HOLLYWOOD, United States, April 26, 2021 (AFP) - US road movie "Nomadland" emerged as the big winner at the Oscars on Sunday with three major prizes, including a history-making award for director Chloe Zhao, as Hollywood celebrated its most glamorous night with a unique pandemic-era gala.
Zhao's drama about marginalized Americans roaming the West in vans was honored for best picture, director and actress for Frances McDormand, who now is in elite company with her third Academy Award for performing.
No-show Anthony Hopkins pulled a surprise upset to win best actor in the final award of the night, besting sentimental favorite Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer last year.
The unorthodox Oscars ceremony was moved from a Hollywood theater to a glammed-up downtown train station to abide by strict Covid-19 protocols, and reunited Tinseltown A-listers for the first time in more than a year.
Zhao, who is the first woman of color ever honored as best director, thanked "all the people we met on the road... for teaching us the power of resilience and hope, and for reminding us what true kindness looks like."
She is also only the second woman to win best director after Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the glass ceiling in 2010 when she won the prize for "The Hurt Locker."
"It's pretty fabulous to be a woman in 2021," Zhao told journalists as a virtual backstage Q&A, adding: "If this win means more people get to live their dreams, I'm extremely grateful."
With movie theaters closed all year, and blockbuster content delayed, Beijing-born Zhao's film captured the pandemic zeitgeist with its stunning portrait of the isolated margins of society.
"Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible. 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 is represented here tonight," said McDormand.
Zhao, who has drawn controversy in China after years-old interviews resurfaced in which she appeared to criticize her country of birth, also quoted classic Chinese poetry in her acceptance speech.
Hopkins' win at 83 for his shattering portrayal of a dementia sufferer in "The Father" makes him the oldest actor to win a competitive Oscar in history.
But he did not travel to Los Angeles or a London venue to accept the prize, and his victory, with no speech, made for a strange ending to the night.
The film, adapted by French playwright Florian Zeller from his own stage production, also won best adapted screenplay. Zeller accepted his award from Paris.
- 'Marching boots' -
Best supporting actress went to Youn Yuh-jung for Korean immigrant drama "Minari."
"How can I win over Glenn Close?" she said, acknowledging her fellow nominee, who has a joint-record eight acting nominations but no wins in her career.
Close made light of her latest loss for "Hillbilly Elegy" by sportingly joining in an unusual dance and music trivia segment late in a show that consistently tried to upend Oscar norms.
Supporting actor went to Daniel Kaluuya for his portrayal of slain 1960s Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah," which also won best song for multiple Grammy winner H.E.R.
References to racism and police violence were threaded throughout the show's speeches, starting with actor-director Regina King's opening monologue, in which she mentioned the conviction of a former police officer for the murder of African American man George Floyd.
"If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I may have traded in my heels for marching boots," she said.
"Promising Young Woman" won best original screenplay, the night's first award. Emerald Fennell, who was seven months pregnant when she shot the #MeToo revenge thriller, thanked her son who "did not arrive until a couple of weeks after shooting, thank God, because I was crossing my legs."
Netflix's "Mank" began the night with the most nominations -- 10 -- but ended up with two wins in technical categories, as did Amazon's "Sound of Metal" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
"Soul" became Pixar's latest Oscar winner for best animated feature, and also picked up best score, while South African aquatic wildlife feature "My Octopus Teacher" won best documentary.
- 'In the flesh' -
The 93rd Oscars began with a movie-style opening credits sequence, as King strode into the venue clutching a gold statuette.
"Live TV, here we go. Welcome to the 93rd Oscars!" she said.
"And, yes, we are doing it maskless... people have been vaxxed, tested, re-tested, socially distanced," she added, comparing the show to a movie set.
This year's Oscars arrived at their Union Station venue two months late due to the pandemic -- organizers have said it would have been "impossible" without the delay.
Before the show, stars paused briefly for pictures and socially distanced interviews on what organizers called a "teeny-tiny red carpet," where actresses Carey Mulligan and Andra Day dazzled fashion fans in Oscars gold.
An honorary award for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which has supported struggling actors and crew particularly during the pandemic, was awarded at the Oscars' traditional Hollywood theater base. Black entertainment mogul Tyler Perry was also honored.
But the bulk of the awards were handed out at the 1930s-built Union Station, chosen for its grand scale and outdoor courtyards, where white tents sheltering everything from Covid testing booths to catering were installed.
"We're here, isn't it crazy?" said best actor nominee and "Sound of Metal" star Riz Ahmed. "Human beings in the flesh!"