The Absolute Best Moments From the 2021 Oscars

The 93rd Academy Awards broke tradition with historic and surprising moments.

It’s real: the 93rd Academy Awards finally aired on Sunday, with an unusual event celebrating 2020’s (and some of 2021’s) best works on film. Unlike other ceremonies earlier this year that resorted to Zoom, the Oscars took place mostly in person, alternating between sets in Los Angeles, London, Paris, Seoul, and other cities from where nominees were connecting. The traditional stage of the Dolby Theatre was empty this time, making only a brief appearance during the show, which was instead primarily held at Union Station in downtown LA. 

Hollywood’s biggest night reflected a weird and tragic year (to say the least) brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced movie theaters around the world to close, paused ongoing productions, and led to not only a delay on the Oscars’ original February date but also to a whole change to the awards’ eligibility rules.

The three-hour telecast closed off this season’s major awards ceremonies with a fast-paced show that, despite its scaled-down glam, still delivered funny, moving, and surprising moments. Take a look at some of our favorites:

Regina King’s fierce opening

This year’s ceremony didn’t have a host, going instead for multiple presenters for each segment. Regina King, who directed three-time nominee One Night in Miami, guided viewers through the set, making her way between (coronavirus-tested) attendees in her dazzling baby blue gown (Click here check out our Oscars Best Dressed List!), and kicked off the show with a powerful message. 

“If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots,” she said, in reference to Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd. “I know many of you want to reach for your remote when you feel Hollywood is preaching to you, but as the mother of a Black son who fears for his safety, no fame or fortune changes that.”

Borat’s nod

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As King presented the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay, she had to take a breath because of a particular title – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his infamous 2006 feature. The prize ultimately went to Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller for The Father, but it was a funny touch to the ceremony (especially considering this year’s notable lack of skits and comedic bits). 

Daniel Kaluuya’s acceptance speech

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Another change for this year was scrapping out 2020’s 45-second limit for speeches, meaning winners could take their time and go deeper into their gratitude. “We’ve encouraged them to tell a story, and to say something personal,” producer Steven Soderbergh told Reuters

Personal, indeed: as Daniel Kaluuya accepted the prize for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiahhe explained how the Black Panther Party Chairman had inspired him before thanking his own family in a rather unusual way. “My mom, my dad, they had sex. It’s amazing, man,” Kaluuya said, as the cameras cut to his mother and sister, who were joining from London. “I’m here. So, I’m happy to be alive.”

Chloé Zhao’s historic win

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Last year’s Best Director winner Bong Joon-ho returned with the captivating interpreter Sharon Choi to present the category at the 2021 ceremony, straight from Seoul. The award went to Nomadland Chinese-born director and producer Chloé Zhao, who became the second woman in Oscars history to win the prize, and the first woman of color and first woman of Asian descent to do so. Nomadland was also awarded Best Picture and Best Actress with Frances McDormand. 

Travon Free’s powerful message

Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film for Two Distant Strangers, which follows a character trapped in a time loop while he relives a deadly encounter with a white cop. Free spoke about police brutality in a suit lined with the names of people killed by the police force in the U.S. 

“Today, the police will kill three people. And tomorrow, the police will kill three people,” he said. “And the day after that, the police will kill three people. Because on average, the police in America every day kill three people – which amounts to about 1,000 people a year. And those people happen to be disproportionately Black people.” He continued, “I just ask that you please not be indifferent. Please don’t be indifferent to our pain.”

Yuh-Jung Youn’s charisma

Minari’s Yuh-Jung Youn was awarded Best Supporting Actress and not only made history becoming the first Korean actor to win an Oscar but also stole the show with her captivating acceptance speech. As excited as she was to receive the award from Minari executive producer Brad Pitt, Youn did not hesitate to call him out for mispronouncing her name. “Mr. Pitt, finally…nice to meet you!,” she said. “As you know, I’m from Korea, and actually my name is Youn Yuh-Jung and in most of Europe, people call me ‘Yoh Yun’ and some of them call me ‘Yuh Yun’ but tonight you are all forgiven.” 

Youn also thanked fellow cast members and crew, and explained she doesn’t “believe in competition” before thanking her two sons, who encouraged her to “go out and work”: “This is the result, because mommy worked so hard.”

Soul’s musical celebration 

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Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and jazz musician Jon Batiste won Best Original Score for their work for Disney-Pixar’s animated feature Soul, making Batiste just the second Black composer to pick up the prize in Oscars history. “God gave us 12 notes,” he said while accepting the award. “It’s the same 12 notes Duke Ellington had, Bach had, Nina Simone… Every gift is special. Every contribution with music that comes from the divine, into the instruments, into the film, into the minds and hearts and souls of every person who hears it.”

A year of breakthroughs

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The 2021 Oscars had one of the most diverse lineups of nominees in the award’s history, with 70 women nominated across 23 categories, and nine people of color nominated for acting prizes. In addition to Zhao, Youn, and Batiste, other winners made history: Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson won Best Makeup and Hairstyling for their work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, becoming the first Black women to win the category (and to be nominated for it); Anthony Hopkins, 83, became the oldest actor to win Best Actor for The Father; and Ann Roth, 89, who won Costume Design for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, became the oldest woman to ever receive an Oscar. It’s also notable that, for the first time since 2008, a woman won Best Original Screenplay – the award went to Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman

Glenn Close doing “Da Butt”

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Although this year’s musical performances of Best Song nominees took place before the main ceremony, the event still had amusing musical moments. Questlove Dj-ed and music directed the show, playing hits by artists like Prince to Dolly Parton and even blasting an air horn (all while also managing to live-tweet the whole thing, apparently). But the funniest surprise came when he and emcee Lil Rel Howery decided to play an intermission game of music trivia with guests. Howery asked nominees about which songs had been nominated for, winners, or had never received a nod at all at the Oscars, with Andra Day correctly guessing “Purple Rain” had been snubbed and Daniel Kaluuya being “too young” to recognize Donna Summer’s Oscar-winning “Last Dance.” 

The last question went to Glenn Close, who recognized Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” from Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze – and then got up and actually danced “Da Butt” to a stunned audience. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the whole segment may have been scripted, but it was a joy to watch nonetheless. 

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