The Big Oscars Question for ‘Oppenheimer’: How Much Can It Win?

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It seems clear that “Oppenheimer” is going to win big at the Oscars on Sunday.

But what does winning “big” mean at the Oscars these days?

Christopher Nolan’s epic is currently the favorite (in virtually all cases, the prohibitive favorite) in eight categories, if you go by the prediction chart at Gold Derby. It has already won one of the top film awards at nine different guild or professional association awards shows, covering producing, directing, acting, film editing, cinematography, music, art direction, sound editing and sound mixing.

But if it translate those wins into eight Academy Awards, that total will be the most since 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also won eight. If it wins nine, it’ll be more than any film since 2004, when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” went 11-for-11.

In this century, those two films are the only ones to win that eight or more Oscars – and since the Best Picture category expanded from five to 10 nominees in 2009, 10 of the 14 winners have scored only two or three Oscars in addition to Best Picture.

The fact is, Oscar sweeps like “Lord of the Rings,” “Titanic” (11 wins in 14 nominations) and “The English Patient” (9-for-12) almost never happen the way they used to. Back in 2017, “La La Land” landed a record 14 nominations and was thought to have a good chance to win in 10 categories; it ended up with six Oscars, famously losing Best Picture to “Moonlight” but also falling short in film editing, costume design and sound mixing.

Since the Best Picture category expanded in 2009, its winners have averaged 3.9 total Oscar wins. That’s the lowest average since the 1930s, when the Academy had far fewer categories. By contrast, Best Picture winners averaged 4.4 total wins in the 1940s, 6.6 wins in the 1950s, 5.9 wins in the 1960s, five wins in the 1970s, 5.7 wins in the 1980s, 6.6 wins in the 1990s and 5.5 wins in the 2000s.

These days, it seems that voters consider each category independently rather than checking boxes for the same movie up and down the ballot. (In other words, they do what they’re supposed to do.) As a result, there have been fewer big sweeps – though “Oppenheimer” might be heartened by the fact that there was a smaller sweep just last year, when “Everything Everywhere All at Once” used three acting awards to push its total to seven, the most since “Slumdog.”

How will “Oppenheimer” do on Sunday night? Let’s look at its 13 nominations, ranked from the least to the most likely to result in a gold statuette.

Best Supporting Actress

Sorry, Emily Blunt. Da’Vine Joy Randolph has had this category locked up since “The Holdovers” premiered four months ago.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

This is one of the categories where the nomination itself was proof how much Oscar voters loved “Oppenheimer.” But the award will probably go to “Maestro,” for the transformation of Bradley Cooper into Leonard Bernstein, or to “Poor Things,” for extensive prosthetic work on Willem Dafoe.

Best Costume Design

Here’s another category where nobody really expects Cillian Murphy’s stylishly baggy suits to win out over the pink phenomenon that was “Barbie” or the insane fantasia that was “Poor Things.”

Best Production Design

“Mank” won in this category three years ago, so another bow to midcentury masculinity is possible. But the least flashy nominee virtually never wins, and this is another category where “Barbie” and “Poor Things” bring the dazzle.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Even though the Best Picture winner has also won a screenwriting award at 16 of the last 20 Oscar ceremonies, this category is seemingly up for grabs, with Cord Jefferson and “American Fiction” beating Nolan and “Oppenheimer” at the Critics Choice Awards, Scripter Award and BAFTA Awards. (“Anatomy of a Fall” won at the Golden Globes, which does not have separate categories for adapted and original screenplays.) An “Oppenheimer” win wouldn’t be a surprise, but this is the likeliest way for voters to acknowledge the well-liked “American Fiction.”

Best Actor

Now we’re moving into categories where “Oppenheimer” wins are likely. Cillian Murphy won Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG Awards for his performance as the title character in Nolan’s film. But he’s still in a competitive race with Paul Giamatti, who also won a Globe and whose performance in “The Holdovers” may have more of an emotional pull. Still, the SAG win, and the fact that Murphy is playing a real person like more than 60% of the winners since 2010, give him an edge.

Best Sound

Wins from the Cinema Audio Society and the Motion Picture Sound Editors make “Oppenheimer” the film to beat in this category. Its biggest rival, and a serious one, is “The Zone of Interest,” which has done a good job at getting across just how essential its sound design was to its storytelling.

Best Cinematography

Christopher Nolan Oppenheimer IMAX
Hoyte van Hoytema and Christopher Nolan on the set of “Oppenheimer” (Universal Pictures)

Here are two scary statistics for “Oppenheimer” DP Hoyte van Hoytema: It’s been nine years since the Best Picture winner also took the cinematography Oscar, and the two awards have gone to the same film only twice in this century. (“Slumdog Millionaire” and “Birdman.”) But with its blend of formats and of color and black-and-white photography, “Oppenheimer” was feeling like the exception to those stats even before van Hoytema won the American Society of Cinematographers Award on Sunday.

Best Original Score

In the past 12 years, American composers have only won in this category twice, and Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson is a strong favorite to win for “Oppenheimer” over two Americans (Laura Karpman and John Williams), a Canadian (the late Robbie Robertson) and a Brit (Jerskin Fendrix). Fendrix might be a sleeper for his wacky “Poor Things” score, and there’s sentiment behind Williams and Robertson, but Göransson is the favorite just as he was when he won for “Black Panther” five years ago.

Best Film Editing

A Best Picture favorite that jumps between different time periods? That’s the kind of editing that’s attractive even to voters who might not understand the intricacies of the craft. As for the ones who do understand the craft, they already gave “Oppenheimer” editor Jennifer Lame their top award at the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Awards.

Best Picture

There’s just no solid evidence that any other nominee has mounted a serious challenge to “Oppenheimer” in this category. The film’s only weakness lies in the fact that something like “The Holdovers” might be slightly better served by the ranked-choice voting system used in this category (and only in this category), where a consensus choice can edge out a film that may well get more No. 1 votes but is also slightly divisive. (Example: “Moonlight” beating “La La Land.”) But that’s grasping at straws.

Best Supporting Actor

The two supporting categories are all but locked: Best Supporting Actress is locked against Emily Blunt, and Best Supporting Actor is locked for Robert Downey Jr. “Barbie” fans hold out hopes for a Ryan Gosling upset, but that’s a huge longshot.

Best Director

In recent years, we’ve seen several picture/director splits, where the big, ambitious movie wins for director and the artier indie wins for picture. So even if “Oppenheimer” somehow loses for Best Picture, which isn’t going to happen, Nolan still won’t lose Best Director.

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