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Oscars 2024: A night of 'Oppenheimer,' quiet protest, and Ryan Gosling just being Ken

Christopher Nolan, winner of the best directing award and the best picture award for<em> Oppenheimer</em> poses in the press room during the 96th Annual Academy Awards.
Arturo Holmes
Getty Images
Christopher Nolan, winner of the best directing award and the best picture award for Oppenheimer poses in the press room during the 96th Annual Academy Awards.

The 2024 Oscars weren't long on surprises. Oppenheimer won best picture, a tight race between Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone for best actress went to Stone in the end, and the Billie Eilish Barbie song beat out the Ryan Gosling Barbie song.

Most of the takeaways from the evening are modest rather than revolutionary, suitably reassuring for a year when Hollywood saw some high-earning movies that were reviewed well, too.

Oppenheimer rolled, but not quite as much as it might have.

It's hard to look at a night when Oppenheimer won a bunch of major awards, including best picture, and realize how much room was left for other films. But before it won its first Oscar, Poor Things beat it in three straight categories: production design, costumes and makeup/hairstyling. It also lost the award for best adapted screenplay to Cord Jefferson's script for American Fiction. So while it certainly had a huge night, there was room to share the wealth.

The economics of the industry are inescapable.

In the monologue, which was otherwise pretty unremarkable, Jimmy Kimmel offered support and solidarity to the members of IATSE, the union representing many crew members, which is currently in contract negotiations that are expected to be difficult. IATSE was a key ally to the writers and actors during their 2023 strikes, and observers are watching closely to see whether those two unions return that support when the time comes. Kimmel's gesture was at least some indication that they will.

But perhaps more specifically provocative was Cord Jefferson's speech. Accepting his adapted screenplay award for American Fiction, Jefferson said that although he knew Hollywood to be risk-averse, there might be a different way forward. Instead of making a $200 million movie, he suggested, how about 10 $20 million movies? Or even 50 $4 million movies? For a writer to be this assertive about industry issues in a speech is certainly not unprecedented, but between this and the mentions of the strikes that have passed and the one that could still be coming, it's clear that while everyone is relieved to be back at work, profound concerns about the state of play in Hollywood continue.

It was a good-spirited good show.

With the exception of the In Memoriam segment, there wasn't a lot to grouse about in terms of production. There weren't as many awkward bits built around Jimmy Kimmel as there sometimes are. There weren't a lot of boring montages. And when there was shtick, it wasn't nearly as bad or as long as it sometimes is. John Cena's masterful and brief (har har) appearance to present the award for costumes, in which he was skillfully set up to look quite convincingly naked, was a bit that only he could pull off with such flair.

The pacing was good, too. Lots and lots of glamorous famouses were on screen. The musical performances soared, from the drumming of "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)" to the breathy "What Was I Made For?", peaking with the over-the-top Ryan Gosling take on "I'm Just Ken."

As for that In Memoriam segment, well ... they always seem to have a hard time not focusing on the staging in the theater, which in this case included dancers, when all people want to be looking at is the faces and names of the people being remembered. It's vexing how often the Academy gets this part wrong, but I suppose it means there's always something to aspire to.

An earlier start meant more room to breathe.

The ceremony was moved back from an 8 p.m. start to a 7 p.m. start (Eastern time, that is), and it ended at 10:30, making the officially planned broadcast 3 1/2 hours. In the past, it's often been scheduled for three hours, and it will dribble over that limit by whatever amount, but this time, it made its deadline comfortably. Some combination of ending a little earlier and making sure there was enough time made the whole thing breathe a little easier.

Some of the extra time, it seemed, was devoted to the introductions of nominated actors by peers who have been nominated in the same category. That made for long segments, for sure. But it added substantially to the number of stars who spoke onstage, which is fun (Rita Moreno! Charlize Theron! Matthew McConaughey! Regina King!), and it meant that nobody went unremarked upon. This is a structure this ceremony has used before, and it can get uncomfortable when it just feels like someone is delivering a bland hagiography. But it can also infuse the night with feeling, as when people with an established tie to each other share a moment that is, for at least one of them, enormously important. Or even, as when Rita Moreno spoke the name "America" while introducing America Ferrera, in cases where the connection seems to arise serendipitously.

Protest was sporadic, but it was there.

There were a lot of questions before the ceremony about whether political protest, especially about the violence in Gaza, would make an appearance at the Oscars. For the most part, the ceremony didn't convey much about what's in the news in Gaza or elsewhere, but there were exceptions. Jonathan Glazer's speech for his win for The Zone of Interest as best international feature explicitly tied the violence in Israel and Gaza to the events of his film, which is set just outside the walls of Auschwitz. And the lapel pins that got the most attention over the course of the evening were red ones, handed out and worn in support of a cease-fire. They were worn by celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Billie Eilish and Ramy Youssef.

Director Ava DuVernay wears an "Artists4Ceasefire" pin, calling for de-escalation and ceasefire in Gaza and Israel, as she attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Director Ava DuVernay wears an "Artists4Ceasefire" pin, calling for de-escalation and cease-fire in Gaza and Israel, as she attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards.

Mstyslav Chernov, the Ukranian director of the winning documentary feature 20 Days in Mariupol, started his acceptance by saying he wished he'd never made the film. That's because it documents the early stages of the Russian invasion that eventually devastated the city. Chernov went on to speak of the many people who have been killed as a result of the invasion. "Slava Ukraini," he said — "Glory to Ukraine."

Not a flashy night, but a successful one

So for a night with relatively few surprises but some very enjoyable winners (hooray for Robert Downey Jr. and Da'Vine Joy Randolph!), it was a solid show that honored an awful lot of good movies, and movies that drew significant audiences, too. And next year, we will all be back to do it again.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.