2016 has already shaped up to be a defining year for film, from the emergence of diverse voices in cinema, to the reemergence of some of the old guard. Perhaps the most surprising story of the year will be the forgiveness tour featuring Mel Gibson, a director and actor that had seemed to have faded from public memory. Gibson was an undeniable star from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. However, his personal views and police confrontation pushed him into the woods for over a decade. However, in 2016, he came back with one of the strongest films of his career.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is vintage Gibson in a variety of ways. Not only does it contain a strong message of faith, but it juxtaposes the hero’s faith with extreme violence. While this formula has left him in some stale narratives, he often breathes life into his work. Gibson’s true forte as a filmmaker is delivering incredible below-the-line experiences. Since “Braveheart,” films directed by Gibson have at least three below-the-line nominations. Gibson’s ability to assemble talent is impressive, and has remained a constant across his films.
However, “Hacksaw” is different than his others in one big way. Unlike other Gibson films, his latest actually broke through in the acting categories. Andrew Garfield is an actor on the rise, and his performance as Desmond Doss is magnetic. There’s a scene at the conclusion of his first run that leaves the audience feeling the pressure on his character. When he breaks, the audience can feel the tension release from the theater. It’s a powerful scene, and one of the reasons the film has resonated with Academy voters. The film plays like “Captain Phillips,” with Garfield playing the role of Tom Hanks, but this time the actor got his due.
Even though “Hacksaw” racked up an impressive six nominations, including one for Best Picture, many have discounted it due to a nomination it did not pick up. Unfortunately for Gibson, his film’s technical prowess seemed to be at the expense of a screenplay nomination. In this case, “Hacksaw” competed in adapted screenplay, missing out to one of the toughest categories of this year’s Oscars. Still, the film got nominated for Best Picture, Director and Lead Actor. It’s got the profile to make a run at Best Picture, so how big of a deal is a screenplay nomination?
7 Films in the Past Pulled Off the Feat
To begin with, it is certainly not unprecedented for Oscar to go for a Best Picture without a screenplay nomination. However, it is extremely rare. Since World War II (the setting of “Hacksaw Ridge”), only three films have achieved the feat. Before that, it occurred four times. The first film to accomplish the feat was our first Best Picture ever, “Wings,” in 1928. With the Academy newly formed, there was certainly no history against it. In fact, it set a bit of a precedent. “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel” and “Cavalcade” would all do the same by 1933.
The first of the post-World War II films to take home the big prize was Lawrence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in 1948. Olivier’s masterpiece took home four Oscars, and was nominated for another three. However, the screenplay was controversial due to the treatment of its source material. Despite the fact Olivier cut about half of the content from the play to make the story fit as a feature film, it still runs 155 minutes. It was extremely controversial at the time, and could easily have been the reason it was left out of the screenplay nominations.
The next time it occurred was when “The Sound of Music” took home Best Picture. The film was a smash hit, and was the first film in history to crack $100 million worldwide at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the third highest grossing film in film history with a $1.2 billion domestic gross. Nominated for 10 Oscars, the film took home five. Robert Wise took home Best Director, and the film also won Editing, Sound Mixing and Adapted Score.
The most recent occurrence of a film winning Best Picture without a screenplay nomination was James Cameron’s epic “Titanic” in 1997. It remains one of the few true sweeps in Oscar history, winning 11 Oscars of the 14 nominations it was up for. Again the director took home Oscar, and Cameron’s film won 10 of the 11 crafts. It also broke box office records, and was the first film to top $1 billion.
What Does “Hacksaw Ridge” Need?
So with the parameters laid out for what it takes to win Best Picture without a screenwriting nomination, how does “Hacksaw Ridge” compare? The floor for a modern winner was four Oscars, which is on the table for “Hacksaw.” It obviously has tough competition in “La La Land” and “Arrival,” but both sounds are in play, as is editing. Here’s the key to Hacksaw converting for Best Picture: It needs Gibson to win director. All of the directors have taken home Oscar on the night of their triumph, even though Olivier’s was for acting. Gibson is divisive for sure, but he got the nomination, so he’s clearly got strong support. He made the Oscar five after missing DGA, and the narrative would be quite fulfilling for many. It might be too appealing for some voters to ignore.
It’s true that “Hacksaw” has a tough road to taking home Best Picture. In fact, it might be the longest of shots for Best Picture. If “La La Land” doesn’t take home director, it seems like Denis Villeneuve and Barry Jenkins might be the natural choices to fill in. Same in editing. However, if those three fall their way, watch for Gibson to make a strong push. If four dominoes fall that way, “Hacksaw Ridge” has a legitimate shot at taking home the biggest prize of the night. It’s doubtful Gibson would want it any other way.