This Oscar year is similar to the some of the years before the Academy pushed their date forward six weeks, before Telluride and other film festivals became the premiere Best Picture launching pad. The Revenant’s last minute dominance — after seeming to miss the first wave of critical acclaim — is reminiscent of the years where films like Braveheart and Million Dollar Baby won. In both their respective years, two other films were barreling towards Best Picture, but neither could be decided upon, so voters turned to a newly emerged alternative.
In the year of Braveheart, 1995, Sense and Sensibility and Apollo 13 were sharply dividing the industry and the critics. No one was really considering Braveheart because its reviews were somewhat mixed. But when neither Ron Howard nor Ang Lee received Best Directing nominations from the Academy, that left only two films that could win with a traditional BD-BP twofer: Braveheart and Babe. Next to Babe (which is by far the better film, sorry but it is) Braveheart seemed liked the ultimate Oscar epic. “So let it be written, so let it be done.”
When Million Dollar Baby headed down the pike, it, too, was a tad mixed on reception. But it was King Clint and it hit its target mightily. Two other films were also hard competing that year as well: Sideways (SAG Ensemble award winner) and The Aviator (PGA choice). Clint swept in, took the DGA, then took Best Picture. The other thing Braveheart and Million Dollar Baby had in common is that they both won the Golden Globe for Best Director (though not Best Picture).
Now, we have King Alejandro and his second at-bat in as many years with The Revenant. The season was earlier dominated by primarily two films — The Big Short (PGA) and Spotlight (SAG Ensemble). Now that The Revenant has taken the DGA it, seems poised to take Best Picture, maybe even a sweep, as Erik Anderson at AwardsWatch is predicting. Anderson said he thinks it could be the biggest sweep since the days before the preferential ballot.
Sweeps occurred more commonly before the expanded Best Picture slate. There was more diversity of winners, too. Now, with more than five Best Picture nominees, the majority of wins in other categories come from Best Picture nominees, like 90%. The Best Picture nominees tend to divide up the awards in less predictable ways, and have often aligned Best Director, in split years, with those films that score with technical achievements. This happened with Gravity in 2013 and it happened again with Life of Pi in 2012. Those years were two-film races, however. And therein might lie the biggest thing about this year that has allowed The Revenant to dominate in the 11th hour; no one can really make up their minds between Spotlight and The Big Short, so many may opt for the epic, the film that fits the profile of the typical tried-and-true Oscar Best Picture winner.
What’s most unusual about The Revenant is that it’s divisive. Although the makeup of film criticism — and the people who write it — has grown and expanded and evolved over the past 15 or 20 years of Oscar history, so this makes it hard to compare similar situations in years past. But a divisive film is a divisive film.
To find out how divisive, you can take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes negative score. That doesn’t tell you the whole picture. But The Revenant’s loss at the PGA already suggests that it is divisive. In order to win Best Picture on a preferential ballot, a film has to either come up with a hefty 40% or more of #1 votes from the entire membership on the first round of counting, or else it has to be able to collect a substantial number of redistributed ballots where it was ranked #2 and #3. If it doesn’t, it just can’t win. Probably not if as few as 25% of ballots have it at #1 in Round 1, and the rest of the voters rank it at #6, #7 or #8. Because all those ballots where Revenant is ranked #6, #7, or #8 will go instead to rival movies that appeal to everybody during the middle rounds of voting. It’s as simple as that. Both Spotlight and The Big Short will have no problem landing on ballots in the top three ranks, and may even collect many of the ballots where they are ranked in the middle. But if The Revenant has a strong enough lead heading in, it could still win if enough people push it to the top of their ballot as their #2 or #3 favorite, liking it – not loving it, but not hating it.
Argo and Birdman were films that probably hit the crucial 35% or 40% mark of #1 support heading into the Best Picture vote count. How do we know this? They were both winning on both kinds of ballots across all the guilds – PGA/DGA/SAG. That this year has three separate winners in the three top guilds could signal that none of them are likely appealing to 50% + 1 of the voters. Extremely unlikely. (These neck-and-neck frontrunners could be winning plurality ballot Guild awards with as few as 20-21% of the voters, but we suspect that number is closer to 35-40%). What will make the difference for The Revenant is whether this last minute enthusiasm for Iñárritu can make people switch their previous “against it” to a vote “for it.” Think: Martin O’Malley voters switching their vote because they know he can’t get the nomination.
But let’s take a closer look at this in three different parts. First, let’s look at The Revenant’s strengths, as well as its weaknesses. Let’s then look at previous divisive Best Picture winners on the level of The Revenant. And finally, we’ll compare Iñárritu’s run at a back-to-back Best Picture win, making Academy history.
