I finally got around to seeing the Barbie movie, and as everybody is saying, it’s pretty good. So when I heard that Margot Robbie did not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance as Barbie, despite the movie’s Best Picture nomination, my first reaction was that it was a typical case of the Academy’s tendency to ignore women.
After giving it a little more thought, however, I realized that the way the Academy defines “good acting” offered a better explanation.
To be clear, Margot Robbie is great in the movie. Barbie is an inhuman character who is the abstract embodiment of girls struggling to find their role in the world (or something like that), yet Robbie finds a way to make her relatable and charming. Given that she’s in almost every scene in the movie, she did an incredible amount of work.
But it’s just not the kind of role that wins Oscars. Robbie was playing a literal child’s doll. In the movie, she describes herself as “Stereotypical Barbie.” This is a character that doesn’t look, behave, or think like a normal human. The Academy wants characters who feel strong emotions, characters who suffer tragedy and feel pain.
If Robbie wanted an Oscar nomination, Barbie would need a rewrite. The Academy has no room for Barbie-with-thoughts. But there could be a nomination for Barbie-with-cancer. Or Barbie as a single mom. Barbie with a heroin addiction. Unemployed Barbie. Disabled Barbie. Rape Victim Barbie. The Academy loves suffering.
I mean, just take a look at the characters played by this year’s Best Actress nominees (spoilers ahead):
- Annet Benning in Nyad, where her character overcomes a history of child sexual abuse to complete a grueling swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage at the age of 64.
- Lily Gladstone, in Killers of the Flower Moon, where she plays an Osage women whose husband tries to murder her entire family in order to gain control of the oil rights under Osage tribal land.
- Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall, where she plays a German bisexual novelist with a blind son who is accused of murdering her husband.
- Carey Mulligan in Maestro, where her character is married to philandering bisexual substance abusing musician until she dies of breast cancer.
- Emma Stone in Poor Things, where she commits suicide and is resurrected by a mad scientist after which she runs off and ends up in a brothel before returning to an abusive ex-husband.
Margo Robbie’s Barbie can’t lay a hand on that level of misery and torment.
You can see the same principle at work in the Oscar history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think it’s fair to say that the character of Barbie is written at about the same level of realism as many of the superhero and supervillain characters in the MCU, many of whom are played by people just as talented as Margo Robbie. Yet despite their box office success and cultural influence, the thirty-three films of the MCU have given us only a single acting nomination, which went to Angela Bassett in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. You may remember that she played T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda. In other words, she played a widowed mother who was mourning her dead son.
I think the Academy’s notion of quality acting is at least as good an explanation for Robbie’s Oscar snub as sexism.
Or so I thought…until I found out the Academy gave Ryan Gosling a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in Barbie. He played Ken. You know, Barbie’s boyfriend, who has no life of his own. He’s basically the character equivalent of a lukewarm glass of tap water.
Never mind. I got nothing.