Oscar cliffhanger: Will Ridley Scott finally win for directing ‘The Martian’?

the martian ridley scott matt damon

Ridley Scott, one of the most respected filmmakers of his generation, has yet to win an Oscar despite three nominations including one for helming 2000 Best Picture champ “Gladiator.”  This could finally be his year with the overwhelming success of “The Martian,” a film which returns Sir Ridley to his sci-fi roots. With a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a $55 million opening weekend, it has the approval of both critics and audiences alike. Will Oscar voters agree? 

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In this 3D epic, Matt Damon plays an astronaut who must do whatever is necessary to survive after being stranded on Mars. This is prime material for the director, who infuses it with his usual visual prowess and an unexpected dose of heart, making it one of his strongest efforts in years.

Scott’s first Oscar nomination was for “Thelma & Louise” (1991), a female-driven road dramedy; he lost to  Jonathan Demme whose film, “The Silence of the Lambs,” swept the top races. While “Thelma and Louise” was snubbed for Best Picture, Callie Khouri won for her original screenplay and it also contended twice for Best Actress (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis), as well as Cinematography (Adrien Biddle) and Film Editing (Thom Noble). 

His next nomination was for “Gladiator” (2000). While that sword-and-sandals epic won five of its 12 Oscar nominations — Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design (Janty Yates), Sound, and Visual Effects — Steven Soderbergh claimed Best Director for “Traffic.” Scott had gone unrewarded throughout the entire season, with Ang Lee taking the Globe, the DGA, and the BAFTA for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Scott’s third bid came the following year for “Black Hawk Down,” an action-packed retelling of a near-catastrophic US mission in Somalia; he lost to Ron Howard who helmed Best Picture champ “A Beautiful Mind.” “Black Hawk Down” did win two of its other three bids: Film Editing (Pietro Scalia) and Sound Mixing.  

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So there you have it: three nominations and no wins. Those keeping score will see that Scott did not contend for his landmark sci-fi films “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982), and that could be the key to a win for “The Martian”: a legendary, unrewarded director returns to the genre he made famous and hits another one out of the park. It certainly worked for Martin Scorsese with “The Departed” (2006).

There are several other factors working in Scott’s favor.

For starters, the film is sure to be a big player in the tech categories. “The Martian” finds the filmmaker working with his usual team: cinematographer Darius Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, film editor Pietro Scalia and costume designer Janty Yates, all of whom are likely to receive nominations. The film will also surely be a major player for Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Score for  composer Harry Gregson-Williams, a favorite of Scott’s late brother Tony. Such broad support across the academy’s branches can often result in a win for the director.

In recent years, the award for Best Director has seemed to equate to Most Difficult to Direct. Wins for Ang Lee for “Life of Pi” (2012), Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity” (2013) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for “Birdman” (2014) certainly suggest this. “The Martian” is nothing if not a complicated film to direct, and Scott is one of the few filmmakers in the business known for his ability to handle massive projects.

Those wins for Lee and Cuaron are of special note, since both prevailed despite their films losing Best Picture to “Argo” and “12 Years a Slave” respectively. Thomas McCarthy, director of the current Best Picture frontrunner “Spotlight,” is in third with odds of 11/2 behind David O. Russell for “Joy” (9/2) and Inarritu for “The Revenant” (5/1). So even if “Spotlight” should win, our experts are predicting another filmmaker to take Best Director, which could open the door for someone like Scott, who could easily ascend through the ranks from his current standing of eleventh place and 40/1 odds.

Scott’s age could work in his favor as well. The filmmaker turns 78 this year, and the fact that he took on such a gigantic undertaking and turned it into one of the biggest successes of his career should impress voters. He’s certainly a strong candidate for an honorary Oscar, a prize that has perhaps eluded him due to his churning out work at the rate of a film per year.

Most importantly of all, “The Martian” is a crowd-pleaser, with a strong central character for whom the audience can root. The same is true for Scott: surely there are academy members who want to see him finally clutching an Oscar for directing? 

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Photo: Ridley Scott. Credit: Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEImages/REX

Photo: Matt Damon in “The Martian.” Credit: Moviestore/REX

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