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"Nomadland" lights a fire at the Oscars

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao made history Sunday night as she became the first Chinese woman — and also the first woman of colour — to win Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director.

The prizes at the 93rd Academy Awards for her road drama “Nomadland,” which also won Best Actress gold for actor/producer Frances McDormand, makes Zhao the second woman ever to win Best Director, a category traditionally dominated by men.

“Nomadland” took a total of three wins out of six nominations — the most for one film, although several films took two Oscars apiece — in a night that made numerous departures from Academy tradition, the biggest being announcing Best Picture ahead of Best Actor and Actress.

Zhao, 39, sporting a designer gown and white sneakers, accepted her awards in a low-key but socially conscious (and socially distanced) ceremony at L.A.’s Union Station railway terminus, a venue supplemented with remote broadcasts from cities worldwide due to pandemic restrictions.

The writer, director and editor spoke of a favourite Chinese poem that she and her father used to recite, when she was growing up in her homeland.

A key line from it translates as “People at birth are inherently good,” words that guided her as she made “Nomadland,” a fact-inspired story which stars McDormand, 63, as a grieving widow who takes her RV on a personal odyssey across the American West, in the company of other modern nomads. The film speaks to the resiliency of people to overcome hard times, which these times of COVID-19 certainly are.

“I still truly believe (the poem’s sentiments) today, even though sometimes it might feel like the opposite is true,” Zhao said. “I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.”

She dedicated her Oscar to “anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”

This year’s Oscars featured the most diverse slate of Oscar nominees ever, thanks in part to the increased presence of women and people of colour among the 9,300 voters of the newly expanded Academy ranks.

There was a strong possibility going in that all four acting categories would be won by people of colour, which would be a historic first for the Oscars. But it didn’t turn out that way in the end, as just two of the acting prizes went to people of colour.

Best Actress was something of a surprise win by “Nomadland” star McDormand, also the film’s producer, who howled at the moon after the film won Best Picture. It’s her third Oscar win, and pundits had been predicting a win by either Viola Davis for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or Carey Mulligan for “Promising Young Woman.”

Best Actor was an even bigger surprise: Anthony Hopkins, 83, for drama “The Father,” a win few pundits foresaw. It was his second Best Actor award, the first was for “Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, and he’s now the oldest Best Actor winner ever. For much of awards season, the Best Actor front-runner had been the late Chadwick Boseman, who died last August after completing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Best Supporting Actor went to Daniel Kaluuya, 32, the expected winner for his charismatic portrayal of slain 1960s Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton in the civil rights drama “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (The film also scored gold for Best Original Song, “Fight for You.”)

He said all the right things at first, as he thanked God, his co-stars and crew, director Shaka King and the late Hampton and his family: “Thank you for trusting us with your truth.”

Then he perhaps said the wrong thing as he stated an intimate truth: “My mom and dad, they had sex, and I’m here!”

Kaluuya’s mother was in the audience, caught on camera with a grimace on her face. His sister was beside her, burying her face in her hands.

Best Supporting Actress went to South Korea’s Yuh-Jung Youn, 73, who plays the spunky mother-in-law in “Minari,” Lee Isaac Chung’s drama of an immigrant farming family struggling to make a go of it in 1980s Arkansas.

She arrived on stage as a star-struck movie fan, delighted to be receiving the Oscar, which was handed to her by Brad Pitt, winner of last year’s Best Supporting Actor prize.

“Brad Pitt, finally! Nice to meet you!” She said, as the audience laughed.

She also gave a nice shout-out to fellow nominee Glenn Close, who saw her eighth attempt at an Oscar, this time for playing a redneck granny in “Hillbilly Elegy,” go up in smoke.

“We cannot compete with each other!” Youn insisted.

Blues drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” got off to a great and historic early start to the evening. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson shared the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award, the first Black women to win this category in Oscar history.

“Ma Rainey’s” also won for Best Costumes, the prize going to 89-year-old Ann Roth, the oldest woman ever to win an Oscar. She wasn’t present to receive it.

In a break with Oscars tradition, the screenplay awards were the first to be handed out, with “Nomadland” being edged out for Best Adapted Screenplay by father-daughter dementia drama “The Father.”

Rape-revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” seized the Best Original Screenplay prize. Writer/director Emerald Fennell — who was also competing with Zhao for Best Director and Best Picture — expressed shock as well as delight as she held the first Oscar she has ever won:

“He’s so heavy — and so cold!” she exulted. (Fun facts: An Oscar weighs 8-1/2 lbs. It’s made of solid bronze, plated in 24-karat gold.)

Best Animated Feature Film went to Disney/Pixar’s “Soul,” which co-director/co-writer Pete Docter described as “a love letter to jazz” that somehow turned into a mediation on the meaning of life. It’s the first Pixar film to have a Black lead character, voiced by Jamie Foxx. “Soul” also scored with a Best Original Score victory, making Jon Batiste (bandleader for Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show”) the second Black composer to receive the award, which he shares with soundtrack veterans Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Best International Feature Film (formerly called Best Foreign Language Film,) went to the heavily favoured “Another Round,” a dramedy of male bonding and boozing, directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg, who was also nominated for Best Director.

An emotional Vinterberg talked about the tragedy that unfolded four days after filming of “Another Round” commenced, as his daughter Ida was killed in a car accident. She was due to make her acting debut in the film. He dedicated his Oscar win to her.

The night’s big loser had to be Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” one of the big awards season contenders for streaming giant Netflix, which has had trouble gaining awards traction in Hollywood. The ensemble film went 0-6 with its nominations.

Another big Netflix offering, David Fincher’s Hollywood history lesson “Mank,” didn’t fare much better. It went in as the night’s potentially biggest winner, with a leading 10 nominees. It took just two Oscars: Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. 🌓

(This story was originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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