Oscar upheaval: After DGA win, ‘The Revenant’ challenges frontrunners ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Big Short’

The DGA has thrown the Oscar race into disarray by crowning “The Revenant” helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as Best Director. He prevailed here last year for “Birdman,” which went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars and also won Inarritu awards for helming and writing. But unlike “Birdman,” which had also claimed the top award from both the producers and screen actors guilds, “The Revenant” has only racked up a win at the Golden Globes till now. 

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The Big Short” took the first big industry prize, winning Best Picture from the Producers Guild of America on January 23. That guild and the academy have agreed on 19 of the most recent 26 Best Picture champs, including the last eight in a row. Key to the import of this precursor prize is that it picks a winner using the same method — the preferential ballot — that the academy reintroduced when it expanded the Best Picture field six years ago. Even last year when the race was as close as it’s been this year, the PGA predicted the Oscar winner using this system by recognizing “Birdman” over, among others, the presumptive frontrunner “Boyhood.” 

Then “Spotlight” was named Best Ensemble by the Screen Actors Guild on January 30. That guild’s equivalent of Best Picture has forecast the academy’s top pick only 10 times in its 20-year history. Last year “Birdman” won here first but in 2013 SAG picked “American Hustle” for Best Ensemble while the academy chose “12 Years a Slave” for Best Picture. SAG has foreseen a few major Oscar upsets, including “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “Crash” (2005). And it helped clarify “Argo‘s” position as Oscar frontrunner in 2012 after Ben Affleck was snubbed for Best Director.

Since the Directors Guild of America aligned itself with the Oscars calendar in 1950, all but seven of its winners have repeated at the Oscars; the most recent of that unlucy septet was Affleck. Inarritu would be the third back-to-back Best Director winner at the Oscars. John Ford won two of his record four Oscars consecutively for helming “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941). And Joseph L. Mankiewicz prevailed for “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949) and “All About Eve” (1950). And Inarritu could go them one better as only the latter of each of their two wins was a Best Picture champ. 

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Ford’s wins predate the creation of the DGA Awards in 1948. The first two guild kudofests did not follow the calendar year as does the Oscars. Mankiewicz won in 1948 for “A Letter to Two Wives” while Robert Rossen prevailed in 1949 for “All the King’s Men.” They competed at the 1949 Oscars, with Mankiewicz winning the directing award while Rossen claimed the picture prize.

Best Picture and Director have lined up for 64 of the 87 years of Oscar. Since the academy went to an expanded Best Picture lineup with the winner decided by preferential ballot six years ago, there have been two instances where these awards split. In 2012, Ang Lee won for overseeing the 3-D spectacle “Life of Pi” while “Argo” claimed Best Picture. And in 2013, “12 Years a Slave” was named Best Picture but its helmer, Steve McQueen, was bested by Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”). 

“The Revenant” leading man Leonardo DiCaprio is all but certain to win Best Actor at the Oscars after five losses (four acting, one producing). And while featured players from “The Big Short” (Christian Bale) and “Spotlight” (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo) are also in contention, none is expected to prevail. Historically, the Best Picture champ more often that not could boast of at least one Oscar-winning performance but in the six years of the expanded Best Picture field, only three have done so: Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech” (2010), Jean Dujardin for “The Artist” (2011) and Lupita Nyongo with “12 Years a Slave” (2013). 

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While “Birdman” did not win any acting awards at the Oscars, it did pull off a triple play for Inarritu, who won Best Director and shared in the wins for producing and writing. While Inarritu is part of the nominated producing team for “The Revenant,” he and Mark L. Smith were snubbed by the writers branch. Only seven films have won Best Picture without at least contending for their screenplays, with the most recent of these being “Titanic,” which swept the 1997 Oscars with 11 awards thus tying the record set by “Ben-Hur” in 1959 and since equalled by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. The other Best Picture champs snubbed for their screenplays were: “The Sound of Music” (1965), “Hamlet” (1948) and four from the earliest days of the Oscars — “Wings” (1927-28); “The Broadway Melody” (1928-29); “Grand Hotel” (1931-32); and “Calvacade” (1932-33).

In its favor, “The Revenant” heads into the Oscars with the most nominations (12) just as “Birdman” last year led with nine (tied with “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). It also has the longest running time among the eight Best Picture nominees, clocking in at 156 minutes. The others, in descending order, are: “Bridge of Spies” and “The Martian” (141 minutes); “The Big Short” (130); “Spotlight” (129); “Mad Max: Fury Road” (120); “Room” (117); and “Brooklyn” (112). 

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And “The Revenant” is doing boffo box office, topping more than $$144 million since opening stateside at Christmas and still ranking among the top three each week. Compare that to “The Big Short,” which has made $61 million domestic in the same time frame while “Spotlight” sits at $35 million. Of the other Best Picture nominees, “The Martian” topped out at $228 million in the US and Canada, “Mad Max: Fury Road” grossed $154 million, “Bridge of Spies” made $72 million, “Brooklyn” is at $32 million and counting and “Room” is just shy of $10 million.

Looking ahead, we are predicting that “The Revenant” will have a strong showing at the BAFTAs, which take place on Feb. 14, just two days after final Oscar voting begins. Our odds forecast wins for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Cinematography. However, we must be mindful that last year these kudos went for “Boyhood” in a big way, naming it Best Picture and giving Richard Linklater the directing prize. 

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Photos: “The Revenant” (Fox); “The Big Short” (Paramount); “Spotlight” (Open Road)

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