This morning, I woke up and I thought about the cult of Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh is a filmmaker who is fervently adored by some film and cultural critics. They eagerly devour his every thought. They examine his annual list of the things that he watched during the year with the intensity of theological scholars studying an ancient-but-just-discovered religious text. The Cult of Soderbergh reacts with excitement whenever it’s announced that Soderbergh has secretly filmed an improvised comedy on his phone and that he’ll be releasing it on HBOMax. The fact that the movie itself will probably turn out to be a self-indulgent mess never really seems to concern them.
Don’t get me wrong. Steven Soderbergh has directed some very good movies. There are quite a few Soderbergh films — Out of the Past, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!, Logan Lucky, Magic Mike — that I really, really like. However, Soderbergh has directed and otherwise been involved with some truly mediocre films as well, films that would probably be totally forgotten if not for the fact of his involvement. Even his worst films tend to get good initial reviews, if just because people tend to assume that anything Soderbergh directs has to be good even when it’s not. But, in retrospect, many of his films are stylish and ultimately empty. Haywire is a mess. The Laundromat was self-indulgent and pretentious. Let Them All Talk was so dull that it felt as if it was specifically made to troll the type of people who proudly proclaim that they will watch Meryl Streep in anything. Contagion may have predicted a pandemic but that doesn’t make it any less of a drag to sit through. When Steven Soderbergh is good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, he’s incredibly bad. He’s one of the most frustratingly inconsistent filmmakers around. That’s something that many film fans and critics have yet to come to terms with.
It’s also why I kind of groaned a little when, last month, I read that Steven Soderbergh would be producing the Oscars this year. Everyone knows that the Oscars are struggling to stay relevant and that the ceremony needed to be jazzed up a little and, if nothing else, that seemed to be something that Soderbergh could deliver. But, even while the Cult of Soderbergh was celebrating, I was thinking about how the Oscars seemed like just the type of event that would draw out Soderbergh’s worst tendencies.
Now, at this point, I should make clear that Soderbergh did not direct last night’s ceremony. He was strictly the producer and, in fact, he was just one of three producers. That said, from the opening scene of Regina King walking through Union Station to the decision to allow the winners to ramble on for as long as they wanted (almost as if they were Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen shooting an improvised film during an ocean cruise), this definitely felt like a Steven Soderbergh production. Even more importantly, it felt like a bad Soderbergh production. This wasn’t Traffic or even Ocean’s 11. This was Solaris. This was Full Frontal. This was one of those terrible movies that he agreed to executive producer as a favor to George Clooney. This was the type of train wreck that could only have been put together by a genius who no one was willing to double guess.
We all knew that last night’s Oscars were going to be a bit different, of course. And I guess we should be glad that they didn’t make the same mistakes that the Golden Globes made. That said, the ceremony was an endurance test. Last night’s ceremony did away with a lot of the things that have been criticized about previous ceremonies but, in doing so, it only made us realize that an awards show actually does need a host. It does need a cheesy montage. It needs spectacle. It needs live performances of the nominated songs. It needs humor, even bad humor. (Glenn Close twerking after her record-setting eighth Oscar loss does not count.) And, perhaps most importantly, it needs a band that’s willing to start playing the exit music whenever a winner goes on for too long. Who didn’t want a full orchestra to drown out the Documentary Feature winners? Do we really need a filibuster from someone who probably had sex with an octopus? That’s what the Senate’s for.
As I watched the ceremony, I thought about something one of my creative writing teachers once told me. Seriously, this is one of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned and anyone who knows how much I hate learning anything will understand that’s high praise coming for me. If you want your reader to truly feel as if they know your characters, show. Don’t tell. Show. If you want your readers to understand that someone is good at their job, don’t just say, “She was good at her job.” Instead, write a scene that shows she’s good at her job. For the most part, last night’s ceremony eschewed showing clips of the nominated films and instead, we were provided with trivia factoids about the nominees, the type of stuff that you typically find on the imdb or Wikipedia. But hearing that someone worked in a movie theater when they were a teenager doesn’t tell us anything about why they were nominated. Last night, the lack of clips made it seem as if the Academy ashamed of the films they had nominated. They kept telling us the nominees were good but, at the same time, they refused to show us.
