The austere and graceful drama Nomadland won the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Chloe Zhao and Best Actress for Frances McDormand.
The victories capped an Oscars ceremony amended for the Covid-19 pandemic, with the ceremony held in front of a clean live audience after a year in which the film industry has been devastated by theater closings and delayed movie releases.
Zhao was the first woman of color and the second woman to win the first achievement award. The rewards for Nomadland also marked a triumph for Walt Disney and the Hollywood establishment, streaming company Netflix missed out on one of the biggest prizes.
McDormand, who play in Nomadland and co-produced the film with Zhao, begged viewers to return to theaters. “Please watch our film on the biggest screen possible,” she said.
The Oscars included several historic victories, after years of criticism that the awards failed to recognize diversity, most notably during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015. Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean woman to win the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Threatening, while Daniel Kaluuya won the award for Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah.
The biggest shake up of the night was booked for the final award, with Anthony Hopkins taking home the best actor award for The father. The award was expected to be presented posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, who died at the age of 43 colon cancer last summer, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s black background.
Zhao, who was born in Beijing and attended boarding school in the UK, cited by The classic of the three characters, a Confucian text that is almost universally studied in the Chinese school: “It is for anyone who has faith and courage to cling to goodness in themselves,” she said in her acceptance speech.
But his remarks – and almost all of the Oscar coverage – were censored in china, the world’s largest film market in terms of revenue. Beijing ordered local media not to cover the event after Do not divide, a documentary on the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, was nominated for best short documentary.
Zhao faced backlash from Chinese nationalists in March after finding a 2013 interview in which she appeared to say “there are lies everywhere” in China. The controversy led to the cancellation of the exit of Nomadland in the countryside.
Actress Regina King opened the ceremony by invoking the verdict in The trial of Derek Chauvin Last week. The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of three counts in the murder of George floyd, an incident that sparked global protests against racial injustice. “If things had turned out differently in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for walking boots,” she says.
Mia Neal, who became the first black woman to win the Oscar for best makeup and hairstyle for Ma Rainey’s black background, declared: “one day it will not be unusual, it will not be revolutionary, it will just be normal”.
The evening was a disappointment for Netflix, however, which did not appear in the higher categories.
The streaming giant has long sought the award for Best Picture and entered Sunday’s ceremony with two nominees: Mank, who won the most nominations at 10, and The Chicago 7 trial. The first, a black and white tribute to old Hollywood, won accolades for cinematography and production design.
It remains unclear whether consumers will choose to watch feature films through streaming services or return to theaters as the pandemic subsides. Ted Sarandos, co-CEO 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 Academy Awards, as with the Music Industry Grammy Awards last month, took a clean break with tradition. The event took place on a makeshift stage at Union Station in Los Angeles, and the broadcast largely avoided the reruns of movie clips and the booming musical performances of nominees typical of previous years.
Notes for the Oscars won’t be available until later in the week, but pandemic era awards and top athletic championships, including the Grammys and super bowl, have fallen to historically low levels.