Iñárritu Makes DGA History; Oscar Race Wide Open – ANALYSIS (AWARDS 2015)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu just made movie awards history. He may do it again at the Academy Awards this year, which will be fueled by the most unpredictable Best Picture race in at least a generation – maybe more.

For the first time ever in the 68 years of the Directors Guild of America awards, Iñárritu became the only back-to-back winner of the DGA’s top Best Director prize, for his heralded survival revenge epic The Revenant. Last year, he took his first DGA award for directing Birdman. Iñárritu went on to win Oscars for both Directing and Picture at the Academy Awards three weeks later. If he repeats that feat this year, Iñárritu will become only the third person ever to win back-to-back directing Oscars, and the first in 64 years. The legendary John Ford won 2 of his 4 Best Director statuettes in 1940 and 1941 for, respectively, The Grapes Of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, and a decade later Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for A Letter To Three Wives in 1950 and All About Eve in 1951.

Iñárritu joins a select group of 2-time DGA winners: Ang LeeFrancis Ford CoppolaClint EastwoodGeorge StevensDavid LeanRon Howard, and Mankiewicz. The only 3-time DGA winner is Steven Spielberg, who presented writer/director Alex Garland with the First-Time Feature DGA honor for the sci-fi indie Ex Machina.

So what does this mean for the 2015 Oscar race? We’re officially in uncharted territory. For the first time in memory, there’s no safe bet for the Best Picture top prize.

Normally, the three major industry guilds – Producers, Screen Actors, and Directors – coalesce behind a single movie, making the Oscar night result inevitable. On a rare occasion there’s a tight 2-film race, such as in 2013 when 12 Years A Slave and Gravity tied at the Producers Guild Awards. This year, the PGA, SAG, and DGA have all gone in three different directions: The Big Short (PGA), Spotlight (SAG), and The Revenant (DGA).  This 3-way split isn’t unprecedented, but factors to this year’s particular Oscar race make it more confusing than the other historical examples.

First, let’s look at the three previous times the Top 3 Guilds split, and why – despite those splits – there was still a clear front-runner going into Oscar night.

  • 2000: PGA – Gladiator, SAG – Traffic, DGA – Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
    • With Crouching Tiger being in a foreign language and Traffic splitting admiration for director Steven Soderbergh whose Erin Brockovich was also in the Best Picture race, Gladiator had the momentum along with its eventual Best Actor winner Russell Crowe.
  • 2001: PGA – Moulin Rouge!, SAG – Gosford Park, DGA – Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind.
    • After Ron Howard and Apollo 13 suffered one of the biggest Oscar upsets in 1995 at the hands of Mel Gibson and Braveheart, 2001 was clearly Howard’s year. Nothing was going to stop him and fellow producer Brian Glazer, and nothing did.
  • 2004: PGA – The Aviator, SAG – Sideways, DGA – Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby.
    • Admiration for Clint Eastwood was still at its peak, and this last minute, unexpected, controversial entry fit a powerful “Eastwood passion project” narrative. The Aviator didn’t fit the mold of Martin Scorsese‘s classics, and Sideways was more a critical darling than an industry fave. Million Dollar Baby was also fueled by Best Actress and Supporting Actor favorites Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. The film, its director (who also starred) and both acting locks went on to win, as expected.

So why is 2015 different? Let’s consider each of the three films – as each have more arguments “against” them than “for” – and then an extenuating 4th factor that could make losers of them all.

  • The Big Short: despite 5 nominations, its only art/tech category nomination is for Film Editing. Historically, a film needs to be admired across all Academy branches to be competitive in the Picture race (The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road fit that bill this year). The Big Short has proven very popular within the industry, largely due to its relevancy and the surprise leap of filmmaking by comedy director Adam McKay, which is what (along with its PGA win) makes it a competitor. But with no “this person is due” factor among its nominees, it likely won’t replicate the success of Million Dollar Baby, its most similar historical precedent. Similarly, MDB‘s only tech nomination was for Film Editing. But that winner had two more nominations and, of its 7 total, 3 were in the Acting categories (the Academy’s largest branch by far), and 2 went on to win (with the 3rd, Eastwood, being awarded as Director). By contrast, The Big Short only has 1 acting nomination – and it won’t win.
  • Spotlight: this real-life drama and ensemble showcase is the closest thing we’ve had to a critical consensus this year, and its SAG Cast win certainly helps, but yet…its historical precedent Sideways (also a SAG Cast winner) came up short on Oscar night, and the sentiment for this contender is more one of admiration than passion. When it comes down to brass tacks, Academy voters love to pick movies they’re passionate about (which explains upsets like 2005’s Crash). The fact that Spotlight is so restrained in its tone works against it with Academy members (even though, truthfully, that trait is an impressive virtue). If Spotlight had won more industry guild pre-cursors, we could wager that “admiration” is enough this year. But it hasn’t, so it more-than-likely won’t be.
  • The Revenant. On paper, this has the most going for it. It leads the race with 12 nominations, it has two strong Acting nominations (with Leonardo DiCaprio being the favorite for Lead Actor), its a big budget epic and a personal passion project for Iñárritu (both factors being big reasons that historically motivate Academy voters), and it’s been an unexpected hit at the box office.  And yet…Iñárritu won the Directing and Picture Oscars just last year for Birdman. Never in the 88 year history of the Academy Awards has a person won both of those awards back-to-back. For Iñárritu to pull that off would be unprecedented. So the bottom line question is this: is Iñárritu seen as worthy enough to become the first to do so? Is he seen as being on par with the likes of John Ford, or Tom Hanks (who won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars), true legends of the industry? If The Revenant had won either the PGA or SAG it’d be much easier to answer “yes”. But without either of those (the PGA especially, which would normally be very inclined to award such a grand, grueling scope, plus the DGA win is the weakest victory as the Academy’s directing branch membership is very small) the answer still seems more like a “no”. The Revenant remains surprisingly vulnerable – in both the Picture and Directing categories – given the Birdman factor.

All that being said: more than likely, the Best Picture race is a 3-way toss up between those Guild winners. But what makes this year’s Oscar night even more of a wide open mystery is the other mitigating factor I alluded to earlier: without any of those three being a prohibitive favorite (and the nomination leader only notching the one Guild with the corresponding smallest Academy membership), we have a prime scenario where those top 3 contenders could split votes just enough to allow one of two popular films with a lot of nominations to come through as an awards night shocker, namely Mad Max: Fury Road (10 nominations) and The Martian (7 nominations), with the latter’s director/producer Ridley Scott (not nominated by the directing branch) possibly getting sympathy votes similar to Ben Affleck‘s directing-snub Best Pic victory for Argo. Granted, these two movies are dark horses, and generally “dark horse” designations are more for awards chatter fodder than being actual upset possibilities. Not so this year; the dark horse labels here are legitimate, specifically because there is no clear favorite among the 3 leaders. So of the 8 Best Picture nominees, only Bridge Of Spies, Brooklyn, and Room seem out of contention.

It should be noted, too, that even with the wide open nature of the Picture and Directing races, all 4 acting categories are indeed locks at this point. DiCaprio will take Best Actor, Brie Larson will complete her awards seasons sweep as Best Actress for Room, there’s no real contender in Supporting Actor for Creed‘s sentimental (and deserving) favorite Sylvester Stallone, and while “lock” may be too strong of a term for Alicia Vikander, her SAG win as Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl confirmed what the collective conventional wisdom had already been theorizing (plus, the Academy loves to give that award to up-and-coming ingénues, ala Angelina Jolie, Marisa Tomei, Juliette Binoche, Lupita Nyong’o, Mira Sorvino, to name a few).

So what’s my hunch right now? The Revenant takes Picture but Iñárritu loses Director to Mad Max: Fury Road‘s George Miller. The lack of a Revenant sweep throughout the awards season seems to strongly suggest that, despite its 12 nominations, industry peers are very hesitant to anoint Iñárritu with a record that only John Ford now holds. Giving Iñárritu a second consecutive Best Picture as a co-producer while denying him a Director solo-win follow-up seems to be where the temperature of the industry is right now. Plus, awarding Miller with the Director prize would be the perfect way to honor that 10-times nominated arthouse blockbuster, particularly with Miller being 70 years old and a widely respected auteur.

The Writers Guild winner – which is announced February 13 – could give us a possible tea leaf next week, but given how that group has been an historically weak predictor compared to the other three major guilds, we shouldn’t read too much into where they land. Which is perfectly fine with me. I’ve long found it ridiculous to see how the awards season generally leads to a predictable Oscar night, year after year. Not simply because that’s boring but, even more so, because there’s always enough quality and award-worthy achievements in each given year. Annually, there’s simply too much quality for virtually every awards season to be reduced to one clear-cut choice (even if I agree with the consensus). What we’re seeing this year is what we should be seeing every year. It’s a relief to see 2015 unfold as it has. And it’s exciting.

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