It is, of course, folly to try and predict the Oscars in the middle of the summer, even when the autumn release schedule hasn’t been put in flux by pigheaded corporate greed. At this time last year, “The Son” was a surefire contender, “All Quiet on the Western Front” barely cracked the top five of Netflix’s priority list, and the Andrea Riseborough campaign was just a twinkle in Frances Fisher’s eye. But no matter what happens between now and March of 2024, there are some things the Academy isn’t likely to forget, and Barbieheimer is one of them.
What began as a bit of comic juxtaposition (“Oppenheimer” versus “Barbie!!” Christopher Nolan versus Greta Gerwig!! Place your bets!!) became a bona fide capital-E Event, complete with memes, cosplay, and tweets from bandwagon-jumping politicians. The whole affair brimmed with the kind of genuine excitement that non-Marvel, non-“Star Wars” movies rarely attract these days, and the resulting acclaim and boffo box office numbers could very well lead to a new blockbuster era (provided the suits don’t screw it up, of course.) It will take a lot to displace either of these films from the Best Picture lineup, and there will be plenty of opportunities for matchups further down the ballot – especially in Best Supporting Actor.
Although both films boast absurdly stacked ensembles, two supporting players, in particular, attracted the lion’s share of praise: Robert Downey Jr. in “Oppenheimer,” and Ryan Gosling in “Barbie” (Gosling is arguably a lead, but let’s not underestimate category fraud). Both give outstanding performances, and at the moment, they appear to be each other’s main rivals for Oscar gold. But if last year’s ceremony taught us anything, it’s the importance of a strong narrative – and in that regard, Downey Jr. has the clear edge.
Christopher Nolan declared the choice to cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in “Iron Man” to be “one of the greatest casting decisions in the history of movies,” but he may not be wrong. Downey Jr.’s combination of quick wit, magnetic charisma, and bruised vulnerability made him a perfect fit for the role, and the quippy, ironic dialogue he delivered so memorably became the lingua franca of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. But twelve years is a long time to play a single character; it’s hard to blame Downey Jr. for wanting to, as he put it, “exercise a different muscle.” And so he joined “Oppenheimer,” the kind of big-budget “movie for adults” that has become an endangered species, thanks in no small part to the MCU.
It’s his first dramatic role since 2014’s “The Judge,” and he’s brilliant. As Lewis Strauss, a government official and amateur physicist who becomes J. Robert Oppenheimer’s frenemy, he is far from a charming, magnetic hero, super or otherwise: he’s a rather unassuming man, a bureaucratic functionary with boxy glasses and a gray combover. He’s more friendly than charismatic, more shrewd than intelligent; still, he doesn’t seem like an awful guy, and Downey Jr. is careful to keep him as a neutral, inoffensive personality for most of the film. Eventually, however, Strauss’ duplicitous nature comes to light, and Downey Jr. reveals the seething resentment that had been simmering beneath the surface the whole time. In a gripping monologue reminiscent of Chuck McGill’s legendary witness stand outburst in “Better Call Saul,” we’re shown a new side of Downey Jr.: he snarls and sneers at what he perceives as Oppenheimer’s martyr complex, brimming with the ugly, petty vitriol of a small man. He’s never sounded this bitter or this pitiful.
He is, in short, a former Oscar nominee who fought through addiction to achieve blockbuster success, now reaffirming his dramatic prowess in a universally-acclaimed box office smash after a decade trapped in franchise limbo. As narratives go, it’s a tough one to beat; still, it would be unwise to count out Gosling entirely. “Oppenheimer” may be a big hit, but “Barbie” appears to be an absolute juggernaut, marrying sugary populist appeal with genuine craft: if any film can capture the hearts and minds of the Academy en route to an “Everything Everywhere All At Once“-esque sweep, it’s this one. And even those who quibble with “Barbie’s” occasionally blunt screenplay and queasy corporate synergy will concede that Gosling steals the show, throwing himself into the absurdity of red-pilled himbo Ken with unwavering, guitar-soloing commitment while showing hints of tragicomic pathos. Jamie Lee Curtis won for less.
That said, while Gosling has plenty going for him, he doesn’t have a concise, elegant narrative like Downey Jr. Yes, Gosling has been nominated before. Still, he’s never exactly been robbed (aside from his snub for “First Man“), and you can’t really call him overdue. The Academy has historically neglected comedic performances, but that’s not something you build a campaign upon. Compare with Brendan Fraser vs. Colin Farrell last year: Farrell had an acclaimed performance, decades of excellent work, and a compelling personal narrative, but it didn’t cohere into a neat hook to rival the Brenaissance.
As for this year, it remains unclear who might join Downey Jr. and Gosling in the Best Supporting Actor category: after all, film executives would rather delay films to next year than pay their writers and actors fairly. For now, the stiffest competition will likely come from Robert De Niro, who has a meaty, villainous role in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It’s certainly possible that De Niro could win if the Academy responds well to “Killers of the Flower Moon,” especially if they’d like to give one more plaudit to the Scorsese/De Niro combo. However, that didn’t seem to be a convincing argument with “The Irishman,” where De Niro was (unfortunately) not even nominated, and by all appearances, Lily Gladstone will receive the major awards push for that movie.
Whichever way it all shakes out, the important thing is that two fantastic, original movies (albeit one with a corporate IP) have attracted this level of attention and acclaim. That can only be a good thing for the film industry, and we can only hope (even in vain) that those who make the ultimate decisions about what gets made and put out into the world will do the smart thing and learn from this special moment in time.
Who do you think will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor? Do you see a world where either Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Gosling don’t get nominated? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. And please check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.
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