March 13, 2024

The Oppenheimer Effect: Sharing Movie Moments After the Oscars

By Stuart Mitchner

I was looking forward to a walk on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, my destination the pond in the final scene of  Christopher Nolan’s multiple-Oscar-winning film. With the weather report predicting rain, I wanted to be there when the first drops were falling, as in the three-hour-long film’s beginning and end. I was hoping for a quietly eloquent spring rain, just enough to create the desired ripple effect, but before I could get there, it began pouring and I had to make do with a photo on the Institute’s website. Taken during the April 2022 filming, it shows Tom Conti’s Einstein in conversation with Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer while the burly, grey-maned, grey-bearded Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema hunkers down on a four-wheeled rig squinting at them through the Panavision lens.

“It was constantly close-ups, close-ups, close-ups, talking, talking, talking,” Van Hoytema says in a February 2024 interview. Referring to the sequence by the pond: “Towards the end of the scene, we creep in on Oppenheimer, and get the feeling that we crawl right through Cillian’s eyes into his head, and start understanding the world, how he sees it now. More importantly, we shoot a close-up of him that is more powerful than most of the other close-ups in the film, even though we have been on top of his face for the whole movie. So, the challenge was, ‘How the hell do we make that interesting?’”

The answer was delivered on Sunday night when the producers of Oppenheimer won the Academy Award for Best Picture, with Oscars going to Best Lead Actor Murphy, Best Supporting Actor Robert Downey Jr., and Best Director Nolan, as well as to Ludwig Göransson for his score, to Jennifer Lame for editing, and to Van Hoytema himself for cinematography.

July 20, 2023

On the desk as I write is a souvenir ticket from the Princeton Garden Theatre stamped Oppenheimer Premiere, July 20, 2023, featuring a gold-on-black medallion embossed with an image of the theater entrance where everyone gathered on that warm summer evening. One of the pleasures of the Garden’s Hollywood Summer Night showings of vintage films is the heightened sense of sharing a favorite movie with the rest of the audience. The premiere of Oppenheimer epitomized that sense of shared enjoyment.

Opening Moments

Oppenheimer begins with raindrops on a pond. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard begins with a dead body in a swimming pool, which is the cover image on David Thomson’s Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson 2013).

In Oppenheimer the opening moment is swept up by Ludwig Göransson’s tumultuous music into a vision of vast unfolding clouds of atomic fire. The Sunset Boulevard opening Thomson describes is the view of that “great wide street as the dawn comes up, the howl of police cars, and then the sight of them racing towards ‘action.’ And it seems part of that noir mood that there’s a knowing male voice telling us what to look at — low, dry, an insider, not sentimental and not quite cynical, because after all this is Sunset, a famous street in a city pledged to fame.”

The “insider” voice we’re hearing belongs to the corpse floating face down in silent-film star Norma Desmond’s swimming pool. According to Thomson, if anyone in 1950 had been shocked by the idea of a dead person narrating the story, Wilder would have told them, “Look, it’s a movie, and movies are crazy, as wild as dreams.” Fortunately the actor doing the voiceover is William Holden, who is “vital to the sour joke of the whole film” and has “one of the finest dry, ironic voices in American culture.” The remark is typical of Thomson, who can call a classic film about Hollywood a “sour joke” in the same paragraph he concludes in style, observing that Holden “was superb as a guy who wanted to believe but who had been born a few pounds light when it came to faith.”

Romances and Westerns

Of the 70 films featured in Thomson’s book, the only Best Picture winners are Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and The Godfather, all of which would have played at the Garden during its 104-year history, either when first released or in revivals. While most of the films Thomson chooses for “moments” make cinematic sense, some of his choices are as cynical as they are capricious, such as including the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading in spite of the movie-making moments that abound in the Coens’ vastly superior Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. Thomson seems to know as much when he admits that the film’s story might have been “more aptly described” as “Burn Before Reading.”

Although Frank Borzage won the first Best Director Oscar for his Paris romance 7th Heaven and four years later for Bad Girl, the 1931 equivalent of a small independent film, Thomson neglects to mention moments from visually memorable works like A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, History Is Made at Night, and Moonrise. No wonder, since the name Borzage is synonymous with romance, a genre on the far side of cynicism. In fact the two genres seemingly at the heart of the Hollywood legend, westerns and romances have rarely been honored by the Academy. Thomson’s Moments includes only two westerns: John Ford’s The Searchers and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The Academy Best Picture Oscar has gone to three: Wesley Ruggles’s Cimarron, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. As for romance, Delbert Mann’s Marty won Best Picture because it opposed a plain, ordinary couple against the perceived excesses of the genre while the hard-bitten romance The Apartment was directed by that consummate cynic Billy Wilder (the famous last line: “Shut up and deal”). Relatively recent Oscars have gone to atypical romances like the one between a human and an amphibian in The Shape of Water and between Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Juliet in Shakespeare in Love, which carries the unromantic weight of producer Harvey Weinstein, who was later called out for sexual harassment by Paltrow, an opening salvo of the Me Too movement.

Sharing at Home

The week before the Oscars, after my wife and I scanned an abundance of possibilities on the Criterion Channel, she was ready to give up when I suggested we try a noir from 1948 called Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Sure that we’d already seen it, she abandoned me to go back to the novel she was reading. I started the film and five minutes into the first scene (a chase through foggy postwar London), I wanted to shout “You have to see this!” Without her, it was only half an experience. After a day or two of dropping hints about what she’d missed, I suggested we see it again together. So we did, and it was the difference between watching from a distance and living through the wildly unlikely romance between Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine and an incredible hold-your-breath ending. Needless to say, this brilliantly shot, directed, and acted film was ignored by the Academy, no awards and no nominations.

Snubbing the Oscars

Another thing my wife and I have in common is a lack of patience with the televised Oscar ceremonies. This year I thought we’d give it a shot, what with the Princeton connection, the feeling that we have a stake in Oppenheimer, a premiere investment. But we were so wrapped up in Tokyo Vice, we forgot all about it and made do with the Barry Blitt New Yorker cover of Barbie slapping Oppie so hard it knocked the pipe — with its miniature mushroom clouds of smoke — out of his mouth, a sly reference to Will Smith’s Slap Heard Round the World at the 2022 Oscars.

“Our Oppenheimer”

When he was at the Institute, mathematician László Székelyhidi occupied the office that once belonged to Albert Einstein and that stood in for the director’s office in the movie. “For months before the filming,” he recalled, “crew members stopped by to check the lighting, the view of the gardens, and admire the wonderful space…. At the same time, they treated me with a certain reverence, and were somewhat disappointed to learn that I was not the director and I was not working on top secret projects like Oppenheimer…. After one visit from the crew, I returned to my office to see ‘Thanks! C. Nolan’ written on my blackboard.” Székelyhidi’s photograph of the blackboard thank-you can be seen in the article “Our Oppenheimer” on the IAS website.

And thanks to Princeton’s Oppenheimer, which, according to the New York Times, is now the third-highest-grossing film to win best picture, behind only Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.