Oppenheimer Is Headed Toward the Biggest Oscar Sweep in Over a Decade

Christopher Nolan has gotten good at watching other people take home Oscars. He earned his first nomination in 2002 for the twisty screenplay of Memento, which Nolan cowrote with his brother Jonathan. After that, it was a short journey toward Nolan becoming one of the most significant directors of the 21st century—to the point that when his 2008 film, The Dark Knight, missed the cut for best picture, it sparked a full-scale overhaul of the category itself. 

Yet every time Nolan returned to the Oscars—he was nominated for writing and best picture for Inception, as well as for best picture and, finally, directing for Dunkirk—he was left out of the winner’s circle, even as his films won a combined 11 Oscars. 

That has finally changed. As the director, producer, and sole writer of Oppenheimer, Nolan was up for three of the film’s whopping 13 nominations, and is at long last a best-director winner. Oppenheimer was also the best-picture winner, an award that Nolan shares with his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas and producer Charles Roven. They are among the many winners for the film, including stars Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy, who accepted his award moments before Nolan’s. The film won a total of seven Oscars, the precise total won by last year’s best-picture winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once. 

Though it took a while for any of the categories in which Oppenheimer was favored to be announced, Downey made for an apt first winner, taking home the best-supporting-actor award he’s been tipped for all season. His victory was followed shortly after by Jennifer Lame, the film’s editor, who helped wrangle the film’s extraordinarily complex storyline and 79 speaking roles, masterfully managing both quick cuts into Oppenheimer’s visions of the quantum world and intense argument scenes. Her victory was followed shortly by one for cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, previously nominated for his work on Nolan’s Dunkirk. He used an immense IMAX camera during even the film’s most intimate moments, combining those with sweeping desert vistas and one very famous explosion to make one of the year’s most visually audacious scenes. And composer Ludwig Göransson, working with Nolan for the second time, provides a rich, booming score for almost every moment in Oppenheimer; at just 39, he’s now won his second Oscar for best original score.

Any Nolan film at this point in his career would be pegged as an Oscar hopeful. Oppenheimer was no exception, particularly when members of it mammoth cast were announced in the fall of 2021. What nobody expected was for Oppenheimer to be swept up in a bona fide cultural phenomenon, opening opposite Barbie in a rare example of a Hollywood showdown that actually benefited everyone involved. The films were never entirely equal; Barbie had a bigger box office haul, while Oppenheimer had more of the epic sweep that usually helps in an Oscar race. But by the time July ended, it was clear both Barbie and Oppenheimer would not fade once awards season began. 

Nolan was named best director by the Directors Guild, Critics Choice, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and many other precursors. But he wasn’t the only “Oppenhomie” who was an awards juggernaut. Downey, in his first big-screen role in three years, earned some of the biggest raves of his career for playing petty bureaucrat Lewis Strauss, setting aside his Iron Man charm for a character far more vain and dangerous. Some 15 years into an improbable, endlessly fascinating comeback, Downey won or was runner-up for nearly every supporting-actor prize there is—and was an invaluable presence on the awards circuit since the actors strike ended, using his charisma to prop up his costars and director in addition to himself. 

Most visible among those costars, of course, is Cillian Murphy, a key supporting player in so many Nolan films who finally takes center stage as J. Robert Oppenheimer. He’s a dominant force in the film despite Oppenheimer’s signature quiet calm, capturing a man who dreamed of greatness but was horrified by the way he achieved it. Murphy found his way to the head of the class in an extremely competitive best-actor field, winning the SAG and BAFTA awards shortly before Oscar voting ended. Unlike Downey, he was not seen as a guaranteed winner all season—Holdovers star Paul Giamatti has been formidable competition—but Murphy headed into Oscar night as another Oppenheimer front-runner.

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