Each year, there seems to be a new controversy surrounding the Academy Awards, in terms of what is and isn’t considered awards-worthy by Hollywood’s elite. Barbie, the highest grossing film of 2023, was nominated for Best Picture this year, but many criticised the fact that there was no Best Director nod for Greta Gerwig or Best Actress nomination for Margot Robbie. And so, while it had been acknowledged, it appeared that the most financially successful film of the last year was not viewed in the same terms as Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s historical drama with which it has been inextricably linked through the Barbenheimer trend. Popularity doesn’t pay when it comes to the Oscars, and so it is time to resume the call for an award that celebrates the films that people queue up to see.
While there have been initiatives to involve blockbuster movies at The Oscars, such as the twitter-led 'Fan Favourite' and 'Top Cheer Worthy Moment' polls from previous years, the general wisdom is that big budget movies tend to be recognized for their technical achievement. At best, they receive the occasional nomination in the Best Picture, Director, and Acting categories. For instance, despite ruling the box office for a generation, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has only one Best Picture nomination (Black Panther), and only one acting nomination (Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) in its entire history.
While what makes a ‘great’ movie or performance is subjective, it does seem that the bigger a film gets, the more voters seem to be turned off. It’s not a new problem. A circulated clip from 1976 showed Jaws director Steven Spielberg lamenting the film’s lack of nominations. “This is called ‘commercial backlash’” he grumbled. “When a film makes a lot of money, people resent it”.
Robert Downey Jr., nominated this year for Oppenheimer, recently reflected on the critical attitude of superhero movies when looking back on his time as the figurehead of the MCU. “I think I did some of the best work I will ever do (as Iron Man), but it went a little bit unnoticed because of the genre” he remarked on the Literally! With Rob Lowe podcast. His co-star, Captain America actor Chris Evans, concurs that the superhero label can be limiting. “If you take the Marvel moniker off those movies, and characters that aren’t identifiable from comic books, these movies would be lauded in that way” he told Deadline.
This stigma is perfectly encapsulated by comedian Jo Koy’s joke at this year’s Golden Globes. “Oppenheimer is based on a 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Manhattan Project and Barbie is based on a plastic doll with big boobies” he quipped. Despite Greta Gerwig’s film being a complex exploration of feminism, commercialism, and identity, people think that it can't be considered as deep as Christopher Nolan’s film because of the subject matter. The Oscar voting seems to bear this out, with Oppenheimer gaining more nominations than its counterpart.
It's about time
As glorious as films like Killers of The Flower Moon and The Holdovers are, celebrating the best of cinema should include every part of it. The issue is a matter of perception, which may take a while to change, but in the meantime some inspiration can be taken from the animation world, where Pixar and Dreamworks shook off the idea of animated films being ‘for kids’, leading to the creation of the Best Animated Picture category in 2001. For the moment, a Box Office Achievement Oscar would give commercial movies the chance to shine, engage a dwindling Oscars TV audience, and move towards a time when the Best Picture and most popular movie don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Take a look ahead to this year's biggest films with our movie release dates calendar too.