Oppenheimer’s Big Night

Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023)

Wrapping just twenty-three minutes past the three-hour mark and offering a few laughs, a few tears, and a dab of political tension, this year’s Oscars ceremony had the Guardian calling it the “most watchable” in years. There were, however, very few surprises. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was expected to dominate the evening, and it did, and many thought Ryan Gosling just might bring down the house with a pinktastic rendition of “I’m Just Ken”—and he did.

The only major upset wasn’t all that upsetting to most morning-after commentators. Emma Stone wowed the critics when Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things premiered in Venice last fall, and her portrayal of a woman with a child’s mind won her a second Best Actress Oscar, bringing the film’s total for the evening to four. “Stone’s flamboyant, theatrical performance in Poor Things is exactly the kind that the Oscars tend to reward,” writes Slate’s Sam Adams, “and she’d been considered the favorite until losing to [Lily] Gladstone at the Screen Actors Guild Awards two weeks back. So it’s hard to be shocked—although quite easy to be disappointed—at the Academy favoring her over the quiet strength of Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Few were disappointed, though, as it became clear that the night belonged to Oppenheimer. “For all the talk that he makes unemotional movies and is rather chilly himself—both accusations foolish, by the way—it was deeply cheering to see Christopher Nolan, finally winning his first Oscar, for Best Director, get just a bit teary-eyed during his speech,” writes Tim Grierson for RogerEbert.com. “Likewise, the love shown to Oppenheimer producer Emma Thomas (who is also Nolan’s wife) by the film’s many winners was a reminder that Barbie and Poor Things aren’t the only positive stories of empowered female heroes we have.”

“Since his breakthrough Memento (2000),” wrote Niles Schwartz for the Point last summer, “Nolan has followed, sometimes with a too-heavy hand, the recurring theme of how we dissociate from the truth of our lives in order to endure (Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception, and certainly his three Batman films). With Oppenheimer this idea finds the subject he’s always been reaching for.”

Assessing Oppenheimer’s wins—which included Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), Best Cinematography (Hoyte van Hoytema), and Best Original Score (Ludwig Göransson)—Vulture’s Nate Jones agrees: “While his previous films brought to mind a clever schoolboy doodling on graph paper, Oppenheimer saw Nolan imbue his peculiar obsessions—fractured timelines, showstopping set pieces, dead paramours returning from the grave—with real thematic weight. The birth of the military industrial complex, the sociopolitical shift from war to Cold War, the price of colluding with power: It was all there.”

Gosling may have brought the crowd to its feet, but with their heart-rending performance of “What Was I Made For?,” Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, proved that the Academy gave the award for Best Original Song to the right number from Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. The evening began with a moment even more moving when Da’Vine Joy Randolph accepted her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. “You know you’ve delivered an Oscars speech for the history books when your fellow nominees are getting teary,” writes the Atlantic’s Shirley Li.

Wes Anderson won his first-ever Oscar when Best Live-Action Short Film went to The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Another Criterion favorite, Godzilla, had also never won an Oscar before Sunday night, when Best Visual Effects went to the Godzilla Minus One team, Takashi Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takahashi, and Tatsuji Nojima. With The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki won a second Oscar for Best Animated Feature; the first was for Spirited Away back in 2003.

Cord Jefferson drew cheers when, accepting his award for Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction, he urged the industry to take a few more risks. “Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making twenty $10 million movies,” he suggested. Best Original Screenplay went to Justine Triet and Arthur Harari for Anatomy of Fall, starring Sandra Hüller—who was brought to tears not by this win but by Jonathan Glazer’s speech when The Zone of Interest won Best International Feature.

“Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst,” said Glazer as producers James Wilson and Len Blavatnik stood firmly behind him. “Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.” The speech has drawn both severe criticism and praise, but Glazer is hardly the first to make the connection between his film and the world’s response to the current crisis. Both David Klion in the New York Times and Sophie Monks Kaufman at Hazlitt have outlined it with sobering clarity.

Accepting the Best Documentary Oscar for 20 Days in Mariupol, journalist and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov drew attention to another deadly and ongoing war. “This is the first Oscar in the Ukrainian history,” he said. “And I am honored. But probably I will be the first director on this stage who will say I wish I had never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this to Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities. I wish to give all the recognition to Russia not killing tens of thousands of my fellow Ukrainians.”

Proving that politics can also make for levity, Jimmy Kimmel read out a fresh pan of his performance as the host of the evening. “Thank you, President Trump,” smiled Kimmel. “I’m surprised you’re watching. Isn’t it past your jail time?”

Even before the first award was presented, Kimmel called for “a very deserved round of applause for the people who work behind the scenes, the Teamsters, the truck drivers, the lighting crew, sound, camera, gaffers, grips, all the people who refused to cross the picket lines” during the writers and actors’ strikes. “And also, we want you to know, in your upcoming negotiations we will stand with you, too.” Contracts between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Teamsters, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the Hollywood Basic Crafts will expire on July 31.

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