One of the ways our friend Craig Kennedy wound up predicting Alejandro G. Iñárritu for the Best Director win at DGA was the exceptional nature of a back-to-back Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director. Just getting back-to-back Oscar nominations alone is rare enough after a BP-Director double-win. Getting a back-to-back pair of BD-BP nominations and then racking up 12 nominations for the film overall, on the heels of a Best Picture win the previous year is unlike anything Oscar history has ever seen. Ordinary when a director is peaking with back-to-back nominations in consecutive years, it’s the second pair of nominations when he finally wins.
(Best Picture nominations in italics. Best Picture wins in bold italics)
1929/1930 – Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front
1930/1931 – Lewis Milestone, The Front Page
1929/1930 – Clarence Brown, Anna Christie + Romance
1930/1931 – Clarence Brown, A Free Soul
1931/1932 – Von Sternberg, Morocco
1932/1933 – Von Sternberg, Shanghai Express
1932/1933 – Frank Capra, Lady for a Day
1934 – Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD)
1936 – Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey
1937 – Gregory La Cava, Stage Door
1938 – Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It with You
1939 – Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
– (double wins on the 1st consecutive BD-BP pair; loses on the 2nd pair)
1939 – John Ford, Stagecoach
1940 – John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
1941 – John Ford, How Green Was My Valley
– (It took Ford 3 consecutive BD-BP pairs before he scored a double win)
1939 – William Wyler, Wuthering Heights
1940 – William Wyler, The Letter
1941 – William Wyler, The Little Foxes
1942 – William Wyler, Mrs Miniver
– (It took Wyler 4 consecutive BD-BP pairs! before he scored a double win)
1939 – Sam Wood, Goodbye Mr Chips
1940 – Sam Wood, Kitty Foyle
1941 – Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy
1942 – Michael Curtiz, Casablanca
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD)
1943 – Henry King, The Song of Bernadette
1944 – Henry King, Wilson
1946 – David Lean, Brief Encounter
1947 – David Lean, Great Expectations
1949 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives
1950 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD nom)
1950 – John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle
1951 – John Huston, The African Queen
1952 – John Huston, Moulin Rouge
1952 – Fred Zinneman, High Noon
1953 – Fred Zinneman, From Here to Eternity
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD-BP pair)
1953 – Billy Wilder, Stalag 17
1954 – Billy Wilder, Sabrina
1954 – Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
1955 – Elia Kazan, East of Eden
– (double wins on the 1st consecutive BD-BP pair; loss on the 2nd BD nom)
1957 – Mark Robson, Peyton Place
1958 – Mark Robson, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
1959 – Billy Wilde, Some Like It Hot
1960 – Billy Wilder, The Apartment
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD)
1966 – Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
1967 – Mike Nichols, The Graduate
1977 – Woody Allen, Annie Hall
1978 – Woody Allen, Interiors
1981 – Stephen Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 – Stephen Spielberg, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
1992 – Robert Altman, The Player
1993 – Robert Altman, Short Cuts
1992 – James Ivory, Howard’s End
1993 – James Ivory, The Remains of the Day
2003 – Clint Eastwood, Mystic River
2004 – Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
– (double wins on the 2nd consecutive BD-BP pair)
2014 – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
2014 – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
We see how how the pattern has been extraordinarily consistent over the years. The closest we ever got to a shock-and-awe disruption of the pattern is the run by Frances Ford Coppola with The Godfather (won producer, not director), American Graffiti nominated the next year (producer), then The Godfather Part II (picture, director) and The Conversation was nominated for BP the same year (producer). The Godfather films won Best Picture twice but Coppola only collected Best Director for Part II. Bob Fosse won Best Director for Cabaret when The Godfather first won BP.
Due to another set of extraordinary circumstances, Craig Kennedy says he felt there had to be something special about this year and this movie and that director. That was one thing I myself neglected to see. In looking at the negative stats against The Revenant, and every other film, I was not looking at all The Revenant’s strengths. The Revenant has just made history twice – in a good way (winning the DGA back-to-back for the first time in their six decade history) and in a bad way (winning the BAFTA without a screenplay nomination. Not having that screenplay nomination still makes it a weak winner because it exposes the fact that the film is perceived to have no depth of story).
What’s interesting about the back-to-back wins of Birdman and The Revenant is to look at it as a thesis statement and then a backing up of that thesis. Riggan in Birdman seeks to do something unequivocal — make a masterpiece that elevates him above the kind of crap society has become and the industry has become. The film industry backed him up — way up — on that thesis. “Yes,” they said, “We agree. We hate the direction Hollywood is headed.” The next year, Iñárritu does the impossible — he makes the far more ambitious, massively difficult reach to deliver a work of art of the kind that Riggan could only dream about having made.
Its success was teetering on its box office performance, and it was touch-and-go for a while there. A very expensive art movie (with a budget of $135 million) needed to make a lot of money or it was going to be a monumental flop of epic proportions. It could have gone either way but it went, mercifully, in Inarritu’s favor as the film has indeed made lots of money. People flocked to see what all the fuss was about with the bear, the hubbub about the violence, and to maybe see the movie that might finally win Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar. So, all systems go, right? It wins the DGA and nearly sweeps the BAFTAs. Now, it’s a formidable frontrunner.
But here’s the problem. The Revenant is hella divisive. It’s more divisive than any film has been since Crash. When Crash won Best Picture it was such an embarrassment for the industry that they never awarded a badly reviewed film again after that. Before Crash, they had routinely ignored the critics and went their own way.
Once again, Rotten Tomato negatives, going back 20 years:
2015 – The Revenant – 50 negatives
2002 – A Beautiful Mind – 50 negatives
2005 – Crash – 57 negatives
2014 – Birdman – 21 negatives
2013 – 12 Years a Slave – 11 negatives —SPLIT
2012 – Argo – 13 negatives — SPLIT
2011 – The Artist – 7 negatives
2010 – The King’s Speech – 14 negatives
2009 – The Hurt Locker – 6 negatives
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – 20 negatives
2007 – No Country for Old Men – 18 negatives
2006 – The Departed – 24 negatives
2004 – Million Dollar Baby – 23 negatives
2003 – Return of the King – 14 negatives
2002 – Chicago – 34 negatives — SPLIT
2000 – Gladiator – 44 negatives —- SPLIT
1999 – American Beauty – 21 negatives
1998 – Shakespeare in Love 10 negatives —- SPLIT
1997 – Titanic – 21 negatives
1996 – The English Patient – 12 negatives
You can see that The Revenant is not just divisive, it’s among the three most divisive in the last 20 years. This could partly explain why it didn’t win the Producers Guild – it just couldn’t overcome the number of people heading in who either didn’t go see it or else saw it and hated it.
On the other hand, the Craig Kennedy narrative of THe Revenant being such an unusual trajectory for any director, let alone the one director “of color” in a year of #OscarsSoWhite could easily override, I think, the divisiveness of the movie.
I would not rule out, however, The Revenant winning a whole bunch of Oscars but just not Best Picture. Spotlight and The Big Short are still going to have many supporters heading into the race. That means, we still have a possible opening for a surprise on Oscar Night.
The other thing we can’t discount, in terms of wondering whether The Revenant can hit that 50% + 1 level of support heading in is that it does have nominations in almost every category at the Oscars. Sure, it could have more support from the actors (SAG Ensemble nomination) and more support from the writers (that crucial missing screenplay nomination).
Since we’ve already looked back at the years with the preferential ballot to see whether films without screenplay nominations won Best Picture in a split year, now let’s look at the preferential ballot years in non-split years, to see what The Revenant’s precedent there might be.
1944 – Casablanca wins 3: Picture, Director Screenplay. 8 nominations total. It was up against Song of Bernadette, the Golden Globe winner, with 12 nominations, including Screenplay.
1943 – Mrs. Miniver wins 6: Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography
1942 – How Green Was My Valley wins 5: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction. 10 nominations total, including Screenplay.
1939 – Gone with the Wind – 8 wins + 2 honorary: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Screenplay, editing. 13 nominations in all.
1938 – You Can’t Take it With You – 2 wins, just Picture and Director. 7 nominations in all, including Screenplay.
1935 – It Happened One Night – 5 wins out of 5 nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Writing.
Prior to this year, there were often only three nominees per category.
No matter how you slice it, split or no split, with a preferential ballot having a screenplay nomination helps.
In conclusion, the rarity of Iñárritu’s second turn at-bat the year following a double win (Craig Kennedy’s thesis) could simply override all things, with many voters launching him into the stratosphere of the truly legendary. It’s rare enough to get a back-to-back nominations since the 1970s – thus, making Academy history would seem to naturally follow.
We have no other major awards left to announce from here on out. Taking into account that Iñárritu and Birdman did NOT win last year with the Golden Globe and BAFTAs, the finally tally heading into the Oscar race looks like this in terms of industry awards:
The Big Short
PGA, ACE, WGA
DGA, ADG, ASC
I’d say The Big Short theoretically could still give The Revenant some trouble for the top prize of the night, in light of the kinds of nominations it has — though the DGA win is a risky stat to bet against. The one deciding factor might be the singular male protagonist, which Oscar voters really like, versus an ensemble piece about something more important than “White Man’s Burden.” It’s a toss-up. Still.