They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
DGA Sends Oscar Season Into Turmoil
By J. Don Birnam
February 9, 2016
Oh, how quickly the tables turn. After The Big Short won the PGA two weeks ago, pundits (including me) were ready to call the Oscar race over. Not so fast, said SAG. And, now, the DGA has added its voice into the cacophony.
The Directors Guild of America made history by making Alejandro González Iñárritu the first person to win their award in back-to-back years. In the process, they shoved an already wild Oscar season into one final tailspin of turmoil and unpredictability. The Best Picture race is, as far as I’m concerned, wide open, with only the BAFTAs (500 of whose members or so are also Academy members) left to clear up some of the mess.
DGA and Some History
No person has ever won back-to-back DGA trophies, so Iñárritu’s win is in and of itself noteworthy. And it’s not really a surprising win if you think about it - Spotlight and The Big Short are not big directorial achievements. Still, most of us thought they’d reward the technical mastery of Mad Max but they went instead for the technical mastery of The Revenant. The movie’s Oscar story has always been that it was difficult to make - the conditions were brutal and the director was demanding. In the end, the directors, even the guild, showed once more their bias towards more “serious” movies over genre pictures.
And make no mistake about it: Iñárritu’s DGA win is huge, and means that very likely he’s going to win Best Director at the Oscars. Since 2001, only one time has a person won the DGA and not won the Oscar if he was nominated. That was in 2002, when Rob Marshall won the DGA for Chicago, but Roman Polanski won Best Director (and Chicago still won Best Picture). (Of course, in 2012 Ben Affleck won the DGA but was not nominated for the Oscar, and Argo won Best Picture anyway). The PGA may have a perfect record for Best Picture since the Best Picture expansion in 2009, but the DGA has a basically spotless record for the last 13 years when it comes to Best Director.
If he wins, then, Iñárritu will join a select club of two others to win back-to-back Best Director Oscars - John Ford in 1940 and 1941 for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, and Joseph Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950 for A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve. So, it hasn’t happened in over 60 years.
But Best Picture is another story completely. For one, the DGA does not result in an automatic Best Picture win (ask Ang Lee or Alfonso Cuarón), and splits have increased since the preferential ballot came in in 2009. And even Ford and Mankiewicz did not win Best Picture consecutively - their movies won Best Picture only the second time through. So Iñárritu would break a crazy Oscar statistic if The Revenant made it all the way through the end.
In a way, then, this year’s race is crystallizing a bit like two years ago when you had a “serious” movie going up against the craftier movie. Back then, 12 Years a Slave squared off against Gravity, and there was really no doubt that the former would win Picture and the latter Director. This year, things are confusing by the fact that it’s two “serious” movies vs. two craftier movies. That’s Spotlight and The Big Short vs. The Revenant and Mad Max. If the theory is correct, then, the more serious within those categories will win Picture and Director, respectively. So, in other words, Spotlight would win Picture and Revenant Director.
But the crazy thing is that the guilds have split three ways, with PGA going for The Big Short, DGA for The Revenant, and SAG for Spotlight. (This helped most Oscar prognosticators, myself included, to guess all three results incorrectly).
This has happened three times before, as we can see in the table at the end of the column. Two of those times, the movie that won Best Director at DGA actually won Best Picture at the Oscars. That bodes very well for The Revenant. On the other hand, these were all before PGA and Oscar went over to preferential voting. The third time, it was the movie to win PGA that won at the Oscars. This makes sense, because SAG is so large, it’s hard to take their vote as necessarily reflective of the 1,100 or so actors in the Academy. So it would seem like an uphill battle for Spotlight at this point.
Given all this, here are updated Best Director and Best Picture rankings.