Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” a wistful portrait of itinerant lives on open roads across the American West, won best picture Sunday at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The “Nomadland” victory capped the extraordinary rise of Zhao, a lyrical filmmaker whose winning film is just her third, and which—with a budget less than $5 million and featuring a cast populated by non-professional actors—ranks as one of the most modest-sized movies to win Hollywood’s top honor. (Zhao’s next film, Marvel’s “Eternals,” has a budget approximately 40 times that of “Nomadland.”)
A plain-spoken meditation on solitude, grief, and grit, “Nomadland” stuck a chord in a pandemic-ravaged year. It made for an unlikely Oscar champ: A film about people who gravitate to the margins took center stage.
“I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world,” said Zhao when accepting best director, which Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) was the only previous woman to win. “This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on the goodness in other no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
With a howl, “Nomadland” star Frances McDormand implored people to seek out her film and others on the big screen. Released by the Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures, “Nomadland” premiered at a drive in and debuted in theaters, but found its largest audience on Hulu.
“Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” McDormand said. “And one day very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder in that dark space, and watch every film that’s represented here tonight.”
Soon after, McDormand won best actress, too—her third such win. Only Katharine Hepburn, a four-time winner, has won best actress more times.
The red carpet was back Sunday, minus the throngs of onlookers and with socially distanced interviews. Casual wear, the academy warned nominees early on, was a no-no. Stars, limited to a plus-one, went without their usual battalions of publicists.
But even a good show may not be enough to save the Oscars from an expected ratings slide. Award show ratings have cratered during the pandemic, and this year’s nominees—many of them smaller, lower-budget dramas—won’t come close to the drawing power of past Oscar heavyweights like “Titanic” or “Black Panther.”