Perspective | Oscar nods in directing don’t reflect a wonderfully wide-ranging year

There was a bittersweet symmetry to be found in learning of the death of Norman Jewison just a day before the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees.

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Jewison, who died Saturday at age 97, was one of the great journeyman directors in Hollywood, the stylistically unobtrusive craftsman who brought the gripping civil rights-era drama “In the Heat of the Night” to the screen, as well as the brilliant Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” the musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and the earthily relatable romantic comedy “Moonstruck.” Jewison, who was born in Toronto, was never an obvious polemicist, but always sought to give his films substance. “I don’t make social statements in my pictures, though I do feel a film should be about something,” he once told the New York Times, according to his Washington Post obituary. “It should not shy away from social problems.”

The 10 movies that were nominated for best picture on Tuesday suggest that Jewison’s successors feel the same way. Wide-ranging in style, many of the films in contention address historical or present-day issues: the interrogation of race in “American Fiction” and critiques of sexism in “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Barbie” and “Poor Things”; morally attuned excavations of the past in “Oppenheimer,” about the development of the nuclear bomb; “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which dramatized the decimation of a Native American community in the name of capitalistic “progress”; and “The Zone of Interest,” which recounted a German family’s complicity with the Holocaust.

In theme, sensibility and aesthetic language, the best picture nominees reflect a hearteningly diverse artistic ecosystem. When it came to nominating directors, though, members of that branch of the academy clearly rewarded self-conscious auteurism over Jewison-esque accessibility. “Poor Things” and “Barbie” were essentially the same story, as wryly observant portraits of an agency-free doll coming to life and political consciousness. Although “Poor Things” director Yorgos Lanthimos made the cut — understandably, given his film’s wildly imaginative vision and ambitious execution — was “Barbie’s” Greta Gerwig snubbed because her razor-sharp feminist message was delivered inside the candy apple coating of a big, fun, mainstream comedy? (Although Ryan Gosling and America Ferrera were nominated for their supporting turns in “Barbie,” the irony of Gerwig and producer-star Margot Robbie being overlooked in the directing and lead actress categories, respectively, was immediate fodder for social media outrage: “Greta Gerwig: Made a critically acclaimed, culturally profound, feminist movie about Barbie and the patriarchy that made a billion dollars at the box office. Oscar nomination goes to … Ken,” wrote activist Shannon Watts on X, formerly Twitter.)

The girl bosses behind “Barbie” weren’t entirely ignored: Robbie was honored in the best picture nomination as one of the film’s producers, Gerwig as its co-screenwriter. And Gerwig has already been nominated for her directing, for her 2017 debut film, “Lady Bird.” This year, two other first-timers easily could have been included: Cord Jefferson and Celine Song, whose films “American Fiction” and “Past Lives,” respectively, might have been too subtle and human-scale to stand out next to big swings by the likes of Christopher Nolan and movie-god Martin Scorsese. The same could be said for Alexander Payne, whose tender, carefully calibrated comedy-drama “The Holdovers” draws a direct line to Jewison, having been inspired by the work of Hal Ashby, the director of such winsomely humane comedies as “Harold and Maude,” and who learned to direct as Jewison’s longtime editor.

With only five slots in the directing category, as opposed to 10 in best picture, the inevitable parlor games will lie in selecting which filmmakers to eliminate in favor of one’s favorites; this year, I would gently nudge Scorsese aside to make room for Jefferson, Payne or Gerwig. Still, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to argue with the sheer audacity and skill on display in “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Oppenheimer,” “Poor Things” and “The Zone of Interest,” each of which exemplified the kind of narrative sense, tonal control and technical chops we mean when we say something’s been well-directed.

Directors like Greta Gerwig and Celine Song aren’t in contention for a 2024 Oscar, while Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer“ earned 13 nominations on Jan. 23. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Pull the lens back, and the picture is even more encouraging, with a list of best picture nominees that reflect an exceptionally healthy and diverse year, not just in moviemaking but in moviegoing. If 2023 will be remembered for anything (outside of Taylor Swift), it will be for the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, which witnessed millions of viewers around the world flocking to see two smart, utterly original spectacles — one about a quirky theoretical physicist and the other a piece of quirkily theoretical agitprop. The success of both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” — and the deserved attention their co-nominees will receive in the next two months — gives the lie to a fear that Jewison expressed in the New York Times in 2001, when he noted that Hollywood didn’t make his kind of movies anymore.

“They’d say these films were too wordy, too cerebral, too much dialogue,” observed Jewison — who, it bears noting, was nominated three times for directing but never won a competitive Oscar. “So many aspects of our life have disappeared from movie screens.”

If this year’s Oscars are any indication, that tide has been turned back, at least for now.

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