Oscars jonathan glazer ryan gosling christopher nolan

The Oscars embraced cognitive dissonance

What the committee approval of Oppenheimer, the Emma Stone/Lily Gladstone upset, the rejection of Killers of the Flower Moon and Jonathan Glazer’s speech — the night’s only mention of Gaza — have to say about the status of challenging art and Hollywood’s unwillingness to use celebrity as a platform to denounce genocide.

It was hard not to watch the Oscars last night without feeling a sense of cognitive dissonance. It was a glamorous celebration of cinema, and as a live event, it was unusually smooth. Mostly, it struck a careful balance between serious appreciation and irreverent playfulness. The highs were high: “I’m Just Ken’s” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes homage was an all-time Best Original Song performance, the new acting award presentations were effectively earnest and the skits were (overall) charming and brief. The room sparkled with white teeth, glittering jewellery and beautiful faces. With over 30,000 dead in Palestine, the spark of the night carried a violent edge and a shocking muzzled refusal to see art as transformative and — with the exception of one speech — to use celebrity as a platform to speak out against genocide.

Christopher Nolan Oscars
Christopher Nolan. Photos from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“My eyes see Oppenheimer?” Al Pacino fumbled the night’s big prize, but Oppenheimer was always the favourite to win. The nearly three-hour film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, was one of last year’s biggest hits and the third-highest grossing film to ever win Best Picture, after Titanic and The Return of the King. It’s a non-linear and talky examination of the paradoxical genius often called “the Father of the Atomic Bomb.” On paper, Oppenheimer never should have been a major success, but it’s a film that speaks to the anxieties of the zeitgeist. Despite its messy yearning for total world annihilation (the film’s obsession with the world burning has an almost pornographic eroticism), it offers reassurance that the good guys won: the bomb was a necessary evil, and we should be thankful that the thorny, though morally upstanding Oppenheimer was the one in control. 

One of the film’s most striking images comes relatively early on, when Oppenheimer, as a young man, imagines the secrets of the world unlocking through the expansion of his scientific imagination. A rattling montage, intercutting his nervous life studying experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, with glowing expanding experimental particle shots, reveals a man on the brink of metamorphosis. In one shot, Oppenheimer looks at Picasso’s “Femme assise aux bras croisés” (1937). The camera zooms in on the teal cubist face before cutting away to glowing blue particles, ebbing in a mythical dance. It was a pivotal moment for Oppenheimer, who later invokes the revolution of Picasso’s painting to defend his leftist beliefs and his desire to push the study of physics into new territories. For him, art and science were equally capable of changing the world.

Yet, there’s something demure about this approach, particularly given the film’s massive success at the box office and at the Oscars last night. Writing about the film for Reverse Shot, critic Michael Koresky draws a comparison with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, writing:

“If Schindler’s List, both celebrated and lambasted for being the ultimate Hollywood Holocaust film, was a well-oiled machine with ‘occasional mechanical failure,’ then Oppenheimer is a more perfect engine, with no possibility for breakdown. It whirs ahead, like all of Nolan’s most impressive work, pummelling the viewer into submission. Oppenheimer’s subject matter may be the most apt of Nolan’s career for the deployment of such intensity, yet whether it proves efficacious for his evident aims to both stun and educate is perhaps best left to historians of the future, should they exist.”

While as impressed by the film’s effectiveness as a pounding “spectacle” as the Academy voters clearly were, Koresky raises the idea that the film’s approach softens any real political engagement. The soft, demure quality of the winners’ speeches for the film — which only briefly acknowledge the genie-out-of-the-bottle horror unleashed by the atomic bomb — were carefully coded in euphemisms for a modern age defined by annihilation. The gravity of the film’s apparent intention and the self-satisfied groan of its committee approval reveal Oppenheimer’s failure. Rather than an indictment, it becomes a celebration of violence, one capable of re-writing history to serve an imperialist, pro-war message. The collective crime of the Atomic Bomb is reduced to a noble and individual struggle as Oppenheimer is rendered as a Christ-like figure capable of sublimating our sins. 

The lesson of the bomb, hardly acknowledged by the film, seems to be that in a universe where we have a large enough collective nuclear arsenal to destroy the planet several times over, art no longer has meaning. Picasso was a revolution until humanity smashed together some atoms capable of destroying us all. There’s no going back now, and art will never save us. 

