Are the Oscars Destined to Disappoint Us?

The 2024 Oscars went almost exactly as expected. Oppenheimer swept, winning seven of the 13 awards it was nominated for—including Best Picture, Best Director (Christopher Nolan), Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr.). The Boy and the Heron won Best Animated Feature, The Zone of Interest won Best International Feature Film, and Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s “What Was I Made For?” took home Best Original Song. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Best Supporting Actress Win was heartening and well deserved. But having swept the rest of awards season, anyone else winning would’ve been an upset. Even a film like Anatomy of a Fall—a French courtroom drama that might’ve been an outlier another year—had been pegged to win Best Original Screenplay months ago. Emma Stone’s Best Actress win was arguably surprising, Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken” performance was a sheer delight, and Al Pacino’s hasty Best Picture announcement (which producers are now calling a “predetermined creative decision”) ended the Oscars early and anticlimactically.

Ryan Gosling performing I'm Just Ken at the 2024 Oscars.
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But the night still went about as predictably as possible. And after one of the most interesting seasons of cinema in recent memory, that just feels wrong.

The Academy has a snub problem

2023 brought us Barbenheimer. Tom Cruise might’ve reopened the cinemas with Top Gun: Maverick, but it was an internet meme that brought moviegoers out of hiding. The hook of the meme was simple: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was opening the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer—wouldn’t it be so funny to see them both in one day? The humor lay in the expected juxtaposition between Oppenheimer’s dour, self-serious tone and Barbie’s lighthearted take on a popular toy come to life. 

But what we got was something else. A candy-colored dive into the social and emotional expectations of womanhood, and an examination of the patriarchy and its crushing effects on everyone. Gerwig, working from a script she co-wrote with her husband Noah Baumbach, took a film about capitalist iconography and infused it with genuinely rich humanity. And audiences responded. The movie reviewed well with critics and casual moviegoers alike—and it grossed over $1.4 billion in the box office. An undeniable smash hit.

But when the Academy announced its 2024 Oscar nominations in January, two names were noticeably absent from the list: Margot Robbie wasn’t nominated for Best Actress, and Greta Gerwig missed out on a Best Director nod. (Greta Lee was also snubbed for her work in Past Lives, which fans and critics were certain would earn her a Best Actress nomination.)

The internet reacted instantly. People accused the Oscars of “missing the point” of Barbie. Ryan Gosling (who missed out on Best Supporting Actor for his role as Ken) issued a statement about his colleague’s snubs. A clear narrative began to form, center on Barbie and its lead creatives—the forgotten $1.4 billion underdog. 

Snubs have long been part of the Oscars experience. Ben Affleck missed a Best Director nod for Argo, which went on to win Best Picture. Adam Sandler missed a Best Actor nom for Uncut Gems, which was shut-out from nominations in all categories. Jennifer Lopez missed out on Best Supporting Actress for Hustlers (a snub broadcast in full teary-eyed detail in her recent documentary). And these are just examples from the 2010s. 

Isn’t this exactly what the Oscars are famous for? Most years, the conversation revolves as much around what wasn’t nominated as what was.  

But this robs us of surprises. Without longshots to root for, we miss out on memorable moments—like the time Moonlight beat out La La Land, a film so favored to win Best Picture that no one flinched when presenters read the wrong card.

The Oscars have never been about celebrating what people love

The Oscars have a history of being out of touch. From notable snubs to controversial winners (Greenbook), the divide between populist films and Oscar bait is often a wide gulf. 

In terms of box office performance, Best Picture winners rarely compete with fan favorites. In the last 50 odd years, there are only a handful that can be considered genuine crossover successes. And if we’re using Barbie’s numbers as a reference, only two Best Pictures—Titanic and Return of the King—have cleared the hurdle of earning over $1 billion (This isn’t taking into account inflation as it affects box office numbers.)

That wasn’t always the case. Pre 21st century, Best Picture winners were often the biggest hits of their respective years—usually because of the clout lended to them from the award. But thanks in part to the rise of Marvel and the domination of franchise filmmaking, the disconnect between each year’s highest grossers and Best Picture nominees has become more apparent. 

The tide may be turning. With Oppenheimer’s win this year, Barbie’s nomination, and Top Gun: Maverick securing a nom the year before, you could argue the Academy is back to representing movie audiences with its Best Picture choices. But our faith is tentative, and our guard is still up. Movies, like Barbie and Top Gun: Maverick, rarely win the night’s biggest award, and their stars seldom earn nods for their work in the fan-favorite films.

Is it possible we’re expecting too much? Each awards season, the Academy seems to be doing penance for sins committed the year prior. 

When #OscarsSoWhite brought to attention the lack of people of color nominated, the Academy vowed to increase the diversity of its membership. (The movement had some impact, but it’s safe to say that the Oscars are still pretty white.) And women are still woefully underrepresented in major categories. This year’s lone female director nominee, Justine Triet, is the eighth woman in history to be nominated. Had Gerwig been successful in securing a nomination, it would have been only the second time the Academy had two women in the directing list. 

But in some categories, the 2024 Oscars featured a more diverse slate of nominees than usual. Seven of the 20 performers nominated in the Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress categories were people of color. And Lily Gladstone made history as the first Native American nominee in the Academy’s history.

Every story needs a villain—and the Academy is comfortable playing the role

Oscars snubs, disappointments, and missteps have become so commonplace that even the Academy leans into it. 

In a promo for the 2024 Oscars, Jimmy Kimmel attempted to make his way to “OscarsLand” with the help of the Barbie cast—and called out Gerwig’s Best Director snub in the process. It’s a move that wants to position the Academy ahead of its own controversy. And it’s one the organization has used many times before. 

During the 1992 ceremony, host Billy Crystal asked the crowd, “Did this movie direct itself?” referencing Barbra Streisand missing out on a directing nod for The Prince of Tides. In 2013, host Seth MacFarlane said of Argo’s director Ben Affleck, “The film is so top secret that the film’s director is unknown to the Academy.” 

Metatextual references aside, this year’s snubs feel like yet another missed opportunity from the Academy to fulfill its promise to broaden both its membership base and the types of films and filmmakers represented on the stage during the awards. 

To add insult to injury, the Academy seemed intent on giving Barbie a major thematic role in the night’s events. Dua Lipa’s “Dance The Night” was played throughout the ceremony, host Jimmy Kimmel brought up the Barbie snubs early on, and the aforementioned “I’m Just Ken” performance was truly the highlight of the night. It was almost as if in real-time, the Academy wanted to tell the viewers, “Hey, we get it, we also loved the toy movie! But not enough to give it any awards.”

And so the 2024 Oscars ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper. In a ceremony that offered few twists, and even fewer surprises, the Academy has dished up an awards show who’s biggest legacy will be an 83-year-old man almost quoting Shakespeare. 

But the Oscars always needs a narrative to frame itself with. And every story needs a villain. Some villains emerge in the lead-up to the prestigious ceremony, and others make themselves known during the broadcast.

And this year—as is the case most years—the Academy has made itself the villain in its own story.

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