Alexjando Iñárritu’s latest film The Revenant has swept the board in the 2016 Oscar nominations. From film editing and sound mixing, to best actor and picture, The Revenant has been recognised in every major category totalling 12 nominations at the most prestigious award show of the year. Howeverl this inevitably leads to the question; is The Revenant a truly worthy nominee, or just Oscar bait?
The Revenant depicts the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, while exploring the uncharted wilderness, is injured in a brutal bear attack. Glass is left for dead by his hunting team, and embarks on a struggle for survival to get home, but also seeks revenge on John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who abandoned him. Set in 1823 in Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is a gritty and realistic story of survival, which as a result has gained extensive critical acclaim.
Despite initial success, critics are claiming that the marketing is not a true reflection of the film and what would merit an Oscar nomination. Before the film’s release, the trailers and interviews revealed that it was incredibly challenging for all involved, as the cast performed in freezing temperatures in far off locations. Images of Leonardo DiCaprio’s weathered face and frozen beard could be seen everywhere preceding release, suggesting a brutally challenging role unlike any of the other roles in films which are being praised in the award season hype. It is true that these qualities are certainly not enough to guarantee a film Oscar success, however this is not ‘Oscar bait’ in the nature which it has been in previous years.
Often ‘Oscar bait’ is something which is propelled above the competition due to its subject matter. For example, period dramas set in a time which saw a tragic historical event such as the Holocaust, (e.g. Schindler’s List) cannot be ignored due to the inevitable emotional nature of the film. In the same way, 12 Years a Slave reflected slavery in what was perhaps the most shocking and honest way a film ever had. This is not to say that these are not incredibly worthy films, however the subject matter inevitably gains the films great interest – but it should not guarantee them an Oscar, which the ‘Oscar bait’ labels suggests it will.
For similar reasons, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio has notably struggled to secure an Oscar in previous years. DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2014 can only be described as phenomenal. However, Matthew McConaughey took the best actor Oscar that year for Dallas Buyers Club, who was undeniably a worthy winner. Nevertheless, the subject matter of a film which centred around a community of people who struggled with AIDs, made DiCaprio’s performance as a cocky, drug crazed, millionaire stockbroker, a less worthy winner in the eyes of the Academy. This is certainly not the sole reason why Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Oscar, but it is a factor that comes into play for many facing competition from films which take on important subject matters.
It is these types of films which are often coined as ‘Oscar bait’, which is why The Revenant seems to be less deserving of this label. It is true that actors as popular as Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy can also result in the film being seen as Oscar bait, but why would a successful director not seek to have the best, most talented cast to make their films as high quality as possible? Both Hardy and DiCaprio are outstanding in The Revenant, and prove their ability to deliver demanding, yet convincing, performances in what can only be described as one of the most award worthy films of the year. Sadly, success will inevitably always be met by critics who try to present exceptional films as mediocre and undeserving of the praise they receive.
Ultimately ‘Oscar bait’ isn’t necessary a derogatory label, as these types of films often are the best film of the year. Nevertheless it does in many ways give an unfair advantage to these films where the subject matter seems to suggest more likely success. The Revenant is certainly no Dances With Wolves in its focus, or lack thereof, on Native Americans. If The Revenant was traditional ‘Oscar bait’ it would surely put the issues of Native Americans at the forefront rather than relegate them to the background?
For this reason The Revenant should be recognised for its performances and overall quality rather than the presence of established actors alone. The Revenant does not push any single element of the film in an attempt to gain award recognition. The advertising is clearly focused on the film’s core themes of survival and revenge, while other Oscar bait films try to market the qualities which are most likely to guarantee them award show success.