The biggest story of this awards season, aside from the absence of black nominees from major categories at the Academy Awards, has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s front-runner status. To many who will be watching the Oscars on Sunday evening, the only category they will truly care about is best actor. It is the 41-year-old actor’s sixth nomination, and fifth for acting. He has never won, and given the various prizes he has earned this awards season, it is doubtful DiCaprio will lose the biggest trophy this weekend.
Regardless, the cultural consensus is clear: DiCaprio is long overdue for an Academy Award. Many consider DiCaprio a natural frontrunner because of his recurring status in the loser’s circle. The hoopla over the Academy’s “reluctance” to hand DiCaprio a statue has even resulted in a videogame, Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage, where the star races for that trophy, dodging paparazzi and chasing down his fellow nominees.
Based on the furor over his perceived snubbing, one would think the Academy was as vicious and unruly to DiCaprio as that grizzly bear in The Revenant. However, the widespread reaction to DiCaprio’s relationship with the Oscars is hyperbolic. There is a feeling that of all the actors working in show business right now, he has been slighted the most. That is not true: Glenn Close (six nods) and Amy Adams (five) have never won either. Where are their videogames? Meanwhile, five is not an unforgivable number of times to be nominated without a win. Two of the actor’s frequent collaborators, Martin Scorsese and Kate Winslet, only won Oscars on their sixth try.
If DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for any performance, it is for a film for which he didn’t even receive a nomination. In Catch Me if You Can, based on a true story, the actor gives a tour de force performances as Frank Abagnale, Jr., a con artist who – before the age of 18 – scammed his way into working as a doctor, a lawyer and a pilot, while also forging checks and becoming the subject of a multi-year FBI manhunt. In Steven Spielberg’s film, the actor possesses both an exquisite range and a natural charm. It is difficult to watch Catch Me if You Can and see anyone else occupying DiCaprio’s role.
There, his performance is one that relies on actual performance, as Abagnale must think on his feet to get out of tight situations. When the character is tempted to flee from a criminal past and into a normal life, we are fascinated to see what DiCaprio will do next. Meanwhile, the moments with the conman’s father (played by Christopher Walken, who was nominated that year for supporting actor) are poignant without ever turning falsely sentimental. DiCaprio has never seemed as comfortable under a character’s skin, and he doesn’t rely on histrionics to impress: the performance is strong since Abagnale never comes off too strong.
Compare Abagnale to another real-life fraudster that DiCaprio played more than a decade later, The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, and the former’s triumphs are even more noticeable. DiCaprio gave a full-bodied performance in Wolf, a film that seemed to be tailor-made around big moments for the actor to sell with gusto. But Wolf is full of extremities: DiCaprio makes an impression because he reaches for the back row in virtually every scene. While the performance is the fuel the film needs to rocket to the three-hour mark, there is barely a moment of nuance within the portrayal, and little to get the audience to relate to the character. We’re rooting for Abagnale to escape unscathed, but it’s hard to muster any sympathy for Belfort.
Of the four past performances that bequeathed him a nomination, the most impressive was DiCaprio’s turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. The Hughes from John Logan’s script (directed admirably by Martin Scorsese) is a man trying at every turn to resist categorization and who is also obsessed with his own celebrity. Remind you of anyone? Still, there is something appealing about a flashy movie star from the tabloids reaching beyond what is expected onscreen. DiCaprio played the title character of J. Edgar, a bruised mobster in The Departed and a venomous slave owner in Django Unchained. He didn’t receive nominations for any of those performances, although their distance from the actor’s natural charm and newfound (i.e., heroic) position as a climate activist creates an allure that gets your attention.
Regardless, as columnist Scott Mendelsohn writes on Forbes.com, “the kinds of movies that DiCaprio has been making for the last decade in an alleged attempt to win the fabled award are so important and so unique in this movie-going landscape.” The actor has shied away from making anything light, comic or even remotely indie since Don’s Plum in 2001, a film that I didn’t even know existed until I discovered it on his IMDb page. Every film he has made since has been with an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. With the exception of Django Unchained, DiCaprio has been the lead in every film he has starred in between 2002 and 2015.
It seems that the narrative of his repeated snubbing has been perpetuated by the star himself: if nearly every movie you’re in for the past 15 years can be considered awards season material, then you’re asking to be taken far more seriously than other Hollywood personalities. It may have helped DiCaprio to diversify his portfolio into more independent and supporting work. The gravitas he frequently aims toward is starting to become a parody of itself.
It’s unsurprising that he will likely win for what is less of a performance than a piece of sadomasochistic performance art. DiCaprio does his best to give Hugh Glass a sense of dimension within the banalities of The Revenant’s screenplay. (The film is far more interesting for its aesthetics than its character psychology.) It is a sometimes moving, sometimes muscular feat that, ultimately, tells us too little about the man underneath the growling, bearded façade. DiCaprio used to be an actor who could say much with just a sly grin or furrowed brow. Now, he needs massive physical altercations to get Academy attention.
However, it is a shame that an actor of DiCaprio’s achievements will probably win for a role that seems overly typical of any person who wins an Oscar. He plays a real-life figure (check) that goes through enormous, life-or-death obstacles to reach his goal (check). Plus, the fanfare surrounding the arduous shoot of The Revenant – one that required the actor to shoot in freezing temperatures, eat bison meat and sleep in an animal carcass – promotes the idea that DiCaprio deserves to win because he suffered for his art. If only the character onscreen was as fascinating as the film’s beleaguered production.
But, if it’s not worthwhile to bemoan DiCaprio’s lack of Academy recognition, to whom should we turn our attention? Here’s a name for you: Roger Deakins. The 66-year-old cinematographer is nominated for an Academy Award this year for Sicario. He has received 13 career nominations, beginning with 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. In the past eight years, Deakins has been nominated nine times for cinematography, for films as eclectic as No Country for Old Men, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall. He has never won. He probably won’t on Sunday. That honour will, in all likelihood, go to Emmanuel Lubezki for shooting – you guessed it – Leonardo DiCaprio crawling through the snow in The Revenant.