Jonathan Glazer Oscars
Jonathan Glazer

Michael Koresky also compares Oppenheimer to The Zone of Interest, which won Best International Feature Film. Jonathan Glazer, his hands visibly shaking, was the only winner of the night to acknowledge the (apparently) unnamable violence unfolding in Gaza. His speech, though somewhat muddled, drew a through-line between the Holocaust and what is happening in Gaza right now. Conversely to the spectacle of Oppenheimer, Glazer’s approach to similarly violent material is one of refusal. Where Oppenheimer embraces spectacle, The Zone of Interest denies it.

The other big winner of the night, Poor Things, dominated the technical categories. The candy-coloured adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name depicts the Frankenstein-like awakening of a suicidal young woman who is implanted with the brain of a fetus. Re-named Bella Baxter, she gains increased awareness of the world’s pleasures and horrors through a series of adventures. In one sequence, in Alexandria, a fantastical palatial hotel is flanked by the death and suffering of the people below. Bella, witnessing injustice for the first time, can’t bear the weight of the suffering. She can’t understand how the people above don’t look down at the “dead babies” in abject horror. Bella can’t fathom how to ignore the suffering of others while they indulge in their pleasures. “We must go help them!” she screams. “And how will we do that?” her companion asks with a smirk, knowing she doesn’t know how.

Emma Stone Oscars
Emma Stone

Perhaps the most controversial upset of the night was Emma Stone’s win for Best Actress in Poor Things over Lily Gladstone, who had been nominated for Killers of the Flower Moon. Stone looked shocked as she stumbled onto the stage, overwhelmed and possibly feverish. Unprepared, she acknowledged her fellow nominees, singling out Gladstone — but only barely. Gripped by self-awareness (only accentuated by the white-guilt narrative of her other star performance last year, in the tangled cringe of Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s series The Curse), Stone seemed to understand that overemphasizing her appreciation for Gladstone’s performance will read as pity rather than reverence. She powered through. She seemed to glance around the room, searching for stability; the otherwise quick-witted star was rendered nearly speechless, unable to anchor her performance in Poor Things within a greater context. Her flailing (though charming) speech felt like a panicked chink in the armour of the Oscars, an encapsulation of the room’s commitment to self-serving pleasures, no longer able to see the dying people below, buried in rubble and sand.

Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon was nominated nine times and went home with zero Oscars. The film’s indictment of America’s genocidal foundations was unlikely to win over a crowd that has always preferred self-satisfied spectacles over challenging works of art. 

Writing for Mubi Notebook, Adam Piron calls the film a provocative failure. He discusses how it interacts with its intended American audience and, as a result, betrays (perhaps by necessity) an Indigenous point of view. (He also engages in an interesting discussion about the depiction of violence that ties in nicely with The Zone of Interest‘s approach.) Piron sees the possibility of the film as an entry point for education and even “leverage for reparations for the wrongs inflicted on the tribe.” Yet, he finishes his piece by writing:

“There’s a possibility that his confession may be stuck in the echo chamber of the industry in which it was created, stained by the very sins he wishes to call out, but one can only pray that Scorsese’s altar call charts something of a new way forward for the industry, Indigenous communities and the artists within it, as well as the possibilities of the medium itself. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Lily Gladstone Oscars
Lily Gladstone

Aside from Gladstone for Best Actress, Killers of the Flower Moon was hardly the favourite of the night. But, it’s nonetheless difficult not to see the film being shut out as an even darker indictment of the industry than Piron predicted. As Jimmy Kimmel riffed on the film being too long and the movie went home empty-handed, it’s hard not to see Hollywood in a game of refusal: unable or unwilling to grapple with the real world. The systematic murder of the Osage was reduced to a punchline and shut out. 

As Jonathan Glazer finished his acceptance speech for The Zone of Interest, he asked the audience, “How do we resist?” As with Bella Baxter, who cannot articulate how she means to help the people suffering below in Alexandria, the question feels unanswerable — yet, watching the Oscars last night, no one could put into words the horrors unfolding in Gaza (or Somalia or the Congo, or even the ongoing oppression of North America’s Indigenous people). No one asked for a ceasefire or dared to utter the words “Free Palestine.” To answer Glazer’s question, “How do we resist?” Honestly? Anything would have been better than nothing. 

The Oscars aired on ABC on March 10.

For more film and TV coverage, please visit our Film & TV section.