Oscars, Torn Between Past and Present, Still Had Some Fun

Oscars, Torn Between Past and Present, Still Had Some Fun

Last year may have been the year of “Barbenheimer,” but this year’s Academy Awards will henceforth be known as the “Oppenbarbie” Oscars. There was plenty of bubble-gum pink to go around, but the 96th Academy Awards effectively belonged to Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” his magisterial biographical portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. The Times’s chief film critic, Manohla Dargis, and its movie critic, Alissa Wilkinson, discuss the show, the awards, the snubs, the jeers and, yes, even movies.

MANOHLA DARGIS The movies are back … again! The survival of the medium often feels like a worrying message at the Oscars, but last night’s show felt particularly — and genuinely — ebullient. Attendees are always jazzed to be there, but you could feel the happiness radiating off people, even on TV. Or maybe it was relief. The industry is still struggling in the wake of last year’s strikes by the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA, which effectively shut it down for about a half a year even as it was still trying to recover from the pandemic.

It’s no wonder attendees couldn’t stop jumping up to give themselves standing ovations. And while there were memorable moments — the shout-out to Yoko Ono, the close-ups of Messi the dog — I was especially pleased when the host Jimmy Kimmel asked the room to join him in giving a hosanna to the industry’s below-the-line workers, or as he said: “The Teamsters, the truck drivers, the lighting crew, sound, camera, gaffers, grips — that’s right, all the people who refused to cross the picket line.” The very same folks who may soon be on strike if their negotiations go badly. Solidarity, but also fingers crossed! How did it play on your TV?

ALISSA WILKINSON I laughed. A lot! Usually my Oscar night is full of groans and eye rolls — remember the “cheer-worthy moment” poll of 2022? Or exhausting monologue vamps on how nobody saw any of the nominees? — but I was genuinely tickled by the bits and the jokes, by John Cena’s perfectly hammy reluctant streaker bit and John Mulaney’s breathless recap of the entire plot of “Field of Dreams.” I loved all the backup Kens, dressed up to pay tribute to “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in a number full of Busby Berkeley references, and I found the introduction of acting nominees by past winners genuinely moving.

The Oscars are always partly about connecting Hollywood’s present to its past, reminding us that there’s a rich history behind every movie and every nominee. That feels more important than ever right now, in an era when streaming makes it feel like you can watch anything you want at any time, and yet an increasing number of people consider any movie made before the 1990s to be absurdly obscure, the realm of film snobs only. In several of the most memorable moments — including the streaker gag, which referred to something that happened at the 1974 Oscars — it felt like the ceremony was reaching backward as well as looking forward. What do you make of that subtle tug in both directions?

DARGIS The Oscars invariably try to do that, partly, I think, because that reflex is built into these kinds of awards shows. There can be a kind of strategically nostalgic quality to the Academy Awards in particular, with its ritualistic nods to Hollywood’s golden age. If that impulse to look back and forward felt stronger this year, as you note, I imagine that people are grateful to be back at work doing what they love, paying their rent and buying groceries. The median salary in 2021, as SAG-AFTRA reminded us during the strike, was $46,960.

This year, though, the looks back felt less nostalgic and more like a declaration of faith for movies as movies, i.e., work that you see in theaters and that was sometimes shot on film, as the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema more or less said when he picked up his award for shooting “Oppenheimer.” That’s one reason having five past Oscar winners help present the acting awards worked so well. I mean, what’s not to like when Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker take the stage together, and shine their weird charisma on the room? Having performers like Mary Steenburgen — who won her best supporting statuette for “Melvin and Howard” (1980) — also created a continuity and, by extension, a sense of history that tends to be missing in an industry dedicated to the next possibly big thing.

You know what also felt old, but not in a good way? The academy’s hostility toward Martin Scorsese!

WILKINSON Exhausting! Though I guess he’s probably used to it by now. Scorsese is among the greatest living directors, practically defining a full half-century of American cinema, and yet he’s been honored exactly once by the academy, when they handed him an Oscar in 2006 for directing “The Departed.” Academy members have since shown that they love to nominate Scorsese’s films (five for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 10 for “The Irishman”) but prefer to send the statuette elsewhere. And “Killers of the Flower Moon,” recipient of 10 nominations of its own — and the movie we both chose as the best of 2023 — went home empty-handed.

