Saturday, November 26, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Revenant" (2015)

Scene from The Revenant
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

The Revenant (2015)
Directed By: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written By: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Screenplay), Michael Punke (Novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 156 minutes
Summary: A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

The Movie

For better or worst, The Revenant is one of those films whose production nightmares could fill an entire book. The marketing began months in advance when word got out that crew members believed that working on the film was a living hello. This wasn't in the sense that they disliked working for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but that the environment gave a multitude of challenges. While it was because of Inarritu's vision, the results were about how uncontrollable nature was: a factor that remained very true both on screen and off. Off camera, the hope was to shoot the entire film in sequence with natural lighting. This sounded well enough, but left various issues for the cast and crew due to the cold weather. On top of everything else, the film's delayed production caused co-star Tom Hardy to have to drop out of other projects, specifically the comic book movie Suicide Squad.

To some extent, The Revenant's build-up was trying to make itself sound like it was the Apocalypse Now of the 20th century. It was a film passionately crafted against all conditions and sanity for the love of the medium. Its ambitious and masochistic approach made it come off as a Terrence Malick film with more grunts. It was a deconstruction of westerns and nature films where man roamed free. In this version, man was victim to the elements and suffered with no easy outs. It makes sense why Inarritu did this AFTER his Best Picture-winning film Birdman: a comedy about how hard it is to entertain. He needed a more conventional, albeit artistically challenging, film to clear his mind for an ambitious film that was bleak and full of misery. 

The film remains divisive because of its bleak worldview. On the one hand, it's a gorgeous mixture of natural cinematography and the horrors of man. On the other hand, it's a film full of exploitative violence meant to find catharsis in watching Leonardo DiCaprio suffer. It was all real, so the reports claim. Whatever it may be, it helped to create one of the most singular cinematic experiences of the year, leaving audiences to determine the value of what art is as well as what constitutes a performance. Is it being brutally wounded for your craft, or is it like Laurence Olivier claimed that acting is acting? Whatever the case may be, The Revenant quickly established itself as an experience film, and one that wasn't for everyone.

The Campaign

The campaign started as soon as the first stories trickled out in late July. It was a moment where The Revenant could be seen as a success like Apocalypse Now, or a career-ending tale like Heaven's Gate. Inarritu's film seemed to be cursed thanks to various stipulations that arose. The budget ballooned from $60 million to approximately $95 million. An initial break meant to last two weeks went to six weeks with the plan to finish shooting around May. It went until August. This was in part because Inarritu wanted to do two things that were bold. He wanted to shoot the film chronologically (which would add $7 million to the budget) as well as have cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use natural light. Hardy, who already had to drop out of other projects due to the delay, didn't believe that this could be done without extreme weather interference. According to Inarritu, the final product lived up to every request.

Along with an actor bruising his genitals while being dragged naked for a scene, a lot of the attention also turned to Leonardo DiCaprio. He was the pretty boy elite who was going to go gritty for his role as Hugh Glass: a man seeking revenge after being left for dead. The actor known for playing wealthy men who never had been hassled by bears was going to be his own stunt performer. If he had to walk through freezing cold waters, he would. In interviews later, he made comment about this. "I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do." he claimed, "Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly."

Months before the film was released, it was getting the reputation of being "intense." It would be an old school form of cinema that relied predominantly on realism. If DiCaprio was shivering, it was real. Certain animal sequences were digitally altered due to the difficulty it would be to shoot them. For instance, the famous bear attack scene wasn't revealed to be real or fake. It did however lead to this answer in an interview: "I will tell you it involved cables, it involved me flying around the forest, and it involved a tremendous amount of rehearsal. And it was pretty agonizing to do." Again, his literary technique played up the suffering aspect of the film as opposed to his actual performance.

