And the award for weirdest awards season ever goes to … well, there’s no competition, is there? Looking back, Parasite winning the best picture Oscar last year feels like a) half a century ago, and b) the last normal thing that happened before the pandemic turned the entertainment industry upside down. It’s still in the Covid Upside Down, as anyone who sat through this year’s awkward Golden Globes and Grammys ceremonies might have noticed. There is also the fact that it’s early April and we are only just talking about awards season. Usually it’s all over by February, but thanks to this year’s two-month delay, we are barely in the home straight for the Baftas (10 and 11 April), the Oscars (25 April) and the Brits (11 May). It feels like celebrating Easter in June.
While the 2021 season is mustering its best “show must go on” spirit, painting on its smile and stumbling out on to the stage, a deeper, post-Covid existential crisis is on the cards. What is the point of awards, after all? Are they about recognising artistic excellence and the importance of culture? Or are they about showbiz glitz and beautiful people? How much impact do they have? And who gets to do the judging, anyway? Covid has given the whole awards game a shake-up, and maybe that’s what it needed.
For the time being at least, the weirdness has its silver linings. Not least the fact that 2021 is shaping up to be an exceptional year in terms of diversity and representation. Look at the Oscar nominations, for example: two women nominated for best director for the first time (Chloé Zhao for Nomadland; Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman), the first Asian-American best actor nominee (Steven Yeun for Minari), the first Muslim best actor nominee (Riz Ahmed for Sound of Metal), and nearly half the top acting nominations going to people of colour. It’s a similar story with the Baftas. Last year, the British Academy faced a wave of criticism for nominating only white actors in all four categories; this year, 16 out of the 24 acting nominees are people of colour.
Both the US and British academies have made concerted efforts to put their houses in order after the recent shamings of #OscarsSoWhite and last year’s #BaftasSoWhite. Both have rejigged their membership criteria to include more women, people of colour and younger film-makers. Looking at this year’s nominees, the changes have borne fruit. The class of 21 could represent a changing of the guard, and the arrival of an exciting new generation of movie-makers.
But is this a long-lasting structural change or just another Covid anomaly? The relationship between these two phenomena – Covid and diversity – takes some unpicking. On the one hand, how typical is it that the most progressive awards season ever is being upstaged by the pandemic? Then again, would we be seeing such a diverse field were it not for the pandemic?
With movies especially, Covid has really warped the landscape. The March 2020 shutdown and the ongoing closure of cinemas prompted the studios to withdraw their big awards guns, such as West Side Story, Dune, In the Heights and The French Dispatch. That left the field more open for smaller films by lesser known and first-time film-makers: Nomadland, Sound of Metal, The Father, Minari and Promising Young Woman.
The studios’ retreat also opened up an opportunity for the streamers. Netflix’s Mank garnered the most Oscar nominations this year (10), despite going entirely against the grain of youth and diversity (the old “love letter to the movies” shtick gets them every time). Netflix was also behind The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which received 11 more nominations between them. But other streamer-backed offerings received less love, such as Da 5 Bloods, One Night in Miami, Pieces of a Woman, News of the World, and Ron Howard’s brazen Oscar shot, Hillbilly Elegy. Glenn Close’s surprise nomination for the latter could be seen as the Academy’s desperate attempt to maintain some normality: it just wouldn’t be Oscar night without a reaction shot of Close masking her disappointment at losing out yet again.
The absence of major studio movies and the closure of cinemas might have created a more level critical playing field, too. Academy voters are notoriously susceptible to “buzz”, which often boils down to a combination of box-office popularity, industry pressure and simply following the herd. Studios have always lobbied awards voters through a strategic combination of astroturfed chatter, relentless marketing, charm offensives and strong-arm tactics (remember the days of Harvey Weinstein?). Last year, through a combination of merit, marketing and momentum, Parasite won the buzz game. Depending on how you see it, that was an underdog success story or a boringly predictable awards season. This year, relatively free from the “for your consideration” machine, voters have had more space to make up their own minds; hence the discrepancies between the Oscars and Baftas (the latter recognised homegrown fare such as The Mauritanian, Rocks, The Dig and Calm With Horses that the former totally ignored).