For an awards body known for giving out trophies to terrible performances because it “just seemed like it was their time,” this whole thing is baffling. There are some possible explanations. Maybe the tiresome discourse about how long “Killers” is got to some academy members. (Also the source of Kimmel’s worst joke of the night.) Maybe people assume everyone else is voting for him. Maybe they just don’t like the movies, though the nominations suggest otherwise. Scorsese also makes it look easy, so perhaps he’s not as memorable as others on the list. It’s an oft-repeated dictum that the academy likes to reward the “most” of something rather than the “best” of something: the most acting, the most editing and perhaps the most directing, too. I have no beef with Nolan’s wins, but I sure would like to see Scorsese get the accolades he so richly deserves. (I’m sure someone on the internet will attribute it to his comments about Marvel movies, but in that room, I doubt that’s the issue.)

One of the “Killers” nominations was for “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People),” which was performed onstage. Its lyrics are in Osage, which was one example of the academy paying attention to non-English-language and international films — three of the 10 best picture contenders, and all of the documentary nominees, plus the winning original screenplay for “Anatomy of a Fall” demonstrate the growing international membership of the academy. Do you think that will have an effect going forward at the Oscars?

DARGIS The international push is only going to intensify, partly because of the academy’s diversification efforts, but also because of the industry’s bottom line. For some time now — at least until the pandemic hit — the international box office has accounted for at least half of the industry’s overall take. “Barbie” made a staggering $1.4 billion globally, and more than half of that was from foreign markets. This year won’t be as eye-popping partly because, post-strikes, so many release dates have been delayed, but the trend will continue, as it should.

It was disappointing, then, that some members of the documentary branch carped earlier this year that there were no American movies nominated. I understand that there’s great unease throughout the field because the marketplace has been so miserable the last few years. But I can’t get behind the idea floated in Variety by a producer that the absence of American documentaries this year essentially serves as any kind of setback to the overall field. Movies like Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol,” about the siege of the titular Ukrainian city — which won best documentary feature — aren’t putting American filmmakers back into “a ghetto,” as this producer put it. Awards to movies like “Mariupol” make the academy seem less parochial. Also, it is a great movie.

Chernov’s acceptance speech was one of the most moving of the evening, and one of the most openly political. It was striking in its directness … unlike those little red buttons that attendees were wearing. I had to look up what they were (talk about performative)!

WILKINSON The other really political speech, of course, was Jonathan Glazer’s, as he accepted the best international feature award for “The Zone of Interest.” He seemed nervous, but was also the only winner to speak up about his views on the Israel-Hamas war — and, frankly, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t. He’s been clear all season that he sees his movie, which dramatizes humans’ ability to look away from suffering and evil through a very real atrocity, as speaking directly to the present-day conflict. It’s been a topic few people have wanted to touch throughout awards season, and he went there.

In fact, everything we’ve been discussing leaves me thinking about this year’s Oscars in a new light. It felt to me like many of the movies were in harmony with the kind of existential questions that the industry has to grapple with at this moment. What is the filmmaker’s responsibility when it comes to geopolitical situations? Are the decision makers really paying attention to the repercussions of their decisions? Will the industry prioritize machine-generated “content” over human-created art? And what are movies actually for, at the end of the day?

In a year of big hits and little stunners, as well as major flops and heated disputes, it’s kind of amazing that the show felt as seamless as it did. But I wonder if we’ll look back on these Oscars as representing a major inflection point in Hollywood.

DARGIS I wonder, too — I mean, the relationship between the Oscars and the American movie industry has always been pretty fantastical and aspirational. Every year, the academy tries in its sometimes absurd, admittedly cynical though often quite sincere way to put on a show that reflects the industry at its best. Once upon a Hollywood time, that meant a parade of glamorous, overwhelmingly white people under contract at the big studios; increasingly, though, that show telegraphs a vision of a movie world — both in its presenters and in the cutaways to the audience — at its most accepting, diverse, inclusive and maybe indie- minded.

That isn’t a bad vision to beam out to millions of moviegoers across our ever-smaller world. When Chernov accepted his Oscar, he certainly reminded us of one purpose that movies “serve”: “We can make sure that the history record is set straight and that the truth will prevail and that the people of Mariupol and those who have given their lives will never be forgotten, because cinema forms memories, and memories form history.” Hear! Hear!

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