Early on in the season, I remember thinking, actually writing, that we were looking at a year where four films with leading roles for women, where the subject matter was about women, would be launched into the Best Picture race. The year began with Carol, Todd Haynes’ stunning love story between two women, based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, adapted by Phyllis Nagy. Mad Max: Fury Road came out early, in mid-May, and it too seemed to be headed for the Best Picture race. Brooklyn and Room and maybe Inside Out held great promise, as well. There was even some talk that one of these films could actually win. Of course it never turns out the way we expect, and this year it seems particularly strange that it really isn’t turning out that way. In fact, it’s pulled so far in the opposite direction of those hopes, one wonders how it is that this could have happened the same year the country might be electing its first female president.
How indeed. The Revenant, now on track to win Best Picture and Best Director, is the most masculine-infused Best Picture contender of the year — of any year. Not only does it feature all things masculine — hunting, fighting, killing, revenge — women don’t much figure into it anywhere. Hugh Glass’s wife is nothing but a memory, a ghost. Another woman is a victim, abducted to be abused by her captors, raped against a tree. It is a world where women simply don’t exist. Contrast this with Iñárritu‘s film, Birdman, last year where women were so vital and strong and important. How, then, does the Oscar race come clattering to a close rallying around the one film that is virtually absent of women? The only other Best Picture nominee that comes close to a story of wall-to-wall men is Bridge of Spies, where Amy Ryan has a small and unimportant role, but for the typical early ’60s role of holding the family together at home while her man is out making history. Mad Max, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Martian, Brooklyn, and Room each feature women endowed with significant purpose, from large roles that carry their films to smaller roles where they provide crucial support. Heck, in The Martian women are spacecraft commanders and genius computer geeks.
Spotlight and The Big Short are both about something far bigger than their immediate stories relate. While it’s true that these two films are mostly populated by male characters — and mostly white, at that — the casting is factually accurate and the narratives deal with disastrous issues that impact everyone, men and women alike. All the same, Adam McKay cast Adepero Oduye as the head of a hedge fund firm, and Tom McCarthy cast Rachel McAdams as the famous Sacha Pfeiffer. There is only so much that can be done to introduce women into male-dominated arenas like newspaper journalism and Wall Street finance.
But The Revenant? It’s just flat-out man-faces-wilderness. This certainly isn’t to imply that Iñárritu is sexist — I would never suggest such a thing. And it’s true that one of last year’s films that raised the most sexist red flags, The Hateful Eight, was mostly shut out. But the way so many strong films about women have been marginalized, one by one, will surely seem like a strange phenomenon when we look back a few years from now in retrospect, considering what an historic leap America is potentially about take with Hillary Clinton. Many will look back at this milestone pinnacle year for women and say, “Yeah, and then The Revenant won Best Picture.” It’s just odd is all. Especially in the midst of American mania whipped to a frenzy by the likes of Donald Trump — who wears his silly red good-ol’-boy cap, “Make America Great Again,” and struts around like a king in a wrestling ring, promising to bust Isis’s ass with his bare hands and to bully Mexico with a choke-hold till they build a wall to keep themselves corralled south of it.
So you might say, ah, now we’ve landed on some irony. The sweetness of a Mexican director winning the Oscar two years in a row as a big fuck-you to Trump, and giving the Academy something to show for #OscarsSoWhite in the bargain, so maybe it starts to make some kind of sense. After all, almost everyone would rather think about bitch-slapping Donald Trump than celebrating assorted unsettling versions of “her” onscreen.
There is no sense in arguing it. For months I’ve been writing many warnings that this would never turn out to be the year of the woman. It can’t even be the year of reckoning for the criminals on Wall Street (The Big Short), or the year of reckoning for pedophile priests and the Catholic Church (Spotlight) and it certainly can’t be about a woman taking the wheel, as George Miller so bravely did with Mad Max. As for two women in love who chose to live their own lives together, with no need for any man to validate their personal freedom — that movie couldn’t even get invited to sit at a table for ten with two seats left vacant.
The bigness around the edges of The Revenant is matched by the deeply embedded wild man masculinity at its core. Even if Leo’s character is mauled by a mother bear — the only significant female given any authority in the film, actually, who is then summarily slaughtered trying to protect her cubs — we know how his story will end. He will survive. He must survive. In the end then, if The Revenant prevails as most expect, we will be once again be receiving the same thing we’ve been given every year at the Oscars for a long time now — the suffering, the victimization, and (usually) the ultimate absolution of the lost and tormented male protagonist. Whether justifiably (a slave) or unjustifiably (a silent film star, a CIA agent, a former superhero, a stuttering king) one singular theme threads throughout: the men in the movies Oscar loves best must be seen to suffer and then somehow be shown to triumph, be redeemed or set free or …
It isn’t that The Revenant isn’t a glorious, sweeping epic, or that it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. It’s just that — for a short while anyway — it looked like there might be something else on the menu for a change. For The Big Short and Spotlight, that something else is vitally important, so in those films we may still find reason for hope. We now realize it was always too far beyond the realm of expectations to think Mad Max or Brooklyn or Room would stand a chance.
In keeping track of our stats and precedents and Oscar history from here on out, we should never forget nor ignore the nearly irresistible lure of a long-suffering male protagonist — one who’s on track to win Best Actor to boot — because that formula has led to Best Picture for six straight years in a row.