Whatever challenges Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu faced while directing "The Revenant" on location in wintry Canada and Tierra del Fuego, he always felt good about the film he was making, and with reason — the film leads the Oscar field with 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Best Supporting Actor Tom Hardy.
In the month since the nominations, "The Revenant" has built steady momentum toward an eventual Best Picture win. For the first time in DGA history, Iñárritu won the DGA directing Award for the second time in a row, and also nabbed BAFTA awards for Picture and Director that had eluded "Birdman" last year, when the Brits went for Richard Linklater and "Boyhood." If "The Revenant" wins Best Picture, it will make Oscar history as the first time a director has won two years in a row. If Iñárritu takes Best Director as well, he joins two others, John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz.
So why is "The Revenant" outstripping lauded and timely rivals "Spotlight" and "The Big Short," when both films will likely take home screenwriting Oscars that it isn't even nominated for? (It's unusual for a film to win Best Picture without that nomination, although James Cameron's "Titanic" did accomplish this.) "Mad Max: Fury Road," with ten nominations, didn't land a screenplay nod either for the same reason: both films are virtually silent, devoid of much dialogue.
Finally, "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" are competing with each other; they are similarly well-mounted ripped-from-the-headlines political stories that are hugely popular. But they are talking-head dramas, and ambitious epic "The Revenant" could beat them. It's rare, as "Boyhood" proved, for a small drama to win Best Picture without several other wins as well, and "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" could both wind up with only Screenplay, although "The Big Short" is in the running for Editing.
Key to its eventual award season success, "The Revenant" had to overcome early negative publicity about the horrific shooting conditions that depicted the filmmaker as inhumane. Distributor Twentieth Century Fox and its awards team, led by ace New York Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz, who understands that the narrative behind a movie is as important as the movie itself, turned that story around so that Iñárritu became the hero of this drama, fighting for his vision against the elements.
And respected movie star DiCaprio helped considerably, praising the filmmaker for taking him and the rest of the cast and crew on a risky artistic adventure that changed their lives — while reminding them about the hazards of climate change, as snow did not materialize when it should have.
Finally, the Academy recognizes "The Revenant" as an uncompromising work of art. But it was also boosted by its Christmas holiday release, and benefited from a box office surge through January and February. The commercial hit has scored $362 million worldwide to date ($160 million domestic); it's an action-adventure that plays not only to the Academy's Steak Eaters but discerning Oscar voters who recognize its craftsmanship. ASC- and BAFTA-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will surely win his third Oscar in a row, after "Gravity" and "Birdman."
On the other hand, "The Revenant"'s late screening schedule may account for the lack of a SAG Ensemble nomination, often considered a precursor to a Best Picture win (that award went to "Spotlight"). It was a sign of "The Revenant"'s strength that DiCaprio landed a nomination anyway, and took home the SAG Best Actor award, along with just about everything else he was up for, from the Critics Choice and Golden Globes to the BAFTAs. With four acting nominations and no wins — this marks his fifth — DiCaprio is a classic example of a star who is due, and will be rewarded for suffering for his art.
And Tom Hardy proved an unexpected supporting nomination, likely riding the swells of his amazing year ("Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Legend"). He will probably lose to another actor with an undeniably sentimental narrative: "Creed" star and "Rocky" originator Sly Stallone.
But why, if "The Revenant" is such an arduous, demanding, rigorous and large-scale period piece, did it not win the PGA award that went to "The Big Short"? One answer may be that the producers saw a movie that wasn't, in the conventional sense of the word, well-produced. Coming in over-budget at $135 million, "The Revenant" broke the rules, forcing all its departments to service, in effect, the needs and demands of the cinematographer in the last hour and a half of natural magic hour light every day, to make any shot possible in a 360 degree world, to chase locations, mostly without backup from any cover sets. No producer ever wants to make a movie under those conditions. And it's unlikely that Iñárritu himself would repeat the experience. He had never made a big-budget studio film before. At the all-white-male Hollywood Reporter directors' round-table — among whom Iñárritu was the only eventual Oscar nominee — the other directors looked both aghast and impressed at what he had endured.