Time for Oscars to Put on a Show in the Face of COVID, Ukraine and Controversy

This is not an easy time to hold an awards ceremony, but the Academy has to do it

Oscars preparation
Oscars preparation / AMPAS

Welcome to the 94th annual Academy Awards. Hang on tight.

Here are some of the things we know about the show, which begins at 4 p.m. PT in the Dolby Theatre, an hour before ABC’s live broadcast itself kicks off:

  • The film that is crowned Best Picture will probably be the lowest-grossing winner in Oscar history.
  • It will likely be soundly attacked on Twitter.  
  • The nominated films, for the most part, will have been seen by far more people on TV sets and computer screens than in theaters, taking away some of the feeling that the Oscars had as an event devoted to movies that got us out of the house.
  • The ratings, if the Academy and ABC are lucky, will be the second-worst ever.
  • At least one nominee, and probably more, will skip the ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also forced an array of protocols and systems that will make attendance more complicated than ever before.
  • If the show doesn’t invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make an appearance, Sean Penn will melt down his Academy Award in public. (He didn’t say whether he’d do that to one or both of his Oscars.) If it does spend any amount of time talking about the war in Ukraine, it’ll be accused of being too political. Either way, that global conflict will lead to distracted viewers.
  • And the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remains on the verge of mutiny over a plan to present eight awards before the live broadcast begins, and then edit them into the telecast in shortened versions. Talk has been growing of winners holding their Oscars upside down in protest and Academy members wearing their AMPAS membership badges upside down as well.

So yes, the Oscars show hosted by the curious team of Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes could be a giant mess (although viewers might not see all of the messiness, given the edits that will be made to that first hour of presentations).

But we’ve already written about how this is potentially the riskiest Oscars ever. Can we talk about a different side of the event?  

Can we acknowledge the sheer variety of the films that are competing for Best Picture? There’s “Belfast,” a gentle memory piece from Kenneth Branagh that moved me more than anything else I saw in 2021. “CODA,” in which what could be a predictable feel-good story gains resonance in the way it places a deaf family at the center of the story. “Don’t Look Up,” a freewheeling satire from Adam McKay that in its best moments manages to be very funny and very serious at the same time. “Drive My Car,” a slow-burn three-hour Japanese drama that dominated major critics’ awards and could never have been nominated until recently. “Dune,” a monumental sci-fi epic made from a book that was supposed to have been unfilmable. “King Richard,” an exemplary piece of mainstream filmmaking about the improbable rise of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams. “Licorice Pizza,” in which Paul Thomas Anderson turns a meandering story into a languid delight. “Nightmare Alley,” a richly disquieting slice of film noir from the great Guillermo del Toro. “The Power of the Dog,” a quiet but provocative Western from the essential director Jane Campion. “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s respectful but smartly reimagined version of the 1958 Broadway musical that is as virtuoso a piece of filmmaking craft as anything released last year.

I loved several of them and liked most of them, and together they mock the idea that the Academy’s 9,000-plus voters only go for one kind of film. Sure, I wanted to see “C’mon C’mon,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Cyrano” on that list, and I’d throw in the documentary “The Velvet Underground” and the Spanish drama “Parallel Mothers” and a few others as well.

But in between the controversies and despite the pandemic that refuses to go away, there will be worthy winners, and hopefully some moments when the Oscars does its job of recognizing and saluting the best of the past year’s worth of cinema.

And if nothing else, it’ll bring another endless awards season to a merciful end, after months of excruciating stops and starts caused by COVID variants and surges.

The Academy is struggling with the fact that movies are not as central to pop culture as they once were, grappling with its role in promoting the theatrical experience and even panicky about what it can do to turn around a dire and possibly inescapable ratings slide. But if it does its job right on Sunday evening, it might provide a couple of hours in which the show’s theme, “Movie Lovers Unite,” makes sense.

And then the real job of figuring out where to go from here will begin on Monday morning.