Can ‘Barbie’ Make an Oscars Comeback?

Before Barbie hit theaters, its chances as an awards player appeared rather slim. While Greta Gerwig’s first two movies (Lady Bird, Little Women) earned best-picture Oscar nominations and considerable financial success, here the writer-director was taking a massive commercial swing and dipping her toe in that most un-prestige world of IP. Then the glowing reviews trickled in. Then the box office exploded. Finally, the nominations showed up at a steady clip—a perfect record of best-picture, directing, and acting nominations from the likes of the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and industry guilds (PGA, DGA, SAG). 

This fizzy, pink summer blockbuster had taken the shape of a front-runner for a period of time. But when the season was done and dusted, Barbie wound up winning just one of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated, for best original song. It’s not as disappointing an outcome as that of some other major contenders—Killers of the Flower Moon received ten nominations, but won nothing—but still, for Dream House residents, it’s got to sting. (Ryan Gosling’s show-stopping rendition of “I’m Just Ken” may soften the blow, but just a little.)

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In retrospect, maybe the writing was on the wall when the Academy elected to omit both Gerwig in best director and star Margot Robbie in best actress. Though both women were nominated in other categories—Gerwig in adapted screenplay, Robbie as a producer for best picture—the snub struck many (many) observers as a kind of final-act betrayal, yanking away what precursor groups had indicated was a done deal and affirming that the film was not a serious threat to win the Oscars’ top prize. Barbie then started losing several key industry-guild awards, including for production design, one of its best chances at an Oscar victory. (At the Academy Awards, that category went to Poor Things.)

Yet it’s worth remembering what a challenge it initially seemed for a Barbie movie to even get this far. A film like this was always going to be a tough sell for the Academy, which is far less enamored with box office dominance than other industry voting groups. Last year, Top Gun: Maverick was put in a similar position, credited with saving the theatrical experience and riding great reviews to a certain Oscar distance.

If you’d said three years ago that Maverick and Barbie would be back-to-back best-picture nominees, most would laugh. But eventually the Academy hit the brakes, snubbing the earlier film’s director (Joseph Kosinski) and lead (Tom Cruise) and granting it a single, obvious win for best sound. Cruise didn’t even attend the show, despite being nominated for best picture as a producer.

Barbie was arguably playing from even further behind, its vibrant feminine aesthetic inevitably challenging the Academy’s (and industry’s) historically masculine preferences. Still, Warner Bros.’ campaign rightly emphasized the impressive, intricate, radical craft behind Gerwig’s vision. The film was in a close race with Poor Things in both production and costume design, with the latter Yorgos Lanthimos movie—a more typical winner—coming out on top.

Otherwise, Barbie, like much of its competition, simply fell victim to an incredibly strong year. Gerwig missed out in favor of international breakout directors like Justine Triet and Jonathan Glazer, who have an advantage with the arty directors’ branch. (Though both ultimately lost to Christopher Nolan.) Ryan Gosling’s broadly, brilliantly comic turn at least cruised to a slot in a supporting-actor lineup dominated—not for lack of love toward Gosling—by eventual winner Robert Downey Jr. The Barbie campaign similarly found its lauded screenplay in a frustrating no-man’s-land, following a failed attempt to categorize the script as original; strict Academy rules forced it into the adapted field, due to Barbie’s IP roots. There, it was felled by the potent satire of American Fiction, a writerly movie about a writer who writes a book. (Voters love that stuff.)

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