“Barbenheimer,” “Maestro” and “The Zone of Interest” Lead Large Crop of Jewish-Inspired Oscar Nominations

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By Andrew Lapin

(JTA), January 23, 2024 – The year’s biggest movie phenomenon was a one-two punch of blockbusters with Jewish roots — and they both came up big at Tuesday’s Oscar nominations.

“Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the Jewish “father of the atomic bomb,” led the year’s nominations with 13, including best picture and director, and is favored by many prognosticators to win the big prize. 

The film’s rendition of J. Robert Oppenheimer covers a fair amount of Jewish ground, including his personal animus toward the Nazis; his recruitment of expelled European Jewish scientists to work on the bomb; his relationship with Albert Einstein, and his late-in-life rivalry with Jewish atomic energy bureaucrat Lewis Strauss. Both Cillian Murphy, who plays Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey Jr., who plays Strauss, were nominated for acting Oscars, as was Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty.

The movie’s summer release-date companion and partner-in-memes, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” picked up eight nominations, including best picture. The doll at the center of the musical comedy was created by Jewish inventor Ruth Handler (a minor character in the movie, played by Rhea Perlman). Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz, an executive producer on the film who greenlit Gerwig’s playful take on the property, is Israeli and helped organize a controversial Los Angeles screening of footage of the Hamas attacks that was protested by pro-Palestinian groups.

Also nominated from the film are Gerwig’s partner Noah Baumbach, a credited co-writer, and composer Mark Ronson for best original song. Both are Jewish.

Another Jewish-themed contender this year, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” was the subject of some derision upon its premiere for Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose to play Jewish composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. But the biopic, a passion project of Cooper’s, sailed over the objections and picked up seven nominations — including, notably, for best makeup. (It was joined in the latter category by “Golda,” the biopic of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, which starred Helen Mirren.)

“Maestro” was also nominated for best picture, with producer Steven Spielberg among the nominated names, as well as lead actor for Cooper and lead actress for Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, the actress whose paternal grandfather was Jewish and who in real life converted to Judaism for Bernstein.

Meanwhile, “The Zone of Interest,” a challenging and formally daring cinematic take on the Holocaust, picked up five nominations, including for best picture and best international feature (submitted by the United Kingdom). The film is loosely based on the real-life Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, and is directed by British Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, who was nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay (he based it loosely on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis, who died last year).

Nolan’s screenplay for Oppenheimer was also nominated; he adapted it from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography “American Prometheus,” co-written by Kai Bird, who grew up watching his American diplomat father try to negotiate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and later married a Jewish woman who was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. After his Oppenheimer work, Bird published a 2010 memoir, “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” describing his firsthand experiences watching Israeli-Arab diplomatic efforts.

While several actors were nominated for playing Jewish roles, no actual Jews received acting nominations this year — despite what many critics called a career-best performance by Natalie Portman in the Netflix film “May December.”

Notable Jews scored some nominations deeper down on the list. “Letter to a Pig,” a short film by Israeli director Tal Kantor about the strange journey of a Holocaust survivor, received a nomination for best animated short.

Diane Warren, the Jewish veteran songwriter, received her 15th nomination for penning “The Fire Inside,” from Hulu’s “Flaming Hot.” Warren has never won an Oscar, but did receive an honorary award in 2022.

And Robbie Robertson, the rock star born to a Native American mother and a Jewish father — and who learned of his Jewish heritage late in life — received a posthumous nomination for best original score for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the Osage Nation murders. Robertson, who died last year, was a member of The Band and a regular collaborator with “Flower Moon” director Martin Scorsese.

Not to be outdone, two movies based on works by authors who have made antisemitic comments also received some nominations. “The Color Purple,” the new musical based on the Alice Walker novel (which followed Spielberg’s 1985 movie), was nominated for best supporting actress, while “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” Wes Anderson’s Netflix movie based on the Roald Dahl short story, was nominated for live-action short. 

Walker has endorsed antisemitic conspiracy theorists in interviews. Dahl’s family and a museum dedicated to his work have both acknowledged and apologized for his antisemitism in recent years.

The Oscars will air March 10 on ABC. 

Photo Credit: Cillian Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer.” (Universal Pictures)

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