Has Hollywood’s Oscar turned into a self-aggrandizing middle-aged white man?
It’s the cinema’s award season and one look at the Oscar nominations makes me want to start a gratitude journal, an activity of which I’ve been entirely skeptical. But this year I’m grateful that I’ll never need to view the movie with the most Oscar nominations again.
The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won the best director Oscar in 2015 for Birdman, and won that award at the Hollywood Foreign Press Golden Globes awards this January, is flying high with his nouveau American western. It’s been nominated for 12 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
What makes the Revenant different from old style Westerns, the kind you and I remember from our childhood, where John Wayne and Richard Widmark were fighting the bad guys, who were all indigenous people back in those days, are two things.
The first is that the frontiersman Hugh Glass, a modern day version of Disney’s Davy Crockett, defends his Pawnee son and sympathizes with the plight of the natives whose land and livelihood is being stolen by the white man. The second is that rather than being shot in the Nevada desert, the Revenant was shot mostly in British Columbia and Alberta and only during what Iñárritu calls “the magic hour” between dusk and dark. It’s a gorgeous silvery filmic landscape constructed from natural light on hauntingly majestic terrain.
What is similar to the old style Westerns of the 1950s is that women don’t talk or play a consequential role in the narrative of The Revenant. Women are imagined as apparitions and speak only from the grave. The lives of indigenous people are also not explored in any depth. Their roles are limited— as they flit in and out of the movie. Ghostly presences, who don’t speak very much either.
The film focuses entirely on Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio with the requisite groans and grunts befitting the Lone Ranger of today’s cinema. He is the embodiment of the great white American hero, who by himself, defeats the freezing weather, hypothermia, starvation, grizzly wounds, and riding off a cliff.
Of his experience filming, Di Caprio said, “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. 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.”
Played by Leonardo DiCaprio as the indomitable hero, literarily crawling through the snow to survive –-after being mauled by a bear–Glass survives to avenge the death of his son by the one evil American man in the film played with grim relish by Tom Hardy as the nihilistic, immoral miscreant who attempts to murder Glass. The other bad guys are French fur traders.
For all its ravishing photography, and blood and guts, the message of The Revenant is much like this year’s Ridley Scott film, The Martian, which won Matt Damon the best actor in a comedy award at the Golden Globes as well as an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Similar to DiCaprio’s situation, Damon is abandoned by his colleagues and left for dead on Mars. On Mars, Damon proves that he can outsmart the weather, hypothermia, starvation, and loneliness, and only as the great white American hero is able to live to tell the tale.
Rather than being a frontier woodsman who is an ace with a rifle, Damon is a botanist who’s good with computers. Instead of guns and guts, mind-bending technology and guts save the day, shored up by Damon’s innate resourcefulness and unflappable confidence in his own exceptionality.
At a certain age, the one I’ve arrived at, it’s difficult for me to buy into these inflated portraits of male heroism. When I was five years old I adored the Lone Ranger as much as any kid, but in the last sixty years, my expectations of the Ranger’s heroism have been scaled down to intersect with my knowledge of how things actually turn out.
That is: most individuals prosper when they are part of a group of like-minded, caring and honest people, whose daily work enhances community rather than revenge and destruction. Movies, like The Revenant, that glorify violence create a culture in which in which lone gunmen act out their revenge fantasies on innocent people, as you and I are seeing with frightening regularity in the United States.
I must admit to enjoying films where both men and women play a dramatic role, and converse in full sentences. In fact, the film that moved me to tears this year was director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a nuanced portrayal by Carey Mulligan of the impoverished existence of Maud, a factory worker in London when the suffragette movement was at its apex battling for the woman’s vote. Suffragette did not receive one nod from Oscar.
Unlike today’s women, who show that they have much to be happy about in their gratitude journals, Mulligan hasn’t got anything to be grateful for. She has been sexually abused and shamelessly overworked. She has no purchase with her husband and when he throws her out of his house for joining the women’s movement, he also sacrifices their son. Suffragette is a film about how the first wave of feminists, particularly the seemingly unremarkable ones, struggled to make women’s lives worth living.
In my gratitude journal for this week, not only will I write that I’m grateful I’ll never need to view The Revenant again, but that there were women like the character that Carey Mulligan plays, and although they did not battle grizzly bears or crawl through the snow, or endure hypothermia and starvation, or sleep in animal carcasses, they reached magnificent heights, by making the Western world a better place for half its population.