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Oscar winners 2021: Chloé Zhao a history maker, Anthony Hopkins a shocker

‘Nomadland’ filmmaker the first woman of color to be named best director, and ‘The Father’ star wins the best actor award thought to be destined for the late Chadwick Boseman.

‘Nomadland’s’ Frances McDormand, winner of the best actress Oscar, poses backstage with Chloé Zhao, named best director. The movie also won the best picture award.
Chris Pizzello/AP

Shocking.

For months it’s been a foregone conclusion the Academy Award for best actor would be awarded posthumously to Chadwick Boseman for his heartbreakingly effective performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — but in the final announcement of the evening, Joaquin Phoenix said, “And the Academy Award for actor goes to Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father.’ ”

He said the Academy would accept on behalf of the absent actor, and just like that, this most unusual Oscars came to a stunning conclusion.

It was even more jarring because tradition says best picture is always the last category — but they shuffled the deck this year and announced “Nomadland” as the winner before we learned the winners of best actress and best actor. The immediate consensus on social media was this had been done in order to draw the curtain on the show with the expected win for Boseman. Not so.

Earlier, there was a mild upset for best actress, with Frances McDormand winning for “Nomadland.” Not that McDormand didn’t deliver yet another Oscar-worthy performance; it was just that it appeared to be Carey Mulligan’s year, in part because McDormand was already a two-time winner.

Then came one of the biggest upsets in modern Oscars history. The oddsmakers had listed Boseman as a prohibitive favorite, i.e., you’d have to wager anywhere from $10 to $30 on Boseman to win a single dollar. Hopkins was the solid second choice and a lot of prognosticators (including yours truly) said Sir Anthony would have won in nearly any other year for his career-crowning work in “The Father” — but there seemed to be no path for anyone but Boseman to win.

Anthony Hopkins plays a man with dementia in “The Father,” the role that earned him his second Oscar.
Sony Pictures Classics

When Phoenix announced Hopkins’ name, my first thought was to wonder if this was another “La La Land”/“Moonlight” type mix-up, but no. Anthony Hopkins was the winner, and it’s a great performance in a deeply moving film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience — and in no way does the lack of a gold statue detract from Chadwick Boseman’s legacy as one of the finest actors of our time, who was gone decades too soon.

• • •

Tradition says best director is the almost exclusive territory of the men, but in winning best director for “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao became only the second woman in the 93-year history of the Oscars and the first woman of color to win in the category. That’s a stunning indictment of Hollywood’s past — but a bright ray of hope for the future.

“I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world,” said Zhao. “So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves, and ... in each other.” It was just one of the many poignant moments of the night.

Many of the early acceptance speeches ran long but were often deeply moving, e.g., when “Another Round” won for best international feature and director Thomas Vinterberg paid heart-rending tribute to his daughter Ida, 19, who was killed in a car crash in Paris when Vinterberg was just four days into shooting the film.

Daniel Kaluuya of “Judas and the Black Messiah” accepts the award for best supporting actor.
Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.

Then there was Daniel Kaluuya, who won best supporting actor for his portrayal of Black Panther Illinois party chairman Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Kaluuya delivered a timely and powerful speech and talked about how he’s been inspired by Hampton and others to be a better man. But he ended on an hilariously celebratory note when he talked about how life is so incredible and said: “My mom met my dad, they had sex, it’s amazing, I’m here!,” as we cut to shot of Kaluuya’s mother and sister in London, with sis putting her hands in her face as mom wondered what the heck her son just said.

• • •

We were about only three minutes into the Oscars when Regina King took the stage at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and said:

“I have to be honest: If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded my heels in for marching boots. Now I know that a lot you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that. But tonight, we are here to celebrate.”

Beautifully said.

Accompanied by a children’s choir, Molly Sandén performs “Husavik” in Iceland for the lead-in show to the 93rd Oscars.
Orly Orlyson/A.M.P.A.S.

But the first highlight of the night didn’t even place during the actual ceremony — it happened early on in the preshow titled “Oscars: Into the Spotlight,” when Molly Sandén and a kids’ choir in the fairy-tale colorful fishing village of Husavik, Iceland, sang “Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest.” In fact, all five nominated songs worked great as, pre-produced, elaborately orchestrated production numbers.

Overall, the relatively muted red-carpet procession featuring only nominees and presenters and a small gathering of press, and the low-key preshow hosted by Ariana DeBose and Lil Rel Howery, struck the right tone for an Oscars that wanted to celebrate the glitz and glamour of Hollywood without coming across as tone-deaf. Another pre-show highlight: While Lil Rel was talking to Angela Bassett (62), we saw separate glimpses of Rita Moreno (89) and Zendaya (24) on the red carpet. Talk about your generational trifecta.

Yuh-Jung Youn, winner of the award for best actress in a supporting role for “Minari,” poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday.
Chris Pizzello/AP

Another highlight of the show came when acclaimed South Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn, 73, won (and deserved to win) best supporting actress for her scene-stealing work in the lovely and moving “Minari,” and she charmed the night with a funny and endearing acceptance speech in which she said she isn’t a better actor than her fellow nominees: “I’m just luckier.”

Something for every Oscar winner — and for that matter every trophy winner ever — to keep in mind.