Upon the film's actual release, which at a time seemed unlikely, the focus tried to turn towards the craft. Through various EPK packages, Inarritu and the crew spoke about how difficult it was to shoot while emphasizing their technique. They made sure to reference it as an experience and a unique film. This can be seen in the work itself, which at very least lived up to Inarritu's request. The ambitious camera technique was praised, especially for its long takes and ability to make a violent yet meditative film about nature as well as revenge. Many could find poetry in the imagery of man looking in awe over the forest. Considering that Inarritu was coming off of an Oscar-winning  hit, he had the additional boost of being at the arguable height of his awards recognition potential.

Then there was DiCaprio. Since his first nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? in the mid-90's, the joke has been that he was chasing that Oscar. It's a gag that extended to his other nominations, including his Best Actor nod for The Wolf of Wall Street where he was seen to be a little tearful upon losing while on camera. The "No Gold for Leo" meme reached peak popularity following the word of DiCaprio's dedication to his craft. They joked about his sacrifice as not being enough to win over Academy members who seemed to hold a grudge against him. In several cases, there was even a joke that the bear who attacked him (and falsely reported at one time to have "raped" him) would win over him. Beyond the Oscars So White movement, this is the closest that The Academy has come to being a viral sensation in many years. 

Still, the question as to whether DiCaprio deserved the award for not acting and instead being beaten up for a few hours. It brought debate as to whether acting is a physical challenge. Even then, the awards circuit was quick to buy into his impressive performance. Meanwhile, the criticism continued, suggesting that other actors who beat themselves up for trivial pursuits deserved retroactive Oscars. After all, DiCaprio ate raw bison liver, but Min-sik Choi ate a live octopus on camera in Oldboy. Suddenly the Best Actor race turned into a conversation about manliness instead of charisma. It has yet to be seen if this type of thinking will alter the future of the category.

The Payoff

To the film's credit, it did receive a hefty 12 Oscar nominations, which made it the highest nominated film of that year. Among these awards included Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, and the baffling Best Production Design. The film's push to be accepted as a cutting edge film with technical excellence proved to be a success, even earning a surprise Best Supporting Actor nomination for Hardy. Its biggest competition would be Mad Max: Fury Road, which swept the technical fields and left The Revenant to fend for itself in fields predominantly predicted to go to the journalism drama Spotlight.

The film's highest honor went to Inarritu, who won Best Director. Having also won this category for Birdman the year prior, he became the first Mexican to win the award in two consecutive years. It was also the third year in a row that a Mexican director won the category. Lubezki won Best Cinematography, making him the first person to win the award for three consecutive years. It was a far cry from the success story of Birdman the year prior, but the film still won the awards that mattered. Many would claim that Best Picture and Best Director were split in order to recognize both films as great artistic achievements. Since Spotlight was less showy, it would get Best Picture.

Then there was DiCaprio. After five other nominations, The Revenant finally gave him a legacy win. He was recognized for his hard work of freezing, sleeping in animal carcasses, and eating raw bison liver. What wouldn't be recognized in a Johnny Knoxville movie was being given the highest cinematic honor. During his speech, DiCaprio expressed his gratitude for the award before also talking about nature and the importance to help preserve it. While it had been vaguely discussed in interviews before, his Oscar speech was the first time that he seemed to share an environmental message that came from his time working with mother nature. The meme wagon wasn't too far behind, as they made gifs of him finally holding an Oscar, and thus putting the joke to rest.

With four Oscars now to his credit, Inarritu is working on a virtual reality film for 2017. DiCaprio is taking time off from acting to focus on activism. This is specifically seen in a recent documentary that he did with Fisher Stevens (The Cove) called Before the Flood, which takes a look at climate change. It was released by National Geographic for free and received some success. Starting during press for The Revenant, DiCaprio has become increasingly vocal in why we need to help preserve mother earth. While he isn't the first celebrity to do this, his influence definitely may lead to significant changes in how general audiences perceive it. All it took was an Oscar to get him there. Maybe if he wasn't beaten up so much, maybe the story would be a little different.

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