The austere and graceful drama Nomadland was the biggest winner at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, capturing Best Picture, Best Director for Chloé Zhao and Best Actress for Frances McDormand.
The victories capped an Oscars ceremony modified for the Covid-19 pandemic, with the ceremony held in front of a pared-down live audience after a year in which the film industry was devastated by cinema closures and delayed movie releases.
Zhao was the first woman of colour and the second woman to win the top directing prize. The awards for Nomadland also marked a triumph for Walt Disney and the Hollywood establishment, as streaming company Netflix missed out on any of the biggest prizes.
McDormand, who starred in Nomadland and co-produced the movie with Zhao, pleaded with viewers to return to cinemas. “Please watch our film on the largest screen possible,” she said.
The Oscars included several historic wins, after years of criticism that the awards did not recognise diversity, most notably during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015. Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean woman to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari, while Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Judas and the Black Messiah.
The evening’s biggest upset was reserved for the final award, with Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor for The Father. The prize was widely expected to be awarded posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, who died aged 43 from colon cancer last summer, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Zhao, who was born in Beijing and went to boarding school in the UK, quoted from The Three Character Classic, a Confucian text that is almost universally studied in Chinese school: “This is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves,” she said in her acceptance speech.
But her remarks — and almost all coverage of the Oscars — were censored in China, the world’s biggest film market by revenue. Beijing ordered local media outlets not to cover the event after Do Not Split, a documentary about the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, was nominated for Best short documentary.
Zhao faced a backlash by Chinese nationalists in March after they found a 2013 interview in which she appeared to say “there are lies everywhere” in China. The controversy led to the cancellation of the release of Nomadland in the country.
Actress Regina King opened the ceremony by invoking the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial last week. The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of three charges in the murder of George Floyd, an incident that set off global protests over racial injustice. “If things had gone differently in Minneapolis I might have traded in my heels for marching boots,” she said.
Mia Neal, who became the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, said: “one day it won’t be unusual, it won’t be groundbreaking, it will just be normal”.
The evening was a disappointment for Netflix, however, which fell short in the top categories.
The streaming giant has long sought a Best Picture award, and entered Sunday’s ceremony with two candidates: Mank, which earned the most overall nominations at 10, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. The former, a black-and-white homage to old Hollywood, earned honours for cinematography and production design.
It remained unclear if consumers will opt to watch feature films through streaming services or return to cinemas as the pandemic eventually eases. Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive, told analysts last week that the company was “not really changing the way we make films for the way people watch film”.
The Oscars ceremony, as with the music industry’s Grammy Awards last month, took a sharp departure from tradition. The event took place at a makeshift stage at Los Angeles’s Union Station and the broadcast largely eschewed the replays of movie clips and soaring music performances from nominees typical in previous years.
Ratings for the Oscars will not be available until later in the week but pandemic-era awards shows and prominent sporting championships, including the Grammys and the Super Bowl, have fallen to historic lows.