The Oscars Are Confused About “Barbie”

It was the biggest hit of the summer. Then it was the biggest hit of the year. It was a blockbuster so gigantic—crowd-pleasing, artful, a triumph for its young director—that it changed what the movie business thought it knew about making money. But it was more than a movie: it was a pop-cultural phenomenon, the mother of a million marketing tie-ins, and its runaway success seemed to say something about the troubled America from which it sprang. When Oscar season came, it was nominated for Best Picture—but its director was snubbed. The movie was “Jaws,” from 1975. You can still watch the pipsqueak Steven Spielberg ogling the television on the morning of the nominations and gawking in disbelief as his presumed Best Director spot goes to Federico Fellini, for “Amarcord.” “I didn’t get it!” he cries, his face pressed into his fists.

Granted, the competition was stiff. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was also a box-office hit (though nowhere near “Jaws”) and had all the hallmarks of New Hollywood prestige, including an auteur director (Miloš Forman), a rambunctious lead performance (Jack Nicholson), and an anti-authoritarian spirit that refracted the Watergate era. Both were up against such stone-cold classics as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Nashville,” and “Barry Lyndon.” On Oscar night, “Cuckoo’s Nest” made a clean sweep of the major categories. “Jaws” won three of its four nominations, for its score, its editing, and its sound. But its trio of lead actors—Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw—whose performances are now burnished in the popular imagination, were, like Spielberg, not nominated. The Oscars had all but whiffed on the biggest movie of the year. Now a fibreglass shark hangs in the Academy Museum, as if to apologize for the oversight.

On Tuesday morning, a new round of Oscar nominations came out, with decidedly mixed results for the biggest movie of last year, “Barbie.” It got eight nominations—twice as many as “Jaws”—including for Best Picture. Two of its actors were nominated in supporting categories: Ryan Gosling, as Ken, and, in a surprise, America Ferrera, as Gloria, a frustrated working mom who delivers a searing monologue about the contradictions of modern womanhood. Two of its songs, “I’m Just Ken” and “What Was I Made For?,” made the Best Original Song list, and it was honored for its costume and production design, and for its screenplay, by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. But the absences are glaring. Gerwig, like Spielberg, was left off the directing list, and the film’s title star, Margot Robbie, wasn’t nominated for Best Actress.

Before the nominations, there were whispers that snobbery would derail the film’s Oscar hopes, but the results show some puzzlement on the part of Academy voters. “Barbie” was far from ignored, but overlooking the two women who were its driving creative forces is a curious way to match nominations to achievement. The movie’s unlikely twin, “Oppenheimer,” had no such gaps: it got thirteen nominations, the most of any film, and is in prime position to win many of them, including Best Picture, Best Director (Christopher Nolan), and Best Actor (Cillian Murphy). Like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Oppenheimer” is both a critical darling and a box-office smash—“Barbie” is, too, but “Oppenheimer” looks a lot more like a traditional Oscar winner. It’s about a real historical figure; it has obvious gravitas; and it’s made by and about men. In other words, it doesn’t have jokes, and it’s not pink.

As with the 1976 roster, you could point to the competition to explain the discrepancies. The directing nominees include a living legend (Martin Scorsese, for “Killers of the Flower Moon”) and, thank God, aren’t all male, thanks to Justine Triet (“Anatomy of a Fall”). The Best Actress list is full of heavy hitters, including the presumed front-runners, Lily Gladstone (“Killers”) and Emma Stone (“Poor Things”). But “Barbie” seemed designed to trip up the Academy, which has traditionally shortchanged comedies. It’s a weird, brainy art film and a gag-filled megahit with masturbation puns—part “Poor Things,” part “Elf.” And yet, by melding the two, Gerwig gave Hollywood the fresh product that it needed after decades of superhero tentpoles. Robbie, who was also one of the film’s producers (and is therefore nominated for Best Picture), embodied a living, learning doll with humor and complexity—though she didn’t have the scene-stealing moments that Gosling and Ferrera did. Still, is it even “Barbie” without her?

The Oscars’ ambivalence toward blockbusters dates back to its start. The first Academy Awards, in 1929, had two top prizes: Outstanding Picture, which went to the war epic “Wings,” and Unique and Artistic Picture, which went to F. W. Murnau’s psychodrama “Sunrise.” In the near-century since, the Academy has grappled with the sometimes contradictory lures of art and commerce. Only rarely does a single movie satisfy both. “Titanic,” which won the top prize in 1998, was a historical romance, an action movie, a technical breakthrough, and a global sensation, all in one. (Its leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, was not nominated, nor was he honored this year for “Killers.”) Thanks to the film’s world-conquering popularity, the Oscar ceremony that year scored the highest ratings in its history.

But the Academy is rarely that lucky. In 2009, Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” failed to make the Best Picture list, and soon after the Academy expanded the category from five nominees to as many as ten, hoping that the wider window might make room for Batman and his brethren. It didn’t quite work out that way. More often, the additional slots made room for small indie movies, giving worthy visibility to those films while doing little to spur the ceremony’s sagging viewership. In 2018, the Academy floated the idea of a new award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, but the notion quickly got laughed off the stage. (The Golden Globes put it into practice this year, with an award for Cinematic and Box Office Achievement—and it went to “Barbie.”) In 2021—the pandemic Oscars—Hollywood had postponed many of its big-studio movies, and people weren’t exactly in the mood for awards shows. The winner was “Nomadland,” a small film about a woman who lives in a van. It was the lowest-rated ceremony ever.

Since then, the industry has been on unsteady ground, with the rise of streaming, last year’s dual strikes, and a dependence on endless, exhausted franchises. The Barbenheimer juggernaut, last summer, was a beacon of hope—people were going to the movies! And not for Marvel! And both of the films were actually good! It was inevitable that the Oscars would burnish the phenomenon with awards, and perhaps even benefit in the ratings from the inclusion of two such popular movies. But the conflicting results for “Barbie” show that the Oscars are as confused as ever about what to do with a big, fun, smart, populist megahit. Maybe in fifty years the Academy Museum will hang a Barbie doll from the ceiling. ♦

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