Anonymous Oscar Ballot: Casting Director Adores ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Barbie,’ and ‘I’m Just Ken’

Liem Soeng

Anonymous Oscar Ballot: Casting Director Adores ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Barbie,’ and ‘I’m Just Ken’

With final Oscar balloting closed on February 27, we’re continuing with our seventh annual series of interviews with Academy voters from different branches for their unfiltered takes on what got picked, overlooked, and overvalued in the 2023 award season. Interview edited for brevity.

I’m a longtime member of the Academy. I joined long ago, when there was no Casting branch. But I am so pleased that casting directors will finally be recognized with an Academy Award. It’s long overdue, as an equal participant of all the people that work on films. And it’s been a 30-plus-year endeavor that was started by the late great Mike Fenton and David Rubin, who was president of the Academy and one of our first governors. Our current governors never gave up on this. It’s been a long, long journey.

Actor in a Leading Role

Every one of these actors has been working for a long time. You could vote for any of them: Bradley Cooper [“Maestro”], Colman Domingo [“Rustin”], Paul Giamatti [“The Holdovers”], Cillian Murphy [“Oppenheimer“], and Jeffrey Wright [“American Fiction”], because they’re all doing career-level work in completely different ways. They’re all wonderful actors. And it’s lovely in this particular case for Colman and Jeffrey to finally have a certain amount of recognition. Paul and Bradley obviously had recognition before.

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I SAW THE TV GLOW, from left: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, 2024. © A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection

When you watch how Bradley Cooper aged — it’s not just the hair and makeup, but his voice and body language. Every step of the way he was able to evolve in the aging process in every part of his being.

In the end, I chose Cillian Murphy. He has such a demanding role. What he pulled off well in this role was the combination of the arrogance of Oppenheimer, the brilliance of Oppenheimer, and then the moral dilemma and weakness of Oppenheimer. Cillian was the highest bar to meet in this group.

Actor in a Supporting Role

These are wonderful working actors. I’m going to leave Robert De Niro [“Killers of the Flower Moon”] because he’s been nominated so many times. I watched “Barbie” again because I love Ryan Gosling in that film. He’s not gotten a lot of recognition. But these roles are so different. You can’t compare what Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Gosling did in their movies. So much value was added by these actors, and Mark Ruffalo [“Poor Things”], in a career performance.

I went with Downey because he played against everything that people expect from what they’ve seen him do before, but he was always capable of; he’s a great actor. He got derailed somewhere along the way. And he’s come back. I don’t think he’s been given a lot of opportunities to play dramatic work. But this has brought attention to the dramatic work he’s capable of.

Actress in a Leading Role

POOR THINGS, Emma Stone, 2023. © Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Poor Things’©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

I voted for Emma Stone [“Poor Things’] because it’s an out-there performance and [because of] the level of physicality. And she’s probably the youngest one in this group. The choices that she’s making play against all expectations of what people might have thought that Emma Stone might be, based on her earlier career. She’s got a lot of range for a young actress.

I watched “Maestro” for a second time, and the subtlety of Carey Mulligan’s performance was unreal, and heartbreaking. It’s not a showy performance.

Look at the training Annette Bening had to do [in “Nyad”], and being such a complicated unlikable character. And also, she had to be in a bathing suit. You have a Carey Mulligan or Annette Bening who had been nominated many times and have never won. How does that make sense? But yet, that year, there was just something else.

And Sandra Hüller. “Anatomy of a Fall” is a great script. But that whole film hinges on that performance because it’s completely about the character’s ambiguity. That’s what makes that film. Did she do it? Did she not? She didn’t try to make you like her. No.

I don’t get Lily Gladstone. I’ve seen her in other things, and this performance didn’t stretch her past what I’ve seen her do in other places. I’ve watched her on “Reservation Dogs.” I didn’t see a lot of dimensions to the character [in “Killers of the Flower Moon”]. Some of that is the script; it would have been a far more interesting movie if it had been told from her perspective. The character should have been aware because her whole family was dying off that she was being poisoned. It doesn’t make sense. And clearly, he’s killing her, and he’s a bad guy, and yet she falls in love with him. I don’t think she brought complexity to it. If she had been in Supporting Actress, then it would have been different, because it is a supporting role. It’s not a lead role.

Actress in a Supporting Role

HO_14151_RC Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
‘The Holdovers’Seacia Pavao

Da’Vine Joy Randolph [“The Holdovers”]. It came down to her and Jodie Foster. Jodie has won Academy Awards. But to watch her play a character that’s so emotionally out there. And out. She’s never done that before. She was a good counterbalance to Annette, they were great together.

But Randolph is the heart and soul of “The Holdovers.” She grounds the movie, and elevates the movie. She never recovers. She never stops being angry. You care about her pain. It doesn’t end in a happy place. And she’s a wonderful working actress. It will make a difference to her career to win the Academy Award and maybe to her life in a way that Jodie Foster just doesn’t need at this time. This won’t be the last time Jodie Foster was nominated.

