Joaquin Phoenix is on stage. He’s presenting the big one. Best Actor in a Leading Role. That’s a sign. It has to be. Phoenix won it in 2020 for his role in and as Joker, a comic-book villain previously immortalized by an actor whose reward came posthumously. In 2009, the late Heath Ledger’s family accepted the trophy on his behalf for The Dark Knight. This can only mean one thing: Chadwick Boseman is going to win it. The late great Chadwick Boseman, who was not nearly appreciated enough by the Academy when he was alive, a man whose cultural legacy is larger than what a film industry thinks of him. The courageous Chadwick Boseman, who refused to let his terminal cancer divert attention from a career of iconic black heroism fashioned to inspire an entire generation of dreamers. The artist Chadwick Boseman, whose go-for-broke performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom redefined the term ‘final hurrah’.
It might be Riz Ahmed’s moment, it can be Anthony Hopkins’ (fifth) moment too, but Boseman’s moment is America’s moment – it’s also arguably the universe’s moment. We know he’s winning it. Everyone knows it. Riz knows it. An absent Hopkins knows it but couldn’t care less either way. The envelope is opened. His name is announced triumphantly by Phoenix, and Chadwick Boseman’s young wife, who has spent much of the awards season battling her emotions on remote Zoom calls, accepts the huge honour. She gets a standing ovation. Her speech is poignant. It is profound, proud, and everything we need to hear. The ceremony concludes in tears and hope. It’s a fairytale ending. Social media is all praise for film-maker and Oscar producer Steven Soderbergh, possibly the brain behind the decision to reverse the traditional order of the telecast and finish with the Lead Acting nods instead of the usual Best Picture announcement. Like most showrunners, he probably knew of Boseman’s win beforehand. It was a fitting tribute. But even if he didn’t know beforehand, it felt like a calculated risk. A risk that perhaps needed to be taken.
There were legitimate fears that this year’s Oscars would return all-time low ratings, a knock-on effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, a reduced playing field and consequently a nomination list full of independent festival titles lost on the general public. If there were an award for the Oscars with the maximum number of nominations unwatched, 2021 would be the only contender. The ship had too many holes to plug. One might then accuse the producers of being opportunistic and mining an artist’s death to bump up viewership ratings. But one also can’t deny that the prospect of breaking tradition to amplify the image of a powerful black man getting his dues after his demise is not an untimely one. On the back of a difficult year for a nation divided by racial violence and police brutality, ending the most popular awards show on the planet in celebration of Boseman’s spirit is a resounding statement. It is a definitive change in an era disfigured by change. For viewers, it’s a cathartic experience – art delivers what life cannot.
By all accounts, a stubborn institution adapting to suit the mood of the age is encouraging. And what’s more, it paid off. It’s a raging success. The exhilaration rivals the Parasite feeling. We chuckle at a tweet that paints an alternate reality: What if Hopkins had pulled off an upset? Imagine restructuring an entire ceremony to arrive at the ultimate happily ever after, only for the ‘wrong’ candidate – one who is so enormously absent from the self-gratification movement that a decade-old photograph is flashed on screen – to kill the narrative, resulting in the the kind of anti-climax that puts the 2017 Moonlight disaster to shame. It sounds about as mischievously morbid as a Soderbergh heist-movie twist. Thankfully, Chadwick Boseman is belatedly an Oscar winner. All’s well that ends well. Even Phoenix looks relieved.
This is what Soderbergh envisioned. To be fair, this is also what an emotionally fraught world envisioned. But the truth turned out to be infinitely stranger than fiction.
We all know now, on April 26th, the morning after a hostless and defiant 2021 ‘ceremony,’ that things didn’t quite go as planned. The broadcasters’ worst fears were confirmed. Anthony Hopkins did win. A wry twitter-verse assumed he was asleep in his Malibu home when he did, but the 83-year-old actor was in fact in his hometown in Wales, as far away from the chaos as humanly possible. Phoenix announced his name like he would a sponsor’s, quickly exited the stage out of second-hand embarrassment, and left stunned onlookers to wonder how a show that was largely innovative for the most part – marred only by a juvenile birthday-party-style game mid-ceremony – could go downhill faster than a DC Superhero franchise. The tide turned at a visible juncture. The hasty ‘In Memoriam’ collage, that followed a premature Best Picture nod, ended with Chadwick Boseman’s deep face. It felt like a precursor, an alluring teaser, for what lay ahead. Little did viewers realize then that the tribute was going to be just that: an extended stay on his face, and the honour of bookending the memories from the most devastating year in modern history.
Naturally, the Oscar management is undergoing a trial by social media as we speak. The stakes were always high: Get it right and be hailed as the visionary harbinger of live telecasting, but get it wrong and be crucified like Wall Streeters hitting an iceberg in broad daylight. The intentions may have been commercially driven, but I believe the idea was not misguided. It really was a margin of inches – a single envelope, not for the first time, is all that separated the ugly duckling from morphing into an ethereal swan.
What did emerge out of this wreckage however is a lesson for all concerned, including the people driving the artistic discourse. The producers, like so many of us, can’t be blamed for getting carried away in a deluge of new-age Hollywood sentimentality. We all love – need, want, crave for – a grand-stand ending. We all hope for the validation of a legend. We all want to feel vindicated, but at the cost of what? Surely not at the cost of art itself? As brilliant as Chadwick Boseman was in his final role, there was no denying that Anthony Hopkins had delivered a career-best turn in his fifth decade of professional acting. There were whispers that the Academy voters knew just how stunning he was in and as The Father, but almost everyone expected the tragic to consume the technical. The mind perhaps knew that Hopkins was a clear winner on merit, but the heart wished for Boseman’s fate to speak to our own experience of loss in the last year.
The Academy has been known to compensate for historical sins in strange and crowd-pleasing ways that have diminished the significance of the craft on display. The Oscars, in its pursuit to appeal to newer eyes, have often sacrificed talent at the altar of ceremonial storytelling. The winner is mostly a permutation of excellence, buzz, success, campaigning, and most recently, circumstance. It’s not too different from a reality show looking for not the best but the most suitable candidate. But Hopkins’ “upset” victory is a reminder – even if nobody likes it – that at its core the Academy of artist-voters still nurses a purist fondness for calibre. That the scene can still triumph over the story. That the universality of theme is still bigger than the specificity of time. And that the most compelling reason to create is because creating is possible. Don’t shoot the messenger for this rare restoration of order – he’s just a knighted, Tiktok-loving, Instagram-stanning Welsh octogenarian.