At the “Oppenheimer” Oscars, Hollywood Went in Search of Lost Time

This wasn’t the first year that the Academy Awards fell on the second Sunday in March, forcing the good citizens of Hollywood to manage their hair appointments and limousine pickups around the annual scourge that is daylight-saving time. Even so, the ninety-sixth annual Oscars ceremony wrought more than its expected share of havoc on schedules. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hoping to broaden its reach among those with strict curfews and short attention spans, opted to kick off the show at the previously unheard-of time of 4 P.M. Or, as this year’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, quipped in his opening monologue, “The show, as you know, is starting an hour early this year, but don’t worry. It will still end very, very late.”

Such temporal dislocation was surely a good omen, not that any were needed, for Christopher Nolan and “Oppenheimer.” Nolan’s films, after all, are nothing if not laments for lost time, composed in bravura bursts of chronological anarchy. In his early calling-card classic, “Memento” (2000), the noirish plot runs both backward and sideways; in his virtuosic Second World War thriller, “Dunkirk” (2017), three splintered time lines duck and weave and occasionally do battle, as if the perils of military combat had caused linearity itself to become unmoored. Most magnificently disorienting of all is the science-fiction epic “Interstellar” (2014), in which a team of astronauts slip through a wormhole for a few hours and emerge to find that twenty-three years of Earth time have passed. Applying the same math, one could theoretically plow through ninety-six years of Academy Awards history in about thirteen hours—which, for many viewers, is about how long the average Oscars ceremony feels anyway.

By comparison, the structural loop-the-loops of “Oppenheimer” are mildly taxing at best, and this, I suspect, is why the film has fared so well with critics, audiences, and now Academy members. Even as it hopscotches across several decades in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist now remembered as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Nolan’s movie is propelled into coherence by its moral urgency, its sombre subject, and, above all, the intellectual brio and emotional subtlety of Cillian Murphy’s performance in the title role, for which he won Best Actor. In all, “Oppenheimer” won seven prizes on Sunday night, including Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Picture—a climax that not even Al Pacino’s chaotic fumble of a presentation could keep from feeling like the most foregone of conclusions.

Nolan himself won his first statuette for Best Director, which he received from a quietly beaming Steven Spielberg, almost exactly thirty years after the latter won his first directing Oscar. Spielberg accepted that honor for “Schindler’s List,” a Second World War drama that holds up something of a cracked mirror to “Oppenheimer.” Both films conferred a long-overdue sense of artistic prestige on their makers, and both won seven Oscars apiece. But where Spielberg’s Holocaust-survival story insists on the presence of unaccountable goodness amid indescribable evil, Nolan’s darkly despairing bio-pic paints its subject as the most tarnished of Allied antiheroes: here is a man we remember not (only) for the many lives he saved but also for the apocalyptic horror he unleashed upon the world.

Was the “Oppenheimer” sweep too much? From a symbolic standpoint, no. If Nolan’s movies embody a quest for lost time, the sustained spotlight on this one nonetheless has compelled us, poignantly, toward a stubborn sense of time regained. After several years’ worth of finer-grained, smaller-scaled Best Picture winners—“Moonlight” (2016), “Parasite” (2019), and “Nomadland” (2020) being by far the best of the lot—the love for “Oppenheimer” nods aggressively to a bygone Hollywood heyday, when the Oscars were often dominated by supersized epics with grand themes, star-laden ensembles, and lustrous celluloid photography (a virtue that the film’s winning cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, took pains to remind us of). Despite a pack-leading thirteen nominations, “Oppenheimer” fell well short of the staggering eleven-trophy hauls of earlier blockbusters like “Titanic” (1997) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). Still, it’s the closest thing to a throwback triumph that the Hollywood studios, or what remains of them, have managed to engineer in ages. After the near-consecutive deprivations of first the pandemic and then last year’s writers’ and actors’ strikes, there was something comforting about the Academy’s desire to recognize a brainy blockbuster for a change—a much-needed reminder, if only for one last gasp, of what it means to see the genius of the system at work.

Much like “Oppenheimer” itself, the Oscars ceremony strove, and sometimes strained, to reclaim a vanished semblance of Hollywood grandeur. Leagues away from the disastrous ceremony of 2022, which booted several award categories from the live telecast in the misguided pursuit of higher ratings, this year’s ceremony leaned unabashedly into old-school Oscariness. And so here was Kimmel, merrily embracing his fourth stint as Academy Awards m.c. and self-designated movie philistine, gently poking (but not puncturing) a few movie-star egos while reserving his harshest contempt for that most tired of targets, the three-hour-and-twenty-six-minute running time of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Here, too, were lavish musical numbers, courtesy of the five Best Original Song nominees, none more breathily heart-stopping than Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s performance of “What Was I Made For?,” from “Barbie,” and none more extravagantly showstopping than “I’m Just Ken,” also from “Barbie.” Led by a prettiest-in-pink Ryan Gosling, surrounded by tuxedo-clad Kens as far as the eye could see, the number wasn’t just more than Kenough; it was positively Kenormous, even Kenervating, a full-blown Kendorsement that, had it been held for even a beat longer, might have stumbled into irreversible Kentropy.