Voters would never admit their decisions were swayed by anything other than pure artistic judgment, but this year has already exposed that delusion. At the Golden Globes, attention was once again focused on the disproportionate power of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a panel of 87 obscure but extremely well-paid journalists. None of them are black (which could explain why I May Destroy You was snubbed); many of them seem open to industry persuasion, let’s say. This has been an open secret for decades, but this year it was revealed 30 HFPA members accepted a lavish, all-expenses “set visit” to Paris, courtesy of the makers of the lightweight comedy Emily in Paris (which duly received two nominations). Gary Oldman once described the HFPA as “90 nobodies having a wank”, although he still accepted their award in 2018 (for playing Churchill), and turned up this year hoping for another for Mank.
Music’s Grammy awards also continue to attract the wrong kind of publicity on account of opaque judging procedures that also often happen to overlook artists of colour. The major scandal this year was the inexplicable shutout of the Weeknd, despite his Blinding Lights single being prime contender for the song of 2020, having spent more than a year in the US Top 10. He didn’t mince his words on Twitter: “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency … ” and pledged to no longer submit his works for their consideration. Others backed him up, including Nicki Minaj, Elton John, Zayn Malik (“Fuck the Grammys”) and Drake, who suggested: “This is a great time for somebody to start something new.” Probably not the message the Grammys was really looking to send out.
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) also had some explaining to do this year, after finding itself in the ridiculous position of disqualifying Rina Sawayama from the Mercury prize and Brit awards for not being British enough, despite the fact she has been a UK resident for 26 years (but holds a Japanese passport). The BPI has now changed its rules. Then there was the question of Sam Smith, who, as a non-binary artist, is ineligible for either the male or female categories at this year’s Brits. Smith questioned the value of gendered categories altogether. It’s a predicament all awards bodies are likely to face in the near future.
One of the great justifications of the whole awards exercise has always been the impact it can have – on careers, movies, albums, industries. Again, look at Parasite: now the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever in the UK. The Oscar and Bafta nominations could be seen as changing the industry from within but, cruelly, this year’s beneficiaries are likely to miss out on the commercial rewards. With cinemas still largely shut, we’ll instead have to scour the internet to find out which streaming service is showing what, when and for how much.
In addition, the Golden Globes and the Grammys both reported their lowest ever viewing figures. Ratings for both shows were down more than 50% from last year, with younger viewers the least interested. The Grammys’ impact on the charts was all but insignificant this year. For the past 10 weeks the No 1 album in the US has been … Dangerous, by country singer and former The Voice contestant Morgan Wallen, who was entirely ignored by the Grammys. Earlier this year, Wallen was caught drunkenly using the N-word on tape, for which he was removed from radio playlists and excluded from this April’s Academy of Country Music awards, none of which seems to have harmed his popularity.
Again we must ask: how much of this do we blame on the pandemic and how much on the awards themselves? How different might things look had the pandemic never happened? We will find out sooner than we might think or want, because the next awards season is just 10 months away. By that time we will probably have had all those big movies the studios were holding back. That doesn’t necessarily mean bad news for diversity (Latin American talent is still hugely under-represented this year, for example; West Side Story and In the Heights could change that). But would another Minari or Sound of Metal get a look-in in 2022? We’d like to think so.
We’d also like things to return to business as usual. We want weird and we want normal, and we want entertaining. We can’t have it all, but for the moment, we can all just sit back and enjoy the weirdness. We’ve earned it.
For your consideration …
How to watch this year’s key ceremonies
When 10 and 11 April
Where can I watch it? BBC One
What to look out for A two-night extravaganza hosted by Dermot O’Leary, Edith Bowman and Clara Amfo. After last year’s #BaftasSoWhite, however, it could be a chance at redemption. Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age drama Rocks, set in east London and focused on a group of teenage friends, leads the way with seven nominations, including a best actress nod for first-time actor Bukky Bakray.
When 26 April
Where can I watch it? Sky Cinema
What to look out for It should be a big night for newcomers getting their chance to shine, from director Chloé Zhao to actor Andra Day. It could also be the night when two Oscar hexes are finally laid to rest: songwriter Diane Warren will be hoping it’s 12th time lucky in the best original song category; while Glenn Close is hoping to avoid an eighth loss, nominated this year in best supporting actress.
What Brit awards
When 11 May
Where can I watch it? ITV
What to look out for Jack Whitehall returns as host, so expect a cavalcade of political bon mots, on-the-nose jokes about class, and some awkward interactions with pleasingly sloshed pop stars. Newcomer Griff is the recipient of this year’s Rising Star award, so expect her to appear for 30 seconds before Rag’n’Bone Man rocks up again.