

Oscars So Finally

A far cry from the not-too-distant years when the Academy left performances by people of color out entirely, Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah and Youn Yuh-Jung was named Best Supporting Actress for Minari.

Kaluuyah gave an almost melodic thank you that was part tribute to Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader he played in the film who was gunned down in a police raid when he was only 21; part call to action directed at everyone in the audience and beyond who needs to keep doing their part to fix what has ailed us as a society since long before we were all born; part shout-out to his fellow cast and crew; and last but not least, a big fist bump to his mum and dad for having sex and putting him on this earth in the first place. "I'm so happy to be alive!" the British actor exclaimed.

Describing the various ways her name had been jumbled around the globe, Youn—attending her first Oscars at 73 and the first Korean actor to win—said, "Tonight, you are all forgiven." And she also figured it was as good a time as any to make sure presenter Brad Pitt noticed her noticing him.

Jamika Wilson, Viola Davis' personal hair stylist, and Mia Neal, the head of the hair department, became the first Black women to be nominated, and then to win, for Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, their honor shared with makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera. Neal said she looked forward to the day when wins that are glass-ceiling-shatterers now are not groundbreaking, but rather "it'll just be normal."

Chloé Zhao, born in China and raised in the U.K., won Best Director for Nomadland, the first-ever Asian woman (also the first non-white woman and only the second woman ever) to win. Also, yay for the flashback to the short joyful portion of 2020 when she received her honor (via satellite) from last year's winner Bong Joon Ho, director of Parasite, the first non-English-speaking film to win Best Picture. What a time.

In Your Streams

Nomadland was named Best Picture, not surprisingly, but the big winners of the night were Hulu, the film's streamer of choice (after a week in theaters); Netflix, whose Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Mank each won two Oscars; followed by Amazon Prime, where you can find two-time winner Sound of Metal. And, suffice it to say, Best Animated Feature and Original Score winner Soul went right to Disney+.

None of which went unnoticed by the ever-feisty Frances McDormand, who, while onstage as a co-producer to accept Best Picture for Nomadland with the film's winning director-producer Chloé Zhao, gave her usual Oscar night request of our better angels: this time to "please watch our movie on the largest screen possible and one day very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space and watch every film that's represented here tonight. We give this one to our Wolf." And with that, she howled into the rafters.

She returned to the stage as the only three-time Best Actress Oscar winner, edging past Meryl Streep (who has three Oscars, but one is supporting) and landing one shy of all-timer Katharine Hepburn, who picked up four between 1934 and 1982. 

After pointing out that the only thing missing was a karaoke bar, so that the likes of Leslie Odom Jr. could bring the house down, she just said, "I have no words, my voice is in my sword, we know the sword is our work—and I like work." She gave a little chuckle, as if she were adding, "Duh, right?" But she did add, "Thank you for knowing that, and thanks for this."

Nailed It

The statues may be 13 1/2 inches tall, but regardless, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has two of them now, as does his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross—and now Jon Batiste has his first, the three constituting the winning trio for Best Original Score for Disney-Pixar's Soul.

H.E.R.'s "Fight for You," from Judas and the Black Messiah, was the surprise winner for Best Original Song, rendering Diane Warren 0-for-12 in her career. (In case Glenn Close, now 0-for-8, the most nominated actress not to hear her name announced in Oscars history, needs to commiserate. Though by the look of her twerk two hours and 45 minutes into the show, she was doing just fine.)

Heart of the Matter

During a ceremony that leaned serious and sometimes veered into the downright somber, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg stood out with his emotional roller coaster of an acceptance speech, the filmmaker hitting so many pitch-perfect notes, both celebratory and mournful—rather like Another Round, the winner for Best International Film.

Kind of like the whole year, really.

Final Cut

Best Achievement in Film Editing presenter Harrison Ford subtly stole the show with his dry delivery of the "editorial suggestions that were prepared after the screening of a movie I was in." Of course the notes were vicious—"Why is this voiceover track so terrible? He sounds drugged. Were they all on drugs?"—and the movie was Blade Runner.

Delivery is everything.

But speaking of editing and cuts, sound mixing and sound editing were at long last combined to form one almighty category, Best Sound (congrats to the team from Sound of Metal), and they handed out Best Picture (shout-out to living legend Rita Moreno, who presented) before the Best Actress and Actor categories. Which, new set-up aside, was easily the most noticeably different thing about the entire show.

No Punches Pulled

The show opened cinematically (producer Steven Soderbergh had promised an overall movie vibe) with past winner Regina King striding through the hall like someone who means business, an Oscar in hand, to kick off the once-again hostless ceremony. And she did mean business, noting that "if things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots," a reference to ex-cop Derek Chauvin being found guilty of the murder of George Floyd.

She also said out loud what a lot of viewers were probably thinking, acknowledging that some people might already be reaching for their remotes, the Oscars having turned political within its first two minutes.

But, she added, "as the mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that, okay?" And so the opportunity to address the ongoing fight for justice, equality and accountability trumped any other concerns. Where applicable, ensuing speeches—particularly from the makers of the Best Live Action Short winner "Two Distant Strangers," about a Black man fruitlessly trying to avoid a deadly confrontation with police, and the Best Animated Short, about the aftermath of a school shooting—followed suit.

Overall, the movie version of the Oscars that Soderbergh delivered was a lot like the nominated films: packed with meaning and not for everybody, but a vital part of what Hollywood does and a proud display of why it continues to matter.