"Nomadland," which has dominated Oscar talk ever since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last fall, made good on that Sunday night at the 93rd Academy Awards, taking home three trophies, including best picture.
The drama — the second best picture filmed in western South Dakota (after "Dances With Wolves") — also won for director Chloé Zhao and best actress Frances McDormand. It's her third acting award, following "Fargo" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and it puts her within one of record-holder Katharine Hepburn.
McDormand kept her actress speech brief but, echoing a scene from the movie, howled like a wolf as she accepted the picture award. The veteran actor, who also coproduced "Nomadland," said, "Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible," in recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic-dictated 2020 when most movies were not played in theaters but on streaming services.
Zhao is the first woman of color — and just the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow for "Hurt Locker") — to win the directing award. In one of many personal moments in a ceremony that felt more intimate than Oscars generally do, each director nominee described their job. Zhao said when she's facing directing challenges, she always asks, "What would Werner Herzog do?," referencing the German director whose "Fitzcarraldo" was famously the toughest shoot in movie history.
In the biggest surprise of the evening, Anthony Hopkins won best actor for "The Father," an award that nearly every pundit had ceded to the late Chadwick Boseman for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The best picture award is usually presented last but producers shifted actor to the final slot, presumably anticipating an emotional win for Boseman. Instead, they got an anticlimax, since Hopkins — who at 83 is the oldest acting winner in Oscar history — was not in attendance at any of the Oscar ceremonies around the globe.
"The Father" was one of several movies to earn two Oscars (its other was for screenplay). Others included "Judas and the Black Messiah," "Soul," "Sound of Metal" and "Mank." The only one of the eight best picture nominees not to go home with a trophy was "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Daniel Kaluuya, who won for playing late Black Panthers leader, Fred Hampton, in "Judas," thanked Hampton and his family and exhorted the audience with, "We've got work to do," although he first prescribed an evening of celebration.
Yuh-jung Youn became the second Asian woman to win best supporting actress (Miyoshi Umeki won for "Sayonara" in 1958). The Korean actor gently corrected Brad Pitt on the pronunciation of her name and dedicated her award, for playing a no-nonsense grandmother in "Minari," to her adult sons, saying, "This is the result because Mommy worked so hard."
Coming on the heels of last year's big wins, including best picture and director, for "Parasite," Youn's trophy will focus even more attention on South Korea's film industry.
That people of color won both supporting trophies when no actors of color won — or even were nominated — as recently as 2015 and 2016, underscored that these were the most diverse Oscars in history.
"Thank you to our ancestors, who paved the way," said Mia Neal, accepting the trophy for co-creating the "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" makeup and hair. The first Black woman to win that honor added, "I have so much excitement for the future. I can picture Black trans women standing up here and Asian sisters and our Latino sisters and Indigenous women, and I know one day it won't be groundbreaking. It'll just be normal."
"Ma Rainey" also won the costume design Oscar for Ann Roth, a first for the 89-year-old, who was not in attendance and is now the second-oldest Oscar winner ever (James Ivory, then just a few months older, won for the "Call Me By Your Name" screenplay).
The international film award went to Denmark's "Another Round," whose director, Thomas Vinterberg, dedicated it to the memory of his teenage daughter, who died on the eve of shooting the drama about an out-of-control teacher.
"This is a miracle that happened," said Vinterberg, addressing her. "Maybe you've been pulling some strings somewhere."
Even the short film awards fit the activist theme of the evening. Accepting for codirecting "Two Distant Strangers," a drama that climaxes with a man being killed by the police, Travon Free noted the statistics on such killings and said, "Please don't be indifferent to our pain."
Best short documentary winner "Colette" follows a French Resistance fighter on a trip through the concentration camp where her brother was killed. Feature documentary winner "My Octopus Teacher" deals with climate crisis.
Bloomington native Pete Docter picked up his third Oscar for best animated feature for "Soul," which is about a music teacher/jazz musician (his previous wins were for his studio, Disney/Pixar's "Inside Out" and "Up).
"I had no idea how much jazz would teach us about life," Docter said, thanking music teachers, including two who live in Minnesota, "my parents Dave and Rita. You make the world a better place."
Two other Minnesota natives who were nominated — Drew Kunin for the sound of "Mank" and Michael Scheuerman for coproducing short doc "Hunger Ward" — went home empty-handed.
In an evening when most winners were lower-budget movies, the key representatives of the Hollywood system that used to dominate the awards were "Soul" and "Tenet." The release of the latter was famously delayed for months so it could be seen in theaters. But it had trouble finding an audience until it debuted on HBO Max this year. Christopher Nolan's time-jumping adventure, likely the most-watched of the Oscar contenders, won for its special effects.