Oscar Watch: Can 'The Revenant' or 'Mad Max' win best picture without a screenplay nod?

Oscar Watch: Can 'The Revenant' or 'Mad Max' win best picture without a screenplay nod?
"Titanic" won the best picture Oscar without a screenplay nomination, a rare feat. (Paramount Pictures)

Fifty years ago, the hills were alive and "The Sound of Music" won the Academy Award for best picture, doing so without the benefit of a screenplay nomination.

In the ensuing half century, just one movie has pulled off a best picture win without also earning a screenplay nod — 1997's "Titanic."

History, then, would seem to be against "The Revenant" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" winning the top Oscar this year. The movies led the nominations field — the brutal frontier western "The Revenant" earned a dozen, "Mad Max" 10 — but neither film earned recognition for its writing.

Does either movie have the right stuff to join "Titanic" and "The Sound of Music," pop culture phenomena that remain relevant decades after their debuts? Short answer: It probably isn't wise to ignore the past.

The writers branch of the academy has given the cold shoulder to 41 picture nominees in the last 50 years. Many of them, like "The Sound of Music," were musicals, with voters discounting the difficulty of adapting a Broadway show for the screen. That left out movies like "Fiddler on the Roof," "Funny Girl" and "Hello Dolly!" as well as music-heavy films like "Ray" and "Moulin Rouge!" (Voters might also be biased against movies with titles that end with an exclamation mark.)

Source material from Shakespeare ("Romeo and Juliet") and Tom Wolfe ("The Right Stuff") has also been shunned, along with movies in which the directors used the screenplays as blueprints for the finished work ("Nashville," "Tree of Life"). And Paul Schrader's screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" also, inexplicably, didn't make the cut.

Adventure and action-heavy spectacles such as "The Towering Inferno," "The Fugitive," "Deliverance" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" didn't win writing nominations. Nor did "Jaws," a screenplay that was a work-in-progress but yielded numerous quotable lines ("You're going to need a bigger boat") and Robert Shaw's classic speech about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

You don't have to look far though to find the closest relation to this year's would-be best picture winners. Two years ago, the landmark space saga "Gravity" received 10 Oscar nominations and went on to win seven prizes, including Oscars for director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Many pundits thought "Gravity" would also take the best picture Oscar, but it lost to "12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen's shattering portrait of slavery in America.

Now, this year's two leading best picture contenders possessing screenplay nominations — the journalism drama "Spotlight" and the anarchic "The Big Short" — don't pack the same wallop as "12 Years a Slave." But you could also argue that "Mad Max" and, particularly, "The Revenant," aren't the equal of "Gravity" in terms of cinematic achievement. The cumulative scores on movie review aggregator Metacritic tell the story: "Gravity," 96; "Mad Max: Fury Road," 89; "The Revenant," 76.

"The Revenant" is chugging along quite nicely at the box office, crossing $100 million domestic. But short of Matt Drudge crying "bear rape," the movie hasn't made much of a societal impression. There are no "king of the world" cries, no raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, none of the pop culture touchstones that catapulted "Titanic" and "The Sound of Music" into eventual Oscar winners.

"The Revenant" or "Mad Max" could still prevail, of course. Last year, some pundits initially doomed "Birdman" because it didn't receive an editing nomination. "Birdman" won best picture, becoming the first movie since "Ordinary People" to do so minus an editing nod. But the movie's win seems more of a function of the film's single-shot staging illusion (a brilliant piece of editing, by the way) rather than any traditional, predictive barometer.

Academy members prefer their best picture winners to be about something, even if (especially if?) that subject is themselves. The challenge for the teams behind "The Revenant" and "Mad Max" in the next few weeks will be to convince voters that their movies possess a social relevancy along with their considerable craft.

"The Revenant's" star, Oscar lead actor front-runner Leonardo DiCaprio, already started the ball rolling in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, positioning the revenge-themed western as a film about "the triumph of the human spirit" and sharing his award with "all the First Nations people represented in this film." Sincere? No doubt. But savvy in its awareness of Oscar history, too.