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BARBENHEIMER

- Jasmijn Groot -


The announcement of this year's Oscar nominations quickly awaited outraged reactions from feminists worldwide. Actress Margot Robbie and director Greta Gerwig, the two main faces behind blockbuster Barbie, were not nominated in their respective categories. Fellow actor Ryan Gosling, who played Robbie's male counterpart Ken, on the other hand, was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In an ironic way, one of the film's main satirical messages, came true as a result: for one of the most successful films of the year, which was created by women, the men took the honours in the end.


Many rightly referred to the Academy Awards' diversity problem in their criticism, which has been increasingly exposed since 2015. After all, most winners in the Oscars' 96-year history have been male, white, Christian, cisgender and heterosexual. The director category in particular, which many believed Gerwig should have been part of this year, is marked by sexism. In 96 years, only eight women have been nominated in total and only three have won the statuette. Kathryn Bigelow was the first female winner in 2009, 81 years (!) after the Academy was founded - and yes, its founders included female pioneers like Mary Pickford.


At the same time, most people seemed to forget for a moment what wonderful films Barbie was up against: Killers of the Flower Moon, Anatomy of a Fall, or Poor Things, to name but a few. And of course, above all, Barbie was pitted against Oppenheimer. Both blockbusters came out on 21 July last year, which started as a simple coincidence, but was utilized by the production teams of both films as a phenomenal marketing strategy. And thus Barbenheimer was born, the cultural phenomenon that highlighted, magnified and celebrated the contrasts between the dark drama about the father of the atomic bomb on the one hand and the colourful comedy about a plastic doll on the other. And it certainly did both fims a big favour. Barbie and Oppenheimer became two of the most well-received films of the year, garnered millions of fans worldwide, and made the most money. But then came the Oscars. And the titanic battle everyone had expected failed to materialise, mainly due to the lack of nominations for Gerwig and Robbie.


The English BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, the award shows that each year give tentative predictions of how things will go down at the Oscars, already hinted that Oppenheimer would emerge as the better film out of the two. Indeed, what stood out at these award shows was that the epic biopic had consistently managed to get nominations in each of the same categories and cash in on them: Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. in their respective actor categories, Christopher Nolan in the director category, Hoyte van Hoytema as best cameraman, Ludwig Göransson as best composer, and so on. The nominations were less consistent for Barbie, and especially in the case of Greta Gerwig. She 'only' had to make do with a Golden Globe nomination for best director.


Greta Gerwig has been at the forefront of feminist Hollywood to improve the representation of female directors since her 2017 coming-of-age film Ladybird, which was the first movie she had directed by herself. Gerwig immediately received an Oscar nomination for best director for her solo debut. And it was indeed quite the achievement. After all, at the time she was only the fifth woman ever to have managed to get a nomination in the category. Since then, Gerwig has scored high marks with her films Little Women (2019), and in 2023 with Barbie. But since Ladybird, she has not received any directorial nominations - although she has been nominated each time for the scripts she has written, including Barbie.


Gerwig's directorial work lacks a clear signature (yet). Especially compared to someone like Christopher Nolan, her biggest competition this year. Nolan has been known as a great innovator for years. He single-handedly breathed new life into the superhero genre with the Dark Knight trilogy, for which he also received rave reviews. It was for his The Dark Knight (2008) that the late Health Ledger posthumously won an Oscar, a performance which is still hailed as one of the best acting performances of all time. But even in comparison to female directors, both new and established, Gerwig loses out. Sophie Coppola, for example, is highly unlikely to win more awards for her powdered female gaze on themes of isolation and alienation after her succes with Lost in Translation (2004), because her style is far too feminine for the Academy jury. But in comparison to Gerwig, her style is much more distinct. So is that of Emerald Fennell, who had a small supporting role in Barbie as the pregnant barbie. Fennel has already made a clear mark for herself as a filmmaker with just two films, Promising Young Woman (2020) and Saltburn (2024). In doing so, she has clearly put forward her penchant for colourful alternative horror that makes the viewer think critically about skewed power relations.


In much the same way as Gerwig, Margot Robbie has become a paragon of feminist Hollywood in recent years. Australian-born Robbie made her international breakthrough in 2013 with her role as a frustrated housewife in Wolf on Wall Street (2013) alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. She could have fallen into the age-old Hollywood typecast trap after the success of that film, condemned to bimbo parts for the rest of her carrer. Together with her spouse, she had started a production company, with which she has produced quite a number of movies that tell multidimensional stories about women, including the biopic I, Tonya `(2017), about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. Robbie, who also took on the female lead, received her first Oscar nomination with this film. This year, the Acamedy skipped her. Unjustly so, said 'her Ken' Ryan Gosling. But looking at Robbie's previous work, and especially at the rock-solid performances of her colleagues Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) and Emma Stone in Poor Things (2023), this time it was mainly her production work for Barbie she deserved praise for.


Because Barbie's overtly feminist and anti-patriarchal tone had drawn so much attention to the film itself and its female creators, many may have lost sight of the fact that there were territorial gains for women after all. Lily Gladstone is the first woman of native American descent to be nominated in the Best Actress category, which was about time after 96 years! Then there was the focus on the arthouse film Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos' tale of a female Frankenstein, through which he challenges the social and societal restrictions historically imposed on women. It was a more simplistic, and therefore stronger message than Barbie's, which mostly wanted to convey too much about modern feminism and therefore became a bit messy and over the top. But we should certainly not forget the story of the only nominated female director Justine Triet. Her Anatomy of a Fall supposedly missed out on a Best Foreign Film nomination for her critical remarks of French President Emmanuel Macron. She bagged five nominations in other categories, of which she herself won the one for Best Original Script.


As I am writing this, the Oscars ceremony is about to commence. Tomorrow, I will most likely wake up to newspapers reporting that Oppenheimer has become the big winner at this year's Oscar night. And it will be heartily deserved, in my opinion. The masterful campaigning of Nolan's team aside, because secretly we all know that the Oscars is still a game of poltics (just have a look at this video essay about the Oscar battle between Bradley Cooper and Cillian Murphy), of the Barbenheimer phenomenon, Oppenheimer was simply the better film. But that does not immediately mean that feminism lost out completely this year.


 

Image: Midjourney (2023).

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