The filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has always liked to veer left when you expect him to go right. He followed his own Academy Award win—in 2001, a year when he was a double nominee for directing, by the way—by making cerebral indies. He treated “retirement” as a euphemism for making television. He turned a movie about male strippers into an intimate character study. Soderbergh, in other words, delights in rejecting the conventional.
So it was a surprise when he announced he’d co-produce the 2021 Oscars, the 93rd entry of an extremely long-running, extremely conventional annual ode to the film industry. Talk about low stakes for one of the most dexterous filmmakers in Hollywood.
But in true Soderberghian form, he explained that he’d up the ante by framing the telecast not as an awards show, but as a movie. The plot would revolve around the noble yet yawn-inducing theme of “Stories Matter.” There’d be no protagonist, but an ensemble cast of A-listers would perform as themselves, according to the trailer, and masks would play “a very important role in the story,” Soderbergh said. It’d be called—drumroll, please—The 93rd Oscars.
Other works in the Awards Season Cinematic Universe haven’t fared so well in their pandemic-era attempts: mics muted, stars lingering awkwardly at a social distance, and all that glitzy haute couture cut off from the waist down. Like those productions, The 93rd Oscars had to work with a noticeably slimmer cast at an atypical primary location—Los Angeles’s Union Station rather than the Dolby Theatre—and navigate a tricky tone that acknowledged the devastation of 2020 while celebrating the year’s artistic achievements. Perhaps Soderbergh couldn’t help but be drawn to the potential. In 2019, he told my colleague David Sims that his dream Oscars would be “super intimate.” “Here’s the dirty secret: Going to the big thing is not fun,” he said at the time. “It’s more fun to watch on TV. The trick would be doing something super cool and small.”