The sober and graceful drama Nomadland was the biggest winner at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, with Best Picture, Best Director for Chloé Zhao and Best Actress for Frances McDormand.
The wins were the culmination of an Oscars ceremony adapted for the Covid-19 pandemic, where the ceremony was held in front of a subdued live audience after a year devastating the film industry by cinema closings and delayed film releases.
Zhao was the first woman of color and the second woman to win the grand prize. Prices for Nomadland also marked a triumph for Walt Disney and the Hollywood establishment, as streaming company Netflix missed one of the biggest awards.
McDormand, who starred in Nomadland and co-produced the film with Zhao, begging viewers to return to the cinemas. “Watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” she said.
The Oscars included several historic victories, after years of criticism that diversity was not recognized, most notably during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015. Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean woman to win Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Minari, while Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor award Judas and the Black Messiah.
The biggest surprise of the evening was the final award, for which Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor award The father. The award was widely expected to be awarded posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer last summer at the age of 43, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s black bottom.
The film industry has been disrupted over the past 14 months by cinema closings, the turbocharged shift to streaming and the increasingly icy US-China relations.
Zhao, who was born in Beijing and attended boarding school in the UK, quoted The classic with three characters, a Confucian text that is almost universally studied in the Chinese school: “This is for anyone who had the faith and courage to hold on to the goodness within,” she said in her acceptance speech.
But her comments – and almost all coverage of the Oscars – were censored in China, the world’s largest revenue-based movie market. Beijing ordered local media not to cover the event afterwards Don’t split, a documentary about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, was nominated for the best short documentary.
Zhao faced a backlash from Chinese nationalists in March after finding an interview in 2013 in which she appeared to say “there are lies everywhere” in China. The controversy led to the cancellation of the release of Nomadland in the country.
Actress Regina King opened the ceremony by appealing the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial last week. The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of three charges of the murder of George Floyd, an incident that sparked worldwide protests over racial injustice. “If things had been different in Minneapolis, I might have traded my heels for marching boots,” she said.
Mia Neal, who became the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hair Styling Ma Rainey’s black bottom, said “someday it won’t be uncommon, it won’t be groundbreaking, it’ll just be normal.”
However, the evening was a disappointment for Netflix, which fell short of the top categories.
The streaming company has long been looking for an award for best film and participated in Sunday’s ceremony with two candidates: Limp, who earned the most nominations with 10, and The Chicago Trial 7. The first, a black and white tribute to old Hollywood, earned awards for cinematography and production design.
It remained unclear whether consumers will choose to watch feature films through streaming services or return to theaters, as the pandemic eventually abates. Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive of Netflix, told analysts last week that the company “isn’t really changing the way we make movies for the way people watch movies.”
The award ceremony of the Oscars, as at the music industry’s Grammy Awards last month, is very different from tradition. The event took place on an improvised stage at Union Station in Los Angeles, and the broadcast largely avoided the reruns of movie clips and the soaring musical performances of nominees that were typical of previous years.
The ratings for the Oscars won’t be available until later this week, but pandemic-era award ceremonies and prominent sports championships, including the Grammys and Super Bowl, have fallen to all-time lows.