Finally, there was the weird choice to move around some of the categories. It’s obvious what the show’s producers — and I won’t lay the blame squarely on Soderbergh because there were two other credited producers on the show — were trying to do. They assumed Chadwick Boseman would win best actor. They assumed it would be a huge emotional moment, the 21st century’s equivalent of Judy Garland introducing herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine” in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. And so, they moved the categories around.
As a result, Chloe Zhao won Best Director in the middle of the show. Zhao is only the second woman to win best director and the first woman of color. It should have been a great Oscar moment but instead, it was just randomly tossed in there, with no build-up or anything else. Best Picture, which is traditionally the joyous end of the ceremony, was moved so that the final award could go to Chadwick Boseman. Of course, that didn’t happen. The final award went to Anthony Hopkins for The Father. When presenting the award, Joaquin Phoenix read the name of the winner so quickly that it actually took a few minutes for me to realize that Hopkins had won. Phoenix read the name and the end credits rolled so quickly that you got the feeling someone in the control room panicked. It was an odd moment. Obviously, Hopkins couldn’t come to L.A. for the ceremony but he was also apparently so convinced that Boseman was going to win that he didn’t even bother to stay up for the ceremony. (According to People Magazine, he was asleep when his name was called. Actually, that was true for a lot of people in America as well.)
It was an anti-climatic end to the ceremony but, putting aside the question of who should have won best actor, it was hard not to feel some schadenfreude. The show’s producers basically messed up the show’s entire momentum for a big moment that they assumed was going to happen and then it didn’t. They got a bit too clever for their own good. As more than one person pointed out on twitter, last night was proof that the producers do not know, ahead of time, who is going to win. I know some would say that it’s easy to be critical in hindsight but that if Boseman had won last night, we would be talking about what a moving moment it was. Yes, we would but it would been just as moving if Boseman had won at the end of the ceremony or at the beginning of it or in the middle. Instead, the producers took a risk that only succeeded in making Boseman’s loss the defining moment of the 93rd Academy Awards.
(Incidentally, I watched The Father on Sunday, before the ceremony. Hopkins is amazing in the film and I feel he deserved the award. At the same time, I’m also very aware that Boseman was very good in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and that this was literally the Academy’s last chance to honor both his performance and his legacy. So, when I say that it’s unfortunate Boseman loss, that should not be taken as criticism of Hopkins. Nor should my praise of Hopkins be viewed as criticism of Chadwick Boseman.)
Many of the changes last night felt less like they were the result of seriously considering what would improve the ceremony and more like change for the sake of change. It felt like the people in charge basically said, “This is our show and we have to do something to show that we know better than everyone who has come before us.” There was a lot of hubris involved in last night’s ceremony. There was a definite lack of understanding of why people watch the Oscars in the first place. Watching the ceremony, I was reminded of the experiencing of listening to countless Steven Soderbergh commentary tracks where he got so caught up in discussing dry technical details that he didn’t actually bother to comment much on what it was like to actually make the film and work with the actors. (One gets the feeling that Soderbergh is more comfortable talking about lenses than about human emotions.)
I’m not going to get into an argument about what the Oscars are “supposed” to be. Obviously, there’s no set rule that says the Oscars have to take place in a giant theater or that there has to be a host or a live musical performance. But I will say that, for me, the most memorable Oscar ceremonies have been entertaining to watch, even if they did inspire a bit of snarkiness on the part of many viewers. (The snarkiness, let’s be honest, is a part of what we all look forward to.) The show’s producers were so busy patting themselves on the back for not being tacky that they failed to consider that shameless tackiness is actually one of the things that makes the Oscars the Oscars. Last night’s show was boring. And beyond everything else, that was the main problem. People want to have fun. They want to escape for a few hours. They want a little spectacle. If the Academy and Hollywood at large can’t remember how to deliver that, I don’t know how much longer this yearly tradition of watching the Oscars will continue.