Animated Feature

I know “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is a sequel, but I was so disappointed in “The Boy and the Heron.” The originality of the animation in “Spider-Man” is extraordinary.

Cinematography

“Oppenheimer” for the mushroom cloud, but the movie was beautiful.

Costume Design

BARBIE, from left: Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie, 2023. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
Ryan Gosling as Ken in ‘Barbie’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The “Barbie” costumes are extraordinary. You look at all the different Barbies in every scene, and Margot [Robbie] and everybody’s in a different outfit. The casting in that film is so fantastic. The diversity in that film is incredible, from wheelchair Barbie to body positivity Barbie. And there’s a transgender Barbie, and every color and type.

“Poor Things” had amazing costumes and production design. I almost went for that but “Barbie” needs a little more recognition than it’s getting. Maybe that’s because it made a lot of money. Maybe people think it’s superficial in some way, but it’s not superficial. I cried when Rhea Perlman was talking about why she made Barbie for her daughter.

Directing

“Oppenheimer.” It’s [Christopher Nolan’s] career best. I’ve admired his movies, but I’ve often found them hard to follow, because of all the time changes. This was the most cohesive. But he also made science engaging: He wanted to understand how they got to this place, but also fearlessly addressed the history and aftermath and consequences of the bomb. That’s a lot try to get in the movie.

Documentary Feature

‘Four Daughters’

“20 Days in Mariupol” is going to win because of how we all feel about Ukraine. And I’m happy about that. I ended up voting for “Four Daughters,” because as a documentary, I haven’t seen anything like this before. But what’s also great is “Bobi Wine: The People’s President.” That’s another film where in some ways the movie was more prescient about what the hell can happen in this country, when somebody wants to stay in power.

Documentary Short

“The Last Repair Shop” spoke to the multicultural aspects of the city of Los Angeles. LA Unified [school district] gives instruments to children. I was also moved by “The Barber of Little Rock” and “The ABCs of Book Banning.”

Editing

“Oppenheimer.” You could follow it, even going back and forth in time.

International Feature Film

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, 2023. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Zone of Interest”Courtesy Everett Collection

I watched all of them again. “The Zone of Interest” is heads and tails above. I’d heard that people coming out were throwing up and running out of the movie theater. I was afraid. There was a screening. And I said, “I want to go and I don’t want to watch it on the TV, because I’m nervous about the movie. And I don’t want any reason to stop watching it if I’m uncomfortable.” And I was blown away by the movie, the way that you don’t see it, but you’re enmeshed in the experience, the sounds, the smells, this complete, in a benign way, dismissal.

Makeup and Hair-Styling

“Maestro.” I started looking at the pictures. Look at Bradley Cooper’s hands. You realize what a brilliant job they did. The aging, everyone talks about the nose. First of all, he looked like Leonard Bernstein. Anyway, he didn’t have to do much. But the aging of the neck and the hands!

Original Score

“Oppenheimer.” The music was great.

Original Song

“I’m Just Ken” was the only way I could recognize Ryan Gosling. I know it’s not going to win; it’s probably the Billie Eilish [song], but I voted for him. He’s going to perform [at the Oscars]. It’s a massive production number that is a major centerpiece of the film. It’s interesting to listen to the songs separate from the movie. I can’t vote if I haven’t seen it. I saw that movie “Flamin’ Hot.” I feel bad for Diane Warren, because when you see that song with the movie, it’s a great song. When you listen to the Jon Batiste song outside of [“American Symphony”], it’s a horrible song. And I didn’t think “Killers of the Flower Moon” was a song.

Production Design

“Barbie” topped even “Napoleon,” which had great set design. I went with “Barbie” because it was so beautiful and engaging. As was “Poor Things.”

Animated Short

I picked one that’s not going to win. But I went with the Iranian “Our Uniform.” They do it all with fabric.

Live Action Short Film

“The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar.” is a phenomenon. It’s incredible, really. But the other one that I totally loved was “The After.”

Visual Effects

I had started to watch “The Creator,” and I got about a half hour into it. It was terrible. We didn’t watch “Godzilla Minus One.” I had seen all the rest. On the Academy screening room, I watched the bakeoff [where VFX and make branches host show-and-tells for their year’s work]. I didn’t like the movie, but I ended up going back to “The Creator.” Because I thought that the special effects were extraordinary.

Adapted Screenplay

If “Barbie” wasn’t in this category, I would have voted for “American Fiction.” But the reason that “Barbie” is great is it does have a great script. You have a doll. But you’re writing a screenplay to make something that means something to people, with nothing, not even a book, nothing. And she was able to make a whole movie that drew so many people to it. And that’s the script.

Original Screenplay

“Anatomy of a Fall” was a very original movie. I’m not a “Past Lives” person. I just did not connect with the movie. The sum of “The Holdovers” is better than the individual parts. I’ve seen different versions of that kind of story. There were too many things that felt like I’d seen other places.

Best Picture

It’s going to be “Oppenheimer.” I ranked “Barbie” one and “Oppenheimer” two, knowing that “Oppenheimer” was going to win.

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