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Oscars 2021 could be the best awards season ever

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I predict that the 2021 Oscars will not earn fair comparison with the 1973 Wimbledon Championships. That was the asterisked tournament in which, following an arcane dispute concerning Yugoslavian ace Nikola Pilic, the Association of Tennis Professionals boycotted the men’s tournament. Jan Kodeš, no duffer but no Jimmy Connors, crossed the picket line to defeat Alex Metreveli, rarely confused with a legend, in a closely fought final. 

There is already chatter that, in the time of Covid-19, the cinematic equivalent of middle-European journeymen will dominate awards season. Just look at the Venice Film Festival. In recent years, the competition surged with imminent Oscar nominees such as Marriage Story, Joker, Roma, The Favourite and The Shape of Water. In 2020, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland – an Oscar contender in any year, to be fair – beat a collection of art house puzzlers and low-key dramas to the Golden Lion. Nomadland was the only American studio picture in competition. A few days later, it was confirmed as the first film to win Venice’s top prize and the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Where are the other best picture nominees? Will Nomadland be up against the equivalents, in 1970s tennis terms, of – thanks, Wikipedia – Torben Ulrich and Hans-Joachim Plötz? Maybe the Oscars won’t happen at all. Maybe we should be talking about the asterisk that sits beside the men’s singles from 1940 to 1945 (and 2020, come to think of it).

No, we shouldn’t. Anyone who seriously suggests this is an idiot and I am a troll for even positing the idea. The Academy Awards were, when the full seriousness of the pandemic set in, moved way back from late February until April 24th. The Academy then changed the rules to admit films opening before the end of February 2021. The machine has tweaked its cogs to accommodate unprecedented circumstances.

No Oscar regular will want to miss Zoom shots of Saoirse Ronan’s kitchen

Furthermore, last week’s Emmys demonstrated that – for one year, anyway – a virtual ceremony can attract interest. The long-delayed confirmation of Schitt’s Creek as a comedy for the ages attracted more warm coverage than came the way of any recent Emmy broadcast. There was much celebration of Zendaya’s unexpected win and much ribald sniggering at some fans’ inability to understand that headlines mentioning “an upset” were not suggesting anybody was upset. Former Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel played the empty room like a keyless piano.

If the Academy is still faced with a prohibition on audiences it will, no doubt, take that cue from small-screen colleagues and launch its own virtual ceremony. The novelty will be wearing off by then, but no Oscar regular will want to miss Zoom shots of Saoirse Ronan’s kitchen as she fails to win best supporting actress for Ammonite. Frances McDormand, star of Nomadland, has a good chance of becoming only the second women to win three best actress Oscars. How pleasant to see her do that in front of her own fireplace. Katharine Hepburn had to travel.

We still expect Denis Villeneuve’s Dune in cinemas at Christmastime

Awards ceremonies are not like tennis tournaments. Sporting fixtures involve the clashing of skills that have been honed for competition. No cultural bias or passing fashion could propel Ilie Nastase ahead of Ken Rosewall. In contrast, arts bashes are driven by politics, money and a desire to keep audiences onboard. In the 1980s, when McEnroe and Borg were carving up Wimbledon, the Academy was handing out its best picture prizes to bloated prestige films such as Gandhi and Out of Africa.

There will be almost as many great films in competition this year as we normally expect. Fleeing audiences and production delays will, however, knock some of the noisier, studio-driven awards-bait into the 2022 season. We learned just days ago that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is to move from Christmas 2020 to Christmas 2021. We may still see Denis Villeneuve’s Dune this year, but nobody will be betting their house on its appearance. Netflix will keep to its awards-season schedule. Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7, a study of America’s turbulent 1960s, is sure to be a force. David Fincher’s Mank, starring Gary Oldman as Herman J Mankiewicz, writer of Citizen Kane, will also be bossing the Netflix season.

Despite those remaining behemoths, this year’s awards season does look to be more welcoming to smaller films than usual. Nomadland, a raw film about a middle-aged woman’s journeys in the wilderness, will get a welcome chance to stretch out and breathe. Florian Zeller’s The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins as a man with progressive memory loss and Olivia Colman as his distraught daughter, has every chance of dominating the ceremony. Domestic Oscar-watchers can reasonably expect Saoirse to get that nomination and equally reasonably bet on her losing once again. (I haven’t yet seen Ammonite, but let’s prepare ourself for the second worst.)

More intimate work will get its chance. Equally as welcome, those films will get that chance in a less febrile and corrupting atmosphere. Chat-show appearances matter less. The red carpet barely matters at all. For once, we will be talking largely about the films. This could be the best awards season ever.  

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