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They Will Survive: Why Oscar Loves Tales of Perseverance

They Will Survive: Why Oscar Loves Tales of Perseverance

The latest round of Oscar nominations offers evidence that
21st century filmmakers and their audiences are devoted to a certain narrative: the survival tale.

Three of the eight Best Picture candidates fall into this
category—sci-fi thriller “The
Martian,” wilderness adventure “The Revenant” and intimate mother-and-child
drama “Room.”

On the surface, given their genres, they might seem to have
little in common. But the stories they tell all involve individuals separated
from society and struggling under harsh, life-threatening conditions. Their
lead characters’ instinct to fight back and never give up is also similar. In
the case of Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper in “The Revenant,” it is his dead
wife and son. For Brie Larson’s
sexually abused captive, forced to live in a tiny garden shed for five years in
“Room,” it is her unyielding devotion to her young son, who has yet to
experience the outside world. For Matt Damon, as a left-for-dead astronaut
stranded on Mars, it is his dedication to his mission family that refuses to
give up on rescuing him.

The primary obstacles they struggle against aren’t human foes,
even as DiCaprio seeks revenge against Tom Hardy’s scheming fellow trapper and
Larson is a prisoner of her twisted abductor, who rapes her repeatedly. Instead,
all three characters must overcome
their own doubts and fears in order to believe there is a reason to fight back
and that they are capable of doing so.

The number of these types of sagas have been cropping up
with more regularity in the Academy Award race in the past couple years. They include 2007’s “Into the Wild,”
which was nominated for two Oscars, and 2010’s “127 Hours,” which earned six nods including Best Picture. Such survival yarns continued to appear in 2012 with “Life of Pi,” “Beasts
of the Southern Wild,” and even “Amour”—if you stretch the definition—in the Best Picture lineup, along
with the Best Actress nomination for Naomi Watts in the real-life tsunami
survival tale “The Impossible.”

The true landmark year for this genre, though, was 2014, when
“12 Years a Slave” was named Best Picture against other survivalist entries as
“Captain Phillips” and “Gravity.” Last year’s contest featured “Wild,” with Best Actress nominee Reese
Witherspoon pitting herself against the great outdoors.  

You can locate the roots of this current trend in earlier Best Picture nominees such as 1975’s “Jaws,” whose most exciting and relatable
moments arrived in the last third of the film when the action boils down to
three very different men in a boat
vs. a monster-sized shark.

Another early example is “Apollo 13,” which certainly was an
influence on “The Martian” and “Gravity.”

But the film that probably did the most to kick off this run
is 2000’s “Cast Away,” Robert Zemeckis’ then-novel account of a lone survivor of a small aircraft crash who
lives for years on an uninhabited South Pacific island before being rescued. “Cast Away” was
nominated for just two Oscars—Best Actor for star Tom Hanks and Best Sound.
But what was considered a risky venture at the time would go on to be one of
the biggest-grossers of the year, taking in $430 million—right behind the
No. 2 biggest hit of 2000, Best Picture champ “Gladiator.” Ridley Scott’s
ancient epic kicked off an immediate revival of that art form. But the success of “Cast Away” took a bit longer to bear fruit.

One can arguably judge each decade’s taste in cinematic
narratives by which titles made the cut as contenders for the Academy’s top
prize. The ’60s had their lavish musicals like “The Sound of Music” and
historical epics such as “A Man for All Seasons.” The ’70s had their crime
stories, including “The Godfather” and its sequel, as well
as issue dramas like “Norma Rae” and “Coming Home.” The ’80s leaned towards
dramedies, such as “Terms of Endearment” and “Rain Man,” or super-sized biopics, including “Out of Africa” and “The Last Emperor.” The ’90s celebrated the
anti-hero in the form of “Unforgiven” and “American Beauty.”

The effect of “Cast Away” reached the shores of TV
first, both in the form of reality
shows like “Survivor” and fictional series such as “Lost.” But the events of
9/11 not only had a profound effect on our daily lives but also how we view the
world. And that also affected the types of films being made by Hollywood.
Initially, cultural pundits  predicted
an end to irony, a boom in uplifting entertainment and an avoidance of violent
films—which, judging by what’s in cinemas today, never happened.

What did occur was a shift in how we consume our information
and a hunger to see stories that stir our emotions in very human ways with at
least an edge of truth that we can relate to.

