Oscars 2021: Five things to look for at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony

Sacha Baron Cohen in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Sacha Baron Cohen gets his denim on in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Netflix’s leading best picture contender.
(Niko Tavernise / Netflix)

If you don’t know that the Oscars are Sunday, I understand and even endorse that lack of awareness. We’ve had a few (hundred) other things to think about this last year. Multiplexes have been mostly closed, consigning movies to the edges of the cultural conversation. And besides ... it’s nearly May. Thinking about the Academy Awards when the weather is warm and people are stocking up on margarita mix for Cinco de Mayo feels weird.

But if you are interested — and there are reasons you should be — take comfort that Steven Soderbergh and his fellow producers have promised to deliver an interesting ceremony that, in Soderbergh’s words, “challenges all the assumptions that go into an awards show.” Perfect! Because my primary awards show assumption is that the night will be dull and go on way too long. So hopefully, this show won’t be that.

What else to expect? Here are five intriguing questions.

Will Netfix win its first best picture Oscar?

Perhaps you’re thinking this is a rhetorical question. Theaters have been closed or at limited capacity. How can a streaming platform like Netflix not win best picture? Certainly, the old guard’s longstanding bias against streamers has been softening since Netflix pulled out the stops campaigning for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” two years ago. Steven Spielberg wasn’t having it then, saying Netflix movies should be competing for Emmys, not Oscars. Now, he might be voting for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the courtroom drama he developed 14 years ago that ended up landing on Netflix after Paramount sold it, caving to COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

One problem: “Chicago 7” isn’t the favorite to win. That would be Searchlight’s “Nomadland,” a poignant drama about a widow grappling with grief and finding community with a group of wanderers. “Nomadland” won the Producers Guild’s top prize, and its director, Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, took the Directors Guild’s honor. Of course, the last year being a hellscape and all, “Nomadland” itself premiered simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu, following a brief, exclusive run in IMAX locales.

“Chicago 7” would be a more conventional choice. It sports gobs of plot and lots of actors, and its many, many courtroom scenes play well on a small screen, be it a TV, laptop or — Scorsese help us — phone. It won the Screen Actors Guild’s movie ensemble prize, owing to both quantity (seven stars!) and quality, and the editors guild’s honor — a path a few recent best picture winners, including “Parasite” and “Argo,” have taken. And from what I can recall, no one in the film uses a bucket as a toilet, which seems to be many viewers’ primary objection to “Nomadland.”


A final note: Netflix does have another best picture nominee, David Fincher’s Hollywood drama “Mank,” which led all movies with 10 nominations. It’s superbly crafted. But it’s not going to win because too many members of the motion picture academy never finished it, finding its story about the creation of “Citizen Kane” uninvolving and chilly. In fact, it might well be the least-liked movie to ever lead the nominations field. It will also be watched and remembered long after “Chicago 7” fades into the mists of time.

"Promising Young Woman" star Carey Mulligan, nominated for lead actress.
Carey Mulligan is a lead actress contender for “Promising Young Woman.”
(Matthew Lloyd / For The Times)

Who will win the lead actress Oscar?

In recent years, the outcomes of the acting contests have felt inevitable, save for the occasional surprise, like Olivia Colman prevailing over Glenn Close in 2019. Which makes this year’s actress race all the more thrilling. Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) won SAG. Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) came out on top with the British Film Academy. Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) took the Golden Globe. Early favorite Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) scored with critics groups. (Sorry, Vanessa Kirby. But you were spectacular in “Pieces of a Woman.”)

When the envelope is opened, there will be a delectable moment of suspense. Who will win? If Davis truly is Next Generation Meryl in terms of regard, then she’ll win her second Oscar for the showy swagger in “Ma Rainey.” Much like Streep picked up her third — denying Davis a win for “The Help” — for playing a single-minded Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” even though it was the second-best movie she made with Phyllida Lloyd. (You do remember “Mamma Mia!,” right?)

Or maybe it’s Day, mesmerizing in her first leading role (though the movie is almost unwatchable). Or Mulligan will win, 11 years after her nomination for “An Education,” for her career-best work. Or perhaps everyone will realize two Oscars aren’t reward enough for McDormand and present her a third. And then maybe give her a fourth next year for playing Lady Macbeth.

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" director George C. Wolfe.
(David Lee / Netflix)

History will be made. But how much?

People of color could win all four acting categories for the first time if, say, the late Chadwick Boseman wins, as expected, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and he’s joined by Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Davis or Day.

Zhao is up for four nominations — picture, director, adapted screenplay and editing. She could become the first woman of color to win director and join Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) as just the second female director to be honored. If Zhao wins in every category she’s nominated in, she’d tie Walt Disney’s record for Oscars in a single year.

“Promising Young Woman” filmmaker Emerald Fennell is also nominated for director, as well as original screenplay. If she and Zhao both win screenplay honors, it will mark the first time women have swept the writing categories. (Also: It has been 13 years since a woman has won a screenplay award.)

If Davis and Boseman win for “Ma Rainey,” it’ll be the eighth movie to sport both lead acting winners — and the first to do so without a best picture nomination. And though we’ve been told it’s a thrill to be nominated, should Close, feted for playing the crotchety, oversize T-shirt-loving Mamaw in “Hillbilly Elegy,” not pull off a shocking supporting actress win, she’ll tie Peter O’Toole’s record of eight acting nominations without a victory. Just don’t let her lose to Colman (“The Father”) again. That would be cruel.

Will the seagulls be screaming in Iceland?

But, as Close would be the first to tell you, it really is a thrill to be nominated. Just ask any one of the 2,300 people living in the Icelandic coastal town of Husavik, namesake of the Oscar-nominated song featured in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” As much as I respect Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke stylings in “One Night in Miami...,” it’d be spectacular for everyone living in this little harbor burg — a place, as I understand it, where the mountains sing through the screams of seagulls and whales can live because they’re gentle people — erupt into celebration in the wee small hours of the morning if the power ballad wins. And if the Oscars telecast draws even a sliver of the audience of the actual Eurovision Song Contest, then everyone will be partying.

What is the show’s “knee-buckling moment”???

Soderbergh and his fellow producers have repeatedly said that the ceremony won’t be a TV show but rather a movie and that it’s going to have a “doozy of an opening scene.” More specifically: The first 60 seconds will “make your knees buckle.” If that oversell doesn’t intrigue you enough to tune in, then ... I’m surprised you made it to the end of this piece.