Column: Why Does Everyone Feel Leo is Overdue for an Oscar?

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.

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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.

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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.

The Academy is Starting to Do the Right Thing

“And I want to commend the [Academy] president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, because she is trying to do something that needs to be done,” director Spike Lee said, in a terrific speech, while accepting a much-deserved honourary Oscar last November. “I don’t know if you know this, but the United States Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. And all the people out there who are in positions of hiring, you better get smart, because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.”

When the Academy Award nominations were announced Jan. 14, the reaction was, predictably, outrage. For the second year in a row, not one of the 20 performers voted by the 1,138-person actors’ branch was black. Some were quick to blame an overwhelmingly Caucasian caucus of voters. Others, more correctly, slammed the institutional biases of the film industry. The vanilla slate of nominees was barely a surprise, though, if one just took a quick look at the studio slate of prestigious fall releases.

The only major actor of colour widely expected to get a nomination was Idris Elba for his role in Beasts of No Nation. One can imagine that Netflix, which distributed the film and has minimal experience doing Oscar campaigning, may not have pushed enough for the nomination. Other packets of “flavour,” as Lee would say, such as Will Smith (Concussion), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), were long shots. The anger surrounding the lack of black nominees may have also become more inflamed due to the remarkable success of black women at the Emmys last fall, where Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba and Regina King all walked off with gold.

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Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation.

So, amidst the furor of #OscarSoWhite, the Academy responded, quickly and unanimously. The board of governors presented new rules eight days after the nominations came out, which attempt to double the representation of women (to 48 per cent) and minorities (to 14 per cent) in the Academy by 2020. Those who have been nominated for an Oscar receive a lifetime status, while those who have worked in motion pictures “during three ten-year periods” can remain in the Academy.

As the Academy states: “We want the Oscars to be voted on by people who are currently working in motion pictures, or who have been active for a long time. There are a number of Academy members, however, who had brief careers and left the business. We want to strengthen, uphold and maintain the credibility of the Oscars with these new criteria. Voting for the Oscars is a privilege of membership, not a right.”

While these changes are heartening, the only way the list of nominees is guaranteed to become more inclusive of the cultural community is due to changes in the industry. More stories about women and minority groups – even those that aren’t small minorities anymore – are routinely short-changed, due to the difficulty of these non-franchise films selling in markets outside of the United States. Meanwhile, when quality films are made, it is the studio’s job to push these titles for awards consideration. One worthwhile criticism related to #OscarSoWhite is how minuscule the campaigning was for titles like Compton, Creed and Selma. With a widening group of voters, it is a near certainty that studios will become more confident to broaden their perception of what films can be categorized as “awards bait.”

At the same time, one could see the last couple of years as an outlier. It is not like there has been a long-running drought of African-American nominees on “Hollywood’s biggest night.” Black actors have comprised more than 10 per cent of all acting nominees since 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won acting awards (for Training Day and Monster’s Ball, respectively). In the last six years, Geoffrey Fletcher and John Ridley became the first two African-American screenwriters to win Oscars, while