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'Oppenheimer' crowned best picture at an Academy Awards shadowed by war

By AP

Published : March 11, 2024 - 15:08

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Cillian Murphy (the second from right) embraces Christopher Nolan as Emily Blunt (right) reaches for Emma Thomas after the film Oppenheimer won the Oscar for Best Picture during the 96th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, Sunday. (EPA-Yonhap) Cillian Murphy (the second from right) embraces Christopher Nolan as Emily Blunt (right) reaches for Emma Thomas after the film Oppenheimer won the Oscar for Best Picture during the 96th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, Sunday. (EPA-Yonhap)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Oppenheimer,” a solemn three-hour biopic that became an unlikely billion-dollar box-office sensation, was crowned best picture at a 96th Academy Awards that doubled as a coronation for Christopher Nolan.

After passing over arguably Hollywood’s foremost big-screen auteur for years, the Oscars made up for lost time by heaping seven awards on Nolan’s blockbuster biopic, including best actor for Cillian Murphy, best supporting actor for Robert Downey Jr. and best director for Nolan .

In anointing “Oppenheimer,” the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences did something it hasn’t done for more than a decade: hand its top prize to a widely seen, big-budget studio film. In a film industry where a cape, dinosaur or Tom Cruise has often been a requirement for such box office, “Oppenheimer” brought droves of moviegoers to theaters with a complex, fission-filled drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb.

“For better or worse, we’re all living in Oppenheimer’s world," said Murphy in his acceptance speech. "I’d like to dedicate this to the peacemakers.”

As a film heavy with unease for human capacity for mass destruction, “Oppenheimer” also emerged — even over its partner in cultural phenomenon, “Barbie” – as a fittingly foreboding film for times rife with cataclysm, man-made or not.

Sunday’s Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles unfolded against the backdrop of wars in Gaza and Ukraine and with a potentially momentous U.S. election on the horizon. Awards for the documentary winner, “20 Days in Mariupol,” and best international film, “The Zone of Interest,” brought geopolitics into the Oscar spotlight.

The most closely watched contest went to Emma Stone, who won best actress for her performance as Bella Baxter in “Poor Things.” In what was seen as the night’s most nail-biting category, Stone won over Lily Gladstone of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Gladstone would have become the first Native American to win an Academy Award.

Instead, Oscar voters couldn’t resist the full-bodied extremes of Stone’s “Poor Things” performance. The win for Stone, her second best actress Oscar following her 2017 win for “La La Land,” confirmed the 35-year-old as arguably the preeminent big-screen actress of her generation. The list of women to win best actress two or more times is illustrious, including Katharine Hepburn, Frances McDormand, Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis.

“Oh, boy, this is really overwhelming,” said Stone, who fought back tears and a broken dress during her speech.

Sunday’s broadcast had razzle dazzle, including a sprawling song-and-dance rendition of the “Barbie” hit “I’m Just Ken” by Ryan Gosling, with an assist on guitar by Slash and a sea of Kens who swarmed the stage.

But protest and politics intruded on an election-year Academy Awards. Late during the show, host Jimmy Kimmel read a critical social media post from former president Donald Trump.

“Thank you for watching,” said Kimmel. “Isn’t it past your jail time?”

Nolan has had many movies in the Oscar mix before, including “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and “The Dark Knight.” But his win Sunday for direction is the first Academy Award for the 53-year-old filmmaker . Addressing the crowd, Nolan noted cinema is just over a hundred years old.

“Imagine being there 100 years into painting or theater,” said Nolan, who shared the best-picture award with Emma Thomas, his wife and producer. “We don’t know where this incredible journey is going from here. But to know that you think that I’m a meaningful part of it means the world to me.”

Downey, nominated twice before (for “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder”), also notched his first Oscar, crowning the illustrious second act of his up-and-down career.

“I’d like to thank my terrible childhood and the academy, in that order,” said Downey, the son of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.

“Barbie,” last year’s biggest box-office hit with more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales, ultimately won just one award: best song (sorry, Ken) for Billie Eilish and Finneas’ “What Was I Made For?” It’s their second Oscar, two years after winning for their James Bond theme, “No Time to Die.”

Protests over Israel’s war in Gaza snarled traffic around the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, slowing stars’ arrival on the red carpet and turning the Oscar’ attention toward the ongoing conflict . Some protesters shouted “Shame!” at those trying to reach the awards.

Jonathan Glazer, the British filmmaker whose chilling Auschwitz drama “The Zone of Interest” won best international film, drew connections between the dehumanization depicted in his film and today.

“Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel, or the the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims, this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

A year after “Navalny” won the same award, Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol,” a harrowing chronicle of the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, won best documentary. The win, a first for The Associated Press and PBS’ “Frontline,” came as the war in Ukraine passed the two-year mark with no signs of abating.

Chernov, the Ukrainian filmmaker and AP journalist whose hometown was bombed the day he learned of his Oscar nomination , spoke forcefully about Russia’s invasion.

“This is the first Oscar in Ukrainian history, and I'm honored,” said Chernov. “Probably I will be the first director on this stage to say I wish I’d never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this (for) Russia never attacking Ukraine.”

In the early going, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Frankenstein-riff “Poor Things” ran away with three prizes for its sumptuous craft, including awards for production design, makeup and hairstyling and costume design. “Poor Things” fared second best to “Oppenheimer,” with a total of four awards.

Kimmel, hosting the ABC telecast for the fourth time, opened the awards with an monologue that emphasized Hollywood as “a union town” following 2023's actor and writer strikes, drew a standing ovation for bringing out teamsters and behind-the-scenes workers — who are now entering their own labor negotiations.

The night's first award was one of its most predictable: Da'Vine Joy Randolph for best supporting actress, for her performance in Alexander Payne's “The Holdovers.” An emotional Randolph was accompanied to the stage by her “Holdovers” co-star Paul Giamatti.

“For so long I've always wanted to be different,” said Randolph. "And now I realize I just need to be myself."

Though Randolph’s win was widely expected, an upset quickly followed. Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” won for best animated feature, a surprise over the slightly favored “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Miyazaki, the 83-year-old Japanese anime master who came out of retirement to make “The Boy and the Heron,” didn’t attend the ceremony. He also didn’t attend the 2003 Oscars when his “Spirited Away” won the same award.

Best original screenplay went to “Anatomy of a Fall,” which, like “Barbie," was penned by a couple: director Justine Triet and Arthur Harari. “This will help me through my midlife crisis, I think," said Triet.

In adapted screenplay, where “Barbie” was nominated — and where some suspected Greta Gerwig would win after being overlooked for director — the Oscar went to Cord Jefferson, who wrote and directed his feature film debut “American Fiction.” He pleaded for executives to take risks on young filmmakers like himself.

“Instead of making a $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies,” said Jefferson, previously an award-winning TV writer.

The Oscars belonged largely to theatrical-first films. Though it came into the awards with 19 nominations, Netflix was a bit player. Its lone win came for live-action short: Wes Anderson's “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” based on the story by Roald Dahl.

The win for “Oppenheimer” offered Hollywood a chance to celebrate despite swirling storm clouds in the film industry. Nolan’s film debuted last year just as actors joined screenwriters in a prolonged strike over streaming economics and artificial intelligence. The actors’ strike ended in November, but little of Hollywood’s unease subsided. Streaming has proved less lucrative for most studios not named Netflix.

But “Barbenheimer” was the kind of unplanned phenomenon Hollywood needs more of. The two films could also give a lift to the Oscar telecast, which has historically benefitted from having big movies in contention. The Academy Awards’ largest audience ever came when James Cameron’s “Titanic” swept the 1998 Oscars.