Oscars Are Full of ‘Oppenheimer’ Love, but ‘Barbie’ Can’t Be Denied

It may have only won one award, but Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster comedy was a constant presence at the 96th Oscars

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Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Gosling at the Oscars (Getty Images)

Most of the awards that were given out on the stage of the Dolby Theatre at Sunday night’s Academy Awards were predictable. But that doesn’t mean they were bad or unimaginative choices, because the 96th Academy Awards managed to stick to the script but also do a pretty good job of summing up a stormy year in Hollywood but a very good year for movies.

“Oppenheimer” was the big winner, of course, just as everybody thought it would be. But Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” snuck in and won a trio of tech awards and then a big Best Actress Oscar for Emma Stone that denied Lily Gladstone and left “Killers of the Flower Moon” with 10 nominations and zero wins. Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” added an entirely appropriate Best Sound award to go with the Best International Feature Film Oscar it was favored to win.

And the screenplay awards were a case study in how voters did what was expected but also managed to be very satisfying in the process: Best Original Screenplay went to “Anatomy of a Fall,” a thorny drama that mixed French and English dialogue and came out of the Cannes Film Festival; Best Adapted Screenplay went to “American Fiction,” a genre-hopping comedy from Cord Jefferson, a Black former journalist and TV writer who’d never before written and directed a movie. The latter award was in a category that also included “Oppenheimer,” meaning that this was the rare year in which the Best Picture winner did not also win a screenplay award.

But if “Poor Things,” “The Zone of Interest,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “American Fiction” helped round out what will go down in history as the “Oppenheimer” Oscars, you also have to give a big assist to “Barbie.” Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film only won one award, for Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s song “What Was I Made For?,” but it got constant shout-outs and delivered the show’s most elaborate performance, Ryan Gosling’s cast-of-thousands romp through “I’m Just Ken.”

But more than that, “Barbie” helped get “Oppenheimer” to the place where it could be a rare start-to-finish frontrunner at the Oscars. Part of what made Nolan’s three-hour drama a clear favorite was the fact that it managed to become something that brainy historical films rarely do: a pop culture phenomenon. And that was largely because it was released the same day as “Barbie” – what was probably envisioned as counter-programming on the part of Universal Pictures turned into the most unusual kind of symbiosis as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” became “Barbenheimer,” and seeing both movies became the thing to do.

If not for that, maybe Nolan’s film wouldn’t get off to the kind of start it did, and maybe it wouldn’t end up making more than $950 million and establishing itself as a formidable contender early enough for Universal to lay back during much of awards season.

It’s not that “Oppenheimer” wasn’t out there campaigning, but it could afford not to be as actively aggressive as some of its competitors were. If Nolan wasn’t as elusive as “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer, he remained toward the remote end of the Oscar campaign spectrum. (When there was a second bout of publicity for the film in December tied to its home video release, he stayed away from the awards press.)

But Nolan didn’t need to work it hard, because the film did the work for him by winning one precursor award after another. Few Best Picture winners in recent years have managed to be the frontrunner for the entire season – “Nomadland,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and not many others – but throughout the fall and winter months, no other film managed to make a serious run at the No. 1 spot as “Oppenheimer” won at the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards and then, crucially, the pivotal Directors Guild, Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

(The one major guild that might have put a dent in the impenetrable shell that “Oppenheimer” created was the Writers Guild Awards, but they delayed their show until mid April because of the strike and were out of the picture.)

So even though “Oppenheimer” didn’t win its first award until an hour and a half into Sunday’s ceremony, and even though it didn’t catch up to “Poor Things” in wins until the 2 hour and 10 minute mark, it won almost everything it was supposed to win and never felt like it was in danger of being upset in the big categories.

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Christopher Nolan backstage at the Oscars (Getty Images)

It didn’t put together the kind of sweep that many people expected, losing original screenplay and sound to give it the same number of wins, seven, that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” received last year. But it took over during the last hour of the show, winning in five of the last eight categories and only encountering some doubts when Al Pacino opened the final envelope and it wasn’t entirely certain whether he was announcing the winner or just rambling a bit.

That was the shakiest moment that “Oppenheimer” encountered in a ceremony that remained entertaining and at times moving, particularly in pointed speeches by Jonathan Glazer and “20 Days in Mariupol” documentary director Mstyslav Chernov. The show wasn’t four-time host Jimmy Kimmel’s best work, and it found voters once again reluctant to embrace a big emotional moment, in this case the historic one that would have come if Lily Gladstone had won Best Actress for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

And can we just ask: What’s your deal with Martin Scorsese, Oscar voters? The iconic filmmaker has now made three different movies that have gone o-for-10 at the Oscars: “Gangs of New York” in 2003, “The Irishman” in 2020 and now “Killers of the Flower Moon” this year. Only two other movies have hit that level of futility in the past, David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” while Herbert Ross’ “The Turning Point” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” are tied for the record with 0-for-11 nights in 1978 and 1986, respectively.

“Killers” wasn’t the only Best Picture nominee to be shut out, with Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” losing all in seven of its categories (including makeup, where it was favored to win) and Celine Song’s “Past Lives” falling short in Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, the two categories in which it was nominated.

And Netflix, which released “Maestro,” didn’t fare any better with its other feature nominees: “Rustin,” “Nyad,” “May December,” “Nimona,” “Society of the Snow,” “To Kill a Tiger,” “American Symphony” and “El Conde” all went home empty-handed, with Wes Anderson’s short “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” bringing the streamer its only win.

(Another streamer going all-in on movies, Apple, was shut out completely after getting 10 nominations for “Killers” and three for “Napoleon.”)

But shutouts are inevitable at the Oscars — and while the Gladstone loss stung the hardest, it’s impossible to deny the crazy glee of Stone’s “Poor Things” performance. And that win was in keeping with the tone of a show that got off to a late start but kept moving and probably did what the Academy wanted, which was to showcase a year of big movies and good movies.

Predictability may not be the most exciting virtue for an awards show, but in this case and at the end of this past year, the Oscars will take it. And “Oppenheimer” certainly will.

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