Below, four reasons why survivor tales have grown in
popularity in the early 21st century:

The advent of 24-hour TV news coverage:  CNN came into its own during its coverage
of the Gulf War in the early ‘90s. But even network stations dropped its
regular programming to focus on such news events as  the hearings involving the sexual harassment allegations
made against Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas in 1991 and O.J. Simpson’s
slow-speed chase in a white Bronco in 1994 (soon to be the subject of FX’s “American Crime Story”).

But after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in
2001, nearly every major network and news outlet aired nothing but stories
related to the plane hijackings for days on end. And, invariably, the tales
of tragic horror were balanced by
moving personal accounts of survivors, good Samaritans and heroic first responders. As a nation, we found hope
and solace in these real-life struggles.

And many still cling to these true stories of survival in
order to offset the large-scale acts of violence and disaster that seem to take
place with alarming regularity, whether Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Sandy
Hook Elementary shootings in 2012 or the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. It
makes sense that movies would reflect our desire to bolster our belief in that
we can overcome whatever odds we face with these very human stories.  

The glut of superheroes: When “Spider-Man” landed in theaters in 2002 and launched
the wave of comic-book crusaders, which continue to multiply at an alarming rate,
part of the film’s success at the time was attributed to the fact that Peter
Parker was just an average guy who evolved into an avenger after being bit by a
spider—a.k.a “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

And while the enthusiasm for such astonishing feats of
derring-do has yet to wane, there is one problem with these super beings. You
always know they will conquer most any foe that comes their way. And what with
reboots and origin stories, they can be reincarnated countless times anyway.
That might be the way to conquer the box office. But if you want to compete
during awards season, there has to be more at stake. Hence, the popularity of
the survival tale—especially those that are based in part on truth.

The ongoing villain problem: In these volatile PC times,
it’s difficult not to offend when relying on what could be considered
stereotypical depictions of baddies that are not based on true stories. And
Nazis are too easy these days. Studios have to be careful about turning off
potential ticket buyers, especially considering social media users are not too shy to complain early and often
about such matters.

But survival tales often rely on more than just human foes
to stand in the way of their heroes, such as natural disasters, crime-related
circumstances or the challenges of the great outdoors.

Such roles are acting nirvana:  If you want to impress Academy voters, donning a cape and
tights is not the way to go. Instead, you need to show human frailties and suffer for your art both onscreen and
off. Why is Leonardo DiCaprio considered a shoo-in for best actor for “The
Revenant” after missing out four other times in that category?

Yes, he is terrific in the film in a near-silent role,
emoting pain, suffering and perseverance with every breath and step he takes.
But, even more importantly, it wasn’t just  his character who had to endure bouts of illness and frigid
temperatures after being nearly mauled to death by a bear. He did, too, as he
has related in countless interviews—including the fact he actually ate raw
bison liver in one scene. Guzzling booze in “The Wolf of Wall Street” just
can’t compete.

Actually, the godfather of these sorts of tales might be the
late, great Billy Wilder, who died in 2002. While the filmmaker is best known
for his more comedic offerings with insight into human nature, such as
“Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment,” as well as explorations of its darker
side, such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard,” it was two of his least
successful—if more experimental—efforts that are now considered influential
classics, and were early examples of the kinds of survival stories that are
popular today.

First was the scathing account of journalistic
opportunism from 1951 known as
“Ace in the Hole,” in which Kirk Douglas’ sleazy reporter manages to delay the
rescue of a man trapped after a cave collapse for his own gain. It anticipates
the exploitation of these types of ongoing human-interest stories  that current media outlets feast upon.

The other film, often cited as an inspiration for “Cast
Away,” is “The Spirit of St. Louis,” a 1957 account of Charles Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight from
New York to Paris in 1927 that mainly relied on the appeal of James Stewart
navigating alone in the cockpit for much of its running time as a selling

Although what is now lauded as a classic was considered an expensive failure at the time of its
release—not helped by the fact that Stewart, then 48, was playing the
25-year-old  aviation
pioneer—it nonetheless earned a
supportive review from Time, which read in part: “Stewart, for
all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in
suggesting what all the world sensed at the time: that Lindbergh’s flight was
not the mere physical adventure of a rash young ‘flying fool’ but rather a
journey of the spirit, in which, as in the pattern of all progress, one brave
man proved himself for all mankind as the paraclete of a new possibility.”

And that very same spirit is what survival tales hope to
capture today.

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