While The Martian might be among the strongest contenders for Best Picture right now, there is no telling which way the race will go from here. We’re heading into the last gasp of the Oscar race, believe it or not, because by the end of this month it will be time for many key precursor groups to start voting.
Fifteen years ago Ridley Scott was up for Best Director for Gladiator. It was the strangest year for Best Picture, one that no other year has really matched since. Ridley Scott’s film was the one to beat. But it had strong competition from two films: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
Ang Lee won the Directors Guild Award, which which set the stage for an unpredictable Best Picture winner. I remember this year very well because it was the first year I started Oscar blogging. Back then, there weren’t really blogs, however. We all built our sites on html before blogging software came along, before opinion-based writing dominated all media, before the Oscars were a 24/7, year round business, before Facebook, before Twitter – practically before cell phones.
Gladiator was up against two art films that year, though it was universally beloved by the public and critics alike. With rave reviews, a bravura performance by Russell Crowe and a massive box office hit, looking back it seems impossible any film could have beaten Gladiator. There was a current running through the Oscars that would continue for the next 15 years and eventually lead the Academy to change their Best Picture nominee count from five to ten. It was partly due to the ongoing chatter by people like me, and partly due to the ballooning number of film critics and their awards that guided the Oscars away from blockbusters and toward art house fare.
This has been mostly a good ride but perhaps a failed experiment. What it has seemed to do, more than anything else, is alienate the general public from the Oscar race. Moving the dates up a few weeks for nominations and final ballots has only intensified the separation, as the Oscar race is almost decided before many Oscar movies even open in theaters.
It’s 2015 and Ridley Scott is back, now with his highest grossing film to date, beating Gladiator’s $187 million and easily headed towards $200 million. The more money it makes, the more popular it becomes. The more popular it becomes, the harder its chances of winning. Without adjusting for inflation, let’s look at the Oscar winners and their box office take:
Birdman cost: $18 million, made $42 million.
12 Years a Slave cost: $20 million, made $56 million.
Argo cost $44 million, made $136 million.
The Artist cost $15 million, made $44 million.
The King’s Speech cost $15 million, made $135 million.
The Hurt Locker cost $15 million, made $17 million
Slumdog Millionaire cost $15 million, made $141 million
No Country for Old Men made $74 million.
The Departed cost $90 million, made $132 million
Crash cost $6.5 million, made $54 million
Million Dollar Baby cost $30 million, made $100 million
Return of the King cost $94 million, made $377 million
Chicago cost $45 million, made $170 million
A Beautiful Mind cost $58 million, made $170 million
Gladiator cost $103 million, made $187 million
The Martian cost around $100 million, and has made $197 million so far in 6 weeks. It is not like Return of the King, probably, and is more like The Departed, or especially Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in terms of budget, profit and popularity.
With The Martian so likable and earning much of its box office from word of mouth, it seems like the film to beat, at least right now. What the Oscar race has seemed to be about in recent year, however, is not rewarding the popular favorite. In fact, doing almost the opposite. American Sniper did not win last year. Avatar did not win in 2009. Gravity didn’t win in 2013. The voters seem to care less about the films that really are achievements in their industry and more about what kind of films most reflect their standards and sensibilities.
Avatar, had it won, would have sent the wrong message. Actors rule the Academy and there was no way they were going to allow a film to win where they were essentially enhanced or replaced by performance capture. Gravity was a film driven almost entirely by visual effects and had only two, count ‘em two, actors in it. American Sniper was just too right-wing to ever be the preferred choice of the mostly liberal Academy. Besides, last year they were busy celebrating Birdman for its condemnation of superhero movies, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Still, one has to wonder if there is still any sort of prejudice against films that are popular with broader audiences, even ones that are as well reviewed as The Martian has been. Oscar voters will have options for their winner this year. Several of them fit the bill for what defines a Best Picture, though each comes with its own invisible barrier to make them seem like an easy frontrunner.
Spotlight – about journalists and not as emotionally impactful as some other films. Still, it fits the bill of an Oscar winner in that it’s not hated by anyone. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Room – is it liked more by women than men? It keeps winning audience awards, which would discount that argument.
Brooklyn – a film nobody can hate, but will it have enough “gravitas” being that women are only half as valuable as men in terms of Best Picture?
The Revenant – Inarritu just won, how could he win again so soon? Plus too dark. Plus too violent.
Joy – would be the first film centered around a sole female lead to win since Chicago. Also, an unknown entity in terms of what it will ultimately be about.
When I look at The Martian up against these other films I see the one that isn’t like the others. I see one that could be hindered by being set in the near future. And one that could be punished for being that successful; “if that many people love the movie how could it be any good?”
The other thing I see with a potential Martian win is that Ridley Scott will finally collect the Best Director Oscar that has eluded him these past 15 years. I also see a movie that could unite the Oscars and public in a big way once again. That isn’t such a bad thing when you’re talking about a movie this good.
The irony of this year’s race for me personally is that I spent my first year blogging about how Gladiator should not win, and how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should. In the years since, I’ve come to see Gladiator as a formidable Best Picture winner and though Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar for Traffic was a well deserved win for a great director – it is impossible to see how he could have beaten both Ang Lee and Ridley Scott.
Scott has been nominated three times by the DGA and three times by the Academy. Despite his having reinvented the sci-fi genre with Alien and Blade Runner, he was only acknowledged by the Academy when he wasn’t in Sci-Fi mode – Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise. That genre prejudice could have been eliminated by both Avatar and Gravity’s nominations.
Even if we’re talking about Best Picture maybe going to a film other than The Martian, doesn’t it kind of, sort of seem like Ridley Scott could be our Best Director frontrunner? If you look at the big guns in the category you see:
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
David O. Russell, Joy
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
Todd Haynes, Carol
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs
Then you see the other films that could be vying for Best Picture and they all have relatively unknown directors, or directors just making their mark in the industry:
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy
Room – Lenny Abrahamson
Brooklyn – John Crowley
Black Mass – Scott Cooper
The Big Short – Adam McKay
Beasts of No Nation – Cary Fukunaga
The race could be redefined by new movies that aren’t on our radar, but from the looks of it, I’d say Ridley Scott has more than a great shot at mirroring his run in 2000, and stands a good chance of winning either Director or Picture or both.
Current Best Director Predictions:
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
John Crowley, Brooklyn
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight; or Lenny Abrahamsson, Room
Best Picture predictions
The Hateful Eight