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Reel Talk

The Oscars’ Spectacle of Seriousness

The night saw a jarring dissonance between political statement and glitzy showmanship.

Al Seib/A.M.P.A.S./Getty Images
Cillian Murphy took home the award for best actor for his performance in “Oppenheimer.”

“The movies are just a little bit over 100 years old,” said Christopher Nolan while accepting his citation as best director at last night’s Academy Awards in Los Angeles—a precursor to the London-born filmmaker’s hugely admired (and box-office-busting) biography of the eponymous American nuclear physicist triumphing in the best picture category. “We don’t know where this incredible journey is going from here,” added Nolan. “But to know that you think I’m a meaningful part of it means the world to me.”

Magnanimity, gratitude, and self-aggrandizement are a tricky mix, but meticulous stitchwork is Nolan’s specialty; his speech, like his movie (which also scored a hugely deserved prize for its gifted editor, Jennifer Lame) threaded grandiose sentiment through a precise sense of posterity. Whether the gleaming, intricate contraption that is Oppenheimer is ultimately built to last—for a hundred years, or until its (anti)hero’s fateful prophecy of his own world-destroying virtuosity is realized—it’s surely one of the strongest Oscar winners of its era: probably the best piece of pure filmmaking to take home the top prize since Moonlight in 2017. It’s also the most commercially successful best picture winner since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which swept a ceremony so far away in time, space, and Hollywood history that it was presided over by a mugging, irresistible Billy Crystal.

Jimmy Kimmel is no Crystal, and he knows it: Hosting the Oscars for the fourth time, the long-tenured ABC late-night comedian not only leaned into his own perceived inadequacies—i.e., his almost total nonparticipation in the world of feature filmmaking—but got laughs by quoting his toughest critic in real time. “[Kimmel’s] opening was that of a less than average person trying too hard to be something which he is not, and never can be,” Kimmel giggled as he read aloud Donald Trump’s Truth Social post—a bit that set up the host’s only unscripted haymaker. “I’m surprised you’re still [watching],” Kimmel said, looking directly into the camera. “Isn’t it past your jail time?”

As provocations calibrated for a gigantic, cosmopolitan global viewership go, Kimmel’s jab was the epitome of low-risk, high-reward, and while—as per Trump’s post—he wasn’t particularly funny, either on book or off the cuff, he did a good job of orchestrating vaguely fatuous, cozily self-aggrandizing applause from the audience at the Kodak Theater. This included a long-winded bit skewering celebrity self-interest as a prelude to proudly proclaiming Los Angeles a “union town”—a reference to the SAG-AFTRA strikes that paralyzed the industry for months last year—and dragging Alabama Senator Katie Britt as an “adult lady with the brain of a child”—a nod to Yorgos Lanthimos’s grotesque Frankenstein-plus-feminism riff Poor Things, which picked up four Oscars as the main challenger to Oppenheimer. Elsewhere, the show’s producers made sure to pay tribute to the late Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who featured as the subject and namesake of last year’s best documentary honoree; this year’s winner, 20 Years in Mariupol, was greeted with thunderous applause as Ukrainian director Mstyslav Chernov called for Vladimir Putin to release “all the hostages, all the soldiers who are protecting their lands, all the civilians who are now in their jails.”

As political statements go Chernov was preaching to the proverbial choir, whereas Jonathan Glazer—the British director of the chilling Auschwitz-set drama The Zone of Interest, tapped for best foreign language film—was more or less taking his career in his hands when he directly invoked the ongoing violence in Gaza: the only winner to do so. “All our choices are made to reflect and confront us in the present,” said Glazer. “Not to say, ‘Look what they did then’; rather, ‘Look what we do now.’” Visibly trembling with what looked like anxious resolve, he referred to himself and his producer James Wilson as “men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” That Glazer’s careful phrasing was almost instantly misquoted (and demonized) by some commentators as an expression of self-loathing antisemitism was to be expected, as were complaints that the director “both-sided” the issue, but on a night when only a scattering of attendees quietly wore “Ceasefire” pins, his words carried a certain moral weight.

If the inherent incompatibility of spectacle and seriousness hadn’t already been driven home by having The Zone of Interest’s win announced by ex–pro wrestler The Rock and flamboyant rapper (and sometime pro wrestler) Bad Bunny, the tonal whiplash of going directly from Glazer’s speech to a lugubriously “playful” bit featuring Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling attempting to quash last summer’s Barbie-versus-Oppenheimer beef (while promoting their upcoming comedy The Fall Guy) was vertebra-cracking stuff.

Such cognitive dissonance demands a certain kind of let’s-get-on-with-the showmanship to paper over the cracks, and Gosling’s return a few segments later in a pink suit to sing Barbie’s aria of male inadequacy, “I’m Just Ken,” served as a sturdy monument to its own frivolity—and a reminder that Barbie, which made even more money than Oppenheimer, was, at least from a statistical point of view, one of the night’s two biggest losers, going one for eight on the strength of Billie Eilish’s comparatively low-key, piano-driven “What Was I Made For?” stealing best song from its livelier soundtrack companion.

Of course, the idea of a movie as successful and acclaimed as Barbie being a “loser” is relative, and ridiculous: Greta Gerwig’s slyly stylized and intermittently ingenious exercise in self-reflexive brand extension has its place in film history, with or without the externally imposed marketing gimmick of “Barbenheimer.” If anything, Barbie’s calculatedly bisected dramatic space, in which a pristine world of make-believe exists side by side with a deeply flawed, ideologically compromised reality, mines metaphorical territory that’s semi-adjacent to The Zone of Interest, whose Nazi protagonists remain fanatically committed to the idea of their “dream home.”

If there was a common theme to the films featured at this year’s Oscars, it was precisely this sort of psychic slippage, whether expressed through characters catching a glimpse of a broken world beyond their ostensible purview (Poor Things); ones ensnared within contentious cultural heritages (Past Lives, American Fiction); or else trying to reconcile their own internal and intrapersonal contradictions (Maestro and Anatomy of a Fall, which could have both been titled Scenes From a Marriage).

And then there was the evening’s other biggest “loser,” Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, jokingly dissed by Kimmel for being “too long” in an echo of every know-nothing social media complaint that the three-and-half-hour movie “needed editing” (despite being cut by veteran genius Thelma Schoonmaker) and, by the end of the night, emblematized by the close-but-no-cigar best actress candidacy of Lily Gladstone, who would have been the first Native American to claim that award but lost out, in a genuine upset, to Poor Things’ Emma Stone. When Stone’s name was announced, she looked genuinely shocked, unlike the expertly disingenuous reality-TV do-gooder she played on last year’s Showtime comedy The Curse: Given that show’s explicit satire of white hipsters calculatedly stealing Indigenous valor, Stone’s win had a surreal life-imitates-art quality exacerbated by the requisite deluge of social media memes.

In truth, Stone was a perfectly credible choice for best actress, just as she was in 2017 when she won for her chipper song-and-dance act in La La Land over Elle’s incandescently nasty Isabelle Huppert; in both cases, she’s had the misfortune of triumphing over a more potentially paradigm-shifting competitor. All the passionate, visceral impulses that Stone externalizes in Poor Things via her thrashing physicality and Monty Python–caliber silly walks are present in Gladstone’s acting as well, only internalized; on some level, both films are about a woman coming to realize that she’s being exploited by her partner, but where Poor Things opts for anachronistic, crowd-pleasing female empowerment, Killers of the Flower Moon honors a dark chapter in history by having Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart fall prey to the wolf in her fold, even as she recognizes it for what—and who—it is. Her tragic, soulful stillness is less obviously impressive than Stone’s whirligig shtick but it’s got layers; like the performance of her fellow runner-up Sandra Huller in Anatomy of the Fall (playing a woman who, depending on your view of the mystery plot, took a very different approach to marital discord)—and, while we’re at it, Stone’s own superior tour de force in The Curse—Gladstone’s acting will still matter in a few decades.

As for Scorsese—whom the camera caught tenderly kissing Gladstone on the cheek after her defeat—he sat quietly for the duration of the three-hour ceremony—far from the front row, and behind his old friend and contemporary Steven Spielberg, who was conspicuously involved in the proceedings, serving as the straight man in a convoluted gag involving Barbie’s Kate McKinnon and then getting up to hand Nolan his Oscar. Spielberg was also on hand in 2007 when, along with his fellow New Hollywood titans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, he bestowed Scorsese with his first—and only—best director Oscar for The Departed. At the time, the feeling was that Scorsese needed to win for that shallow but entertaining exercise in cops-and-robbers metaphysics lest he end his career empty-handed; the joke is that since then, he’s been nominated four more times for films that represent some of his best work—including The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon, which both went zero for 10.

The coda of Killers, in which Scorsese appears as himself, humbly but daringly destroying the fourth wall, was the year’s most memorable moment; by so brazenly questioning his movie’s place in history, the director solidified it. As far as 2024 goes, Christopher Nolan belonged on the stage. Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, belongs somewhere better.