The Fever Dream of Barbenheimer
Fans loved them both. In the end, voters favored one
As the dust settled following this morning’s announcement of nominees for the 96th Academy Awards, the unexpected movie phenomenon of 2023 — a potential rivalry that turned into a mutual admiration society — came to an anticlimactic end. Christopher Nolan’s magisterial Oppenheimer emerged the prohibitive best picture Oscar favorite as it collected 13 nominations, while Greta Gerwig’s magical Barbie, stumbling in a couple of key categories, racked up eight noms, with only a best song win (since it’s been nominated for two of its tunes) looking like a pre-ordained victory when the Oscars are handed out on March 10.
Remember when the two films first hit theaters back on July 21: Some cynics suggested Warners purposely slated Barbie against Oppenheimer in retaliation for Nolan taking his latest film to rival Universal. But the two directors graciously embraced the TikTok frenzy that surrounded what effectively became a virtual double feature, with Gerwig encouraging her pink-clad fans to check out both movies and Nolan saying he planned to see Barbie as well. And ultimately both movies prospered at the box office: Oppenheimer went on to gross $953 million worldwide, a fortune for a cerebral thriller, while Barbie danced its way to $1.4 billion dollars to become the top-grossing film of 2023 (and in fact in the history of Warner Brothers).
Now, on one hand, the fact that two hugely popular films are major players at the 96th Oscars is good news for the Academy as it tries to attract more than the 18.75 million viewers who watched last year’s ceremony to next month’s show. But, since there can only be one winner per category, it also set up a contest in which one set of fans — whether the Nolan loyalists or the Barbie enthusiasts — would ultimately be disappointed.
But for the Barbie contingent, that disappointment has now already set in, even before the ultimate winners are revealed, since Gerwig — a previous best director nominee for 2017’s Lady Bird — was shut out of this year’s best director noms. The Academy did save itself from the uproar that would have resulted if the category had included no women by including Anatomy of a Fall’s Justine Triet, who’ll be competing against Nolan, Killers of the Flower Moon’s Martin Scorsese, Poor Things’ Yorgos Lanthimos and The Zone of Interest’s Jonathan Glazer. And Gerwig did earn an adapted screenplay nom along with her husband and writing partner Noah Baumbach. Still, her directing snub rankled many as posters on X quickly recycled a meme in which the movie’s Ryan Gosling, nominated in the supporting actor category, appears to be giving the Academy the side-eye.
Further alienating the Barbie crowd, the Academy also failed to reward the movie’s star Margot Robbie — a two-time acting nominee for 2017’s I, Tonya and 2019’s Bombshell — a best actress nomination. Instead, the five slots in that category went to Nyad’s Annette Bening, Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone, Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Huller, Maestro’s Carey Mulligan and Poor Things’ Emma Stone. Robbie did still earn a ticket to the Dolby Theatre, though, since she is nominated as one of the producers of best picture contender Barbie.
In addition to best picture, Oppenheimer and Barbie are now set to face off in five other categories. Both films figured in the supporting actor race, where Barbie’s America Ferrera and Oppenheimer’s Emily Blunt will contest with The Color Purple’s Danielle Brooks, Nyad’s Jodie Foster and the current favorite, The Holdovers’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph. And both also showed up in the best supporting actor list, where it’s Barbie’s Gosling and Oppenheimer’s Robert Downey Jr. versus American Fiction’s Sterling K. Brown, Killers of the Flower Moon’s Robert De Niro and Poor Things’ Mark Ruffalo. And there will also be Barbie-Oppenheimer showdowns in adapted screenplay, costume and production design.
But Barbie has only one category, best original song, where it’s free of Oppenheimer’s shadow — best original song, where both Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s “What Was I Made For?” and Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt’s “I’m Just Ken” are nominated.
Meanwhile, Oppenheimer showed up in seven categories where it doesn’t have to contend with Barbie. In addition to director, they include adapted cinematography, editing, music, sound and make-up and hairstyling. And in best actor, Oppenheimer’s Cillian Murphy enters the field alongside American Fiction’s Jeffrey Wright, The Holdover’s Paul Giamatti, Maestro’s Bradley Cooper and Rustin’s Colman Domingo. (Conspicuously absent was Killers’ Leonardo DiCaprio.)
To be sure, Oppenheimer and Barbie aren’t the only game in town. Poor Things, the imaginative tale of a woman discovering herself, amassed an impressive 11 nominations, and Killers of the Flower Moon, which recounts the atrocities visited upon the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma, was close behind with 10 noms. With Oppenheimer, Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon and Barbie leading the way, the 10 best picture nominees also encompassed American Fiction, The Holdovers, Maestro and Past Lives, plus two international features, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest. And while Gerwig’s best director snub is sure to kick up lots of complaints, the Academy could console itself with the fact that, in its push for diversity, three films directed by women did make it into best picture contention: Barbie, Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall and Celine Song’s Past Lives.
Still, while the Academy has made strides in recent years in recruiting more women members, it remains a male-dominated organization. And while percentages vary by branch, overall, as of a 2022 accounting, the Academy remained 67 percent male, a stat that could leave a girl-power movie like Barbie at a disadvantage as the final voting begins — especially given the backlash in some quarters that accused Barbie of being anti-male.
As possible scenarios play themselves out, Oppenheimer, while it faces stiff competition in a lot of categories, could well prove to be the big winner at the Oscars, going home with a clutch of trophies, while Barbie may have to settle for just a best song prize. So sayonara, Barbenheimer. At the end of the day, it looks as if the Academy is poised to treat Oppenheimer like one of those Great-Men-of-History Oscar contenders in the tradition of best picture winners like 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1970’s Patton and 1982’s Gandhi, while it regards Barbie, for all of that movie’s underlying seriousness as, well, just fun.