Monday, April 15, 2024

The Biggest Takeaways From The 96th Academy Awards

Almost no one in our community tuned into the 96th Academy Awards expecting any big surprises. We all knew that by the end, we would be breaking down an “Oppenheimer” sweep, finishing the coronations for Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and others, and both arguing and celebrating over how Best Actress finally turned out. Nonetheless, besides those noticeable results, here are the biggest takeaways from Oscar night and this now-concluded Oscar season in general…

Last year wasn’t just surprising in how much “Everything Everywhere All at Once” swept the major categories like no film ever had before, but in how it blocked “The Banshees of Inisherin” at every single turn. More to the point, it blocked Searchlight Pictures in a way it hadn’t been blocked on Oscar night in a long time, as 2022 was only the fourth time in the preferential ballot era where a Searchlight film didn’t win any above-the-line Oscars – or any at all for that matter.

Some believed “Poor Things” could turn out the exact same way and make infamy with a 0-for-11 performance. That would be unthinkable for Searchlight’s biggest Oscar contender in almost any other year. Still, in the year after it got shut out—and in a year where Best Actress, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling could have all gone against “Poor Things“—it didn’t look completely farfetched.

That is until it completely swept Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling in one 10-15-minute segment. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for Best Actress, which still wasn’t completely locked even after all those wins. But it turned out it might as well have been, as Emma Stone gave Searchlight the above-the-line victory that used to be its Oscar season birthright—and perhaps is once more.

The four victories for “Poor Things” finally ended a season-long debate over who would finish second to “Oppenheimer.” It was much like how “All Quiet on the Western Front” ended that debate on Oscar night 2022—right down to how both runners-up still lost Best Adapted Screenplay anyway.

But while the films were different, the outcome was exactly the same as last year. Just like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Oppenheimer” won seven Oscars to tie for the most in the preferential ballot era, even if it had two fewer above-the-line victories. And just like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Poor Things” became the de facto runner-up with four Oscars, although it did have the above-the-line victory that “All Quiet on the Western Front” could not get.

Leaving aside the three short categories, Best Animated Film and Best Documentary, there are 18 total Oscar categories – and for the second straight year, two films combined to win 11 of them. More than the individual sweeps for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Oppenheimer,” this proves the Academy is moving away from the “spread the wealth” mantra that had defined the preferential ballot era until recently.

Oppenheimer” and “Poor Things” dominated the night, except in one category where they were side-by-side all season. With all their wins, one would figure that one of them would have won Best Adapted Screenplay as well. Yet they were both defeated by “American Fiction,” as they had been for much of the last several weeks.

Poor Things” appeared to have slid out of contention by the end of this race anyway. But one could still imagine an “Oppenheimer” sweep being overwhelming enough to carry the script over as well. Instead, the sweep by “American Fiction” at the Critics Choice Awards, BAFTA, and the USC Scripter Awards was the one that held to the end here.

In that context, finishing the job at the Oscars wasn’t a shock. But beating the two biggest Oscar winners of the night by far and seemingly without too much trouble by the end illuminates a truly big passion vote from the writers—for a film about a writer.

Last year, both “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” were so dominant that half of last year’s Best Picture nominees were shut out—including presumed preseason favorites “The Fabelmans,” “Tar” even beyond Cate Blanchett’s loss, Cannes winner “Triangle of Sadness,” and two films in “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Elvis” that were each assumed to get a collective win at minimum.

Given how “Oppenheimer” and “Poor Things” were statistically dominant in the exact same way, one might expect the same results everywhere else, too. Instead, the other Best Picture nominees did slightly better for themselves this year, as “The Holdovers” got a collective win for Randolph, “American Fiction” and “Anatomy of a Fall” got theirs in the screenplay categories, “Barbie” got its own in Best Song for Billie Eilish, and “The Zone of Interest” got a whopping two for Best International Film and Best Sound.

Only three Best Picture nominees went completely empty-handed this time, though all of them were presumed favorites at one point or another in at least one category. Yet “Past Lives” eventually faded in Best Original Screenplay, and “Maestro” couldn’t complete the lead acting and Best Makeup win combination that “Poor Things” ultimately did. But neither was defeated as thoroughly as “Killers of the Flower Moon” was.

The 0-for-10 performance on Oscar night for “Killers of the Flower Moon” was a far cry from what was expected several months ago, when it was projected to be neck-and-neck with “Oppenheimer” all season. But everyone knew for the last several weeks, if not months, that its only chance to win one measly Oscar would be with Gladstone in Best Actress. Ultimately, her loss sealed a shutout night for a Martin Scorsese film, like “Gangs of New York” and “The Irishman” had suffered before.

Now, all manner of theories, accusations, and blame will be spread on how this happened. Whether Apple is blamed for Gladstone not staying in Supporting Actress, voters are blamed for denying Native-born Gladstone a historic win while giving white actress Stone her second win at only her mid-30s, or it merely had the bad luck to come out the same year as “Oppenheimer,” there will be no shortage of talking points.

Maybe if Scorsese himself hadn’t turned “Killers of the Flower Moon” into just a regular procedural in the last 80 minutes, hadn’t had such a disparity of screentime between Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in that final act, didn’t ultimately make the end the equivalent of Einstein’s “It won’t be for you, it will be for them” line at the end of “Oppenheimer,” and hired a Native co-writer instead of Eric Roth to head off all these problems at the pass, perhaps it and Gladstone would have been indeed too undeniable for any voting bloc or challenger to stop them.

Or maybe even then, they still would have been blanked—but at least then, it would have been much more clearly on the voters’ minds than it is now.

This decade started off on some really rough ground for the Oscars for various reasons. Although the 2019 Oscars were roundly cheered for “Parasite’s” historic wins, it went down as the last hurrah for the entire country before it shut down weeks later. After that, the 2020 telecast was a disaster for reasons beyond pandemic restrictions at the very end, and the 2021 show was a giant mess capping off a rather messy season – even before Will Smith’s first on-stage appearance.

Yet after those back-to-back miserable Oscar nights, we actually have back-to-back positive ones to balance it out. This year’s show furthered the newfound goodwill from last year, thanks to its primarily popular wins, viral song performances from Ryan Gosling and others, teary speeches from Stone and Randolph, and much more. At the least, the sour taste in our mouths from the end of the 2020 and 2021 seasons feels like they’ve finally lost their flavor.

We have been fairly lucky these last two years, whether we can agree on every winner, telecast decision, Jimmy Kimmel sketch or not. But we might need to hold onto that feeling down the road, considering the very low expectations for a 2024 movie/awards year that looks somewhat thin at the moment.

What’s more, it would continue our current pattern of having a really rough season and really rough winners, to suffer through every three years as we did in 2018 and 2021. As such, the good memories of this year’s Oscar night might need to sustain us for longer than we hope for.

What did you think of the 96th Academy Awards? What were some of your big takeaways from this year’s show? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their Next Best Picture Podcast Oscar recap here and the final 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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