In keeping with the general throwback vibes, the Academy revived the lovely if time-consuming tradition of having the acting awards presented by not one but five prior winners. Hence the warm spectacle of Cillian Murphy earnestly shaking hands with Forest Whitaker, Ben Kingsley, Brendan Fraser, Matthew McConaughey, and Nicolas Cage, while, in a cringier exchange, Robert Downey, Jr., shook hands with Tim Robbins, fist-bumped Sam Rockwell, and barely made eye contact with last year’s winner, Ke Huy Quan, who eagerly pressed the statuette into Downey’s grasp. In some ways, the most graceful handoff was managed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who got the show off to a thoroughly unsurprising but emotionally soaring start with her Best Supporting Actress speech, for “The Holdovers.” More of a shocker, for some, was Emma Stone’s Best Actress win for the deranged comic fantasy “Poor Things.” That movie placed second to “Oppenheimer,” with four awards, including Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design. This last was presented by a nearly nude John Cena, in a cheeky nod to the infamous streaker incident at the Oscars, fifty years ago—a nice touch in a show unafraid to acknowledge its own history.

But what of the history that the Academy has yet to make? Stone’s win—her second in the lead-actress category, after her victory for “La La Land” (2016)—disappointed those who had been rooting for Lily Gladstone to become the first Native American performer to win a lead-acting Oscar, on the strength of her subtly forceful work in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” But, despite an impressive ten Oscar nominations, “Killers” became the latest Martin Scorsese epic—after “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Silence” (2016), and “The Irishman” (2019)—to leave the Oscars empty-handed. It was a gloomy reminder that Scorsese, for all his acclaim, has long been regarded as an outsider to the Hollywood establishment that this year’s awards sought to celebrate. But Stone’s win was not unexpected (she won Best Actress at the British Academy Film Awards last month) and the strong showing for “Poor Things”—a Greek director’s adaptation of a Scottish novel, made by British and Irish production companies and set in fanciful Victorian renderings of London, Lisbon, Paris, and Alexandria—may also augur something broader than mere Scorsese indifference. It was a sign, and to my eyes a wholly welcome one, that the Academy, having taken vital steps in recent years to diversify its membership, is consequently a more global organization than ever.

There have been signs of this international progression all along, none more exhilarating than the Best Picture victory of the Korean thriller “Parasite,” four years ago. But there were other clues on Sunday night, for those who knew where to look for them. There was the Best Original Screenplay win for the knotty, mostly French-language drama “Anatomy of a Fall,” closing a mighty awards run that began with its Palme d’Or victory, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. There was also the Best Animated Feature victory for “The Boy and the Heron,” the latest from the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, in a mild upset over a heavily favored American hit, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” There was the Best Documentary Feature category, which was dominated by overseas productions to a seemingly unprecedented degree, and which conferred its top prize on the vital, intensely harrowing “20 Days in Mariupol.” That movie’s Ukrainian-born director, Mstyslav Chernov, delivered one of the few extraordinary speeches of the evening, expressing his wish that he’d never had to make his movie in the first place, and also his hope that “the people of Mariupol and those who’ve given their lives will never be forgotten, because cinema forms memories, and memory forms history.”

A similar sentiment informed the night’s other towering speech, and the only one that even remotely threatened to shake either the audience or the Academy out of their semi-nostalgic stupor. The orator was not Nolan, who, along with most of his fellow “Oppenheimer” winners, largely sidestepped the issues of nuclear warfare that their movie has helped to reawaken. I’m speaking of the British-born director Jonathan Glazer, accepting the Best International Feature award, for “The Zone of Interest,” his pitiless and mesmerizing indictment of a Nazi family living, in monstrous comfort, next door to the Auschwitz death camp. No better movie was nominated for an Oscar this year, and no movie was more profoundly attuned to its brutal offscreen implications. And Glazer, a movie-industry outsider to make Scorsese look like Spielberg, used his moment of victory to render, in bluntly explicit terms, a moral argument that his movie had already laid out with quiet clarity.

Connecting the conflagrations of the Holocaust to those now ravaging the Middle East, he condemned “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.” His words generated some applause, though it sounded fairly tepid to my ears. For all the guests in attendance who had fastened red pins to their formalwear in support of a Gaza ceasefire, I couldn’t help but think of the many more who had likely dodged or tuned out the pro-Palestinian protesters who had gathered mere hours before outside the theatre and brought traffic on Hollywood Boulevard to a halt. I suspect that, at least within the auditorium, Glazer’s speech, and perhaps even his movie, provoked a similarly weak range of responses: irritation at best and indifference at worst.

“The Zone of Interest” is hardly the first movie to prove too good for the Oscars, or to shame, upstage, and finally transcend the glossy rituals of awards season. But its mere presence on the Dolby Theatre stage provided a welcome if dissonant reminder that, as the Academy becomes more global—in its membership and in the range of films it considers—it will be increasingly hard-pressed to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the real world that lies beyond Hollywood. That may be another reason that, in the end, it felt so goofily right to honor Nolan at this year’s Oscars. Progress may be frustratingly slow, even to the point of seeming to run in reverse, but it’s always only a matter of time. ♦

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