With the fall film festivals revving up and lots of new names being added to the Oscar mix, it seems like as good a time as any to take another look back at Christopher Nolan‘s biopic “Oppenheimer,” which has set many records for the filmmaker, as it recent crossed $850 million globally.
One major change since I wrote about the movie’s crafts opportunities at the Oscars is that Warner Bros. decided to delay the release of “Dune: Part Two” until March 2024, which opens things up for “Oppenheimer” to possibly win a few of the categories where it may have otherwise gone head-to-head with the sci-fi epic. But now let’s consider where the film stands in the above-the-line races.
Surprisingly, Nolan has never won an Oscar, although he’s been nominated five times, most recently for producing and directing “Dunkirk” (2017), and before that for writing and producing “Inception” (2010) and for writing “Memento” (2001). This isn’t that uncommon, though. It took the legendary Martin Scorsese over 27 years to convert an Oscar nomination into a gold statue, finally winning Best Director for “The Departed” (2006). Steven Spielberg had been nominated as Best Director three times before receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1987, and then a few years later he won two Oscars for directing and producing “Schindler’s List” (1993). Five years after that Spielberg would win a second directing Oscar for “Saving Private Ryan,” followed by 13 more Oscar nominations. (Fun little trivia factoid: Last year’s “The Fabelmans” was the first time Spielberg was ever nominated for his writing.)
While Nolan has been waiting in the wings, the academy has awarded its directing statue to a combination of young bucks (like Daniels this past year for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”), deserving veteran Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), and a number of standout Mexican and Asian filmmakers. It has only been six years since Nolan received his first (and so far only) directing nomination for the well-regarded “Dunkirk,” and “Oppenheimer” has done even better, both critically and commercially. So this year’s Oscar is Nolan’s to lose, but with many more names coming out of the September festivals, it won’t be an easy contest.
Nolan currently leads Scorsese (for “Killers of the Flower Moon”) by a narrow margin in the predictions of Gold Derby’s Oscar Experts. We’ll have to see if that changes as more people get to see “Killers.”
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Adapted Screenplay category has often been a tough one because so many Best Picture winners are based on previous source material. Even with “Dune: Part Two” now out of the running, Nolan’s screenplay is still up against Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It also will have to go up against the screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos‘s “Poor Things,” which is receiving an amazing amount of buzz out of its festival premieres at Venice and Telluride. There’s also Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach‘s script for “Barbie,” keeping the friendly “Barbenheimer” competition alive, though “Barbie” has the benefit of having made twice as much money as “Oppenheimer.”
But Nolan’s adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin Sherman‘s non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” is likely to be analyzed and studied for decades since it takes such a unique approach to the biopic genre.
As of this writing the screenplay for “Killers” still has more Gold Derby Experts predicting it than “Oppenheimer,” while films like “Poor Things,” “The Zone of Interest,” and “All of Us Strangers” are just beginning their festival runs.
Nolan’s history with getting actors nominations is spotty at best. He famously directed the late Heath Ledger to his posthumous Oscar for “The Dark Knight.” But neither “Dunkirk” nor “Inception” received a single acting Oscar nomination or even a SAG Award nomination despite their Best Picture bids, which would make some dubious of “Oppenheimer’s” chances in performance awards races. Fortunately, “Oppenheimer” is a drama very much driven by its ensemble cast, beginning with the actor playing the title role.
Cillian Murphy has taken a commanding lead among Oscar Gold Derby Experts and Editors alike, with his main competition being Leonardo DiCaprio from “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Murphy does have the advantage of playing a real person, although not one who’s well known enough for the actor to get much credit for accurate mimicry. In that regard, Murphy might have some competition from Bradley Cooper‘s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” and Colman Domingo as the title civil rights leader in “Rustin,” so this is still a wide open race.
Best Supporting Actress
Emily Blunt, who has never been nominated for an Oscar but is a four-time SAG Award nominee (and one-time SAG Award winner), plays a hugely important supporting role in “Oppenheimer,” always there during pivotal dramatic scenes involving Murphy’s character. In fact, Blunt almost stands in for the viewer in Oppenheimer’s conflict with Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, often saying what the audience is thinking. Although her scenes are rather limited, they’re always scenes that matter and have an impact, even if it’s just when she’s being told to “take in the laundry,” the secret code she has with her husband.
Gold Derby Experts still have Lily Gladstone winning this category by quite a wide margin, but there’s still enough support for Blunt that she should finally get a well-earned nomination.
Best Supporting Actor
It may take an hour or more before the importance of Robert Downey Jr‘s Strauss becomes apparent, but when it does, that’s when we get to see Downey’s range depicting the antagonist of Oppenheimer’s story. You may not even realize watching the first time that the movie is being told along two threads, from Oppenheimer’s point of view and from Strauss’s, but by the end we learn how petty Strauss can be when someone humiliates him.
Downey is a second-generation Hollywood veteran who has quite an amazing career narrative, from his earlier years dealing with drug addiction in the ’90s to becoming one of the biggest box office stars thanks to his role as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Downey is also a two-time Oscar nominee, first for playing “Chaplin” 31 years ago, and then for his comedic role in Ben Stiller‘s “Tropic Thunder” 15 years ago. He’s well respected in the industry, and many academy voters have probably just been waiting for him to set aside his Tony Stark stuff and get back to being a serious actor.
Another actor that we should keep an eye on is Matt Damon, who has received three acting Oscar nominations after his legendary Oscar win with Ben Affleck for their screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Playing General Groves, the key military figure in the Manhattan Project, Damon has many great scenes with Murphy, but also has some of the movie’s few humorous lines, which helps to soften the serious drama that permeates the film. Less likely is Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, less of a nemesis for Oppenheimer in the biopic but still a role that is prominent over the course of the physicist’s life and career. But thus far neither of those actors have gotten the support in our odds that might suggest a double or triple nomination for “Oppenheimer” in this category.
As for the win, Downey has some “Killers” competition from the legendary Robert De Niro according to the predictions of Gold Derby Experts, but slightly more of them are betting on Downey.
Nolan has directed two previous Best Picture nominees (“Inception” and “Dunkirk”), and there’s absolutely no reason to think “Oppenheimer” won’t join those as his third, especially with 10 slots for Best Picture. Being nominated for (and possibly winning) the SAG Award for best ensemble is going to be crucial for “Oppenheimer’s” chances of winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though, given the close correlation between those two awards, and having such a large (though still mostly white male) cast gives “Oppenheimer” good leverage with the academy’s acting branch because it’s very much a large ensemble piece.
There are other aspects that could hold it back. Nolan has been criticized for typically lacking emotion and clinically handling his subject matter. And while “Oppenheimer” does fit the mold of big Hollywood epics that have won Best Picture in the past, we’re at a time when the academy has been going for smaller indies like “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and even quirkier foreign fare like “Parasite.” So to some voters, “Oppenheimer” might seem like a step back to an old-fashioned Oscars that has been heavily criticized over the past decade, so Nolan’s best bests might be winning his Oscar gold for writing and/or directing. Then again, the Experts are two-to-one for “Oppenheimer” over “Killers” in their Best Picture predictions, so maybe more old-fashioned filmmaking will make a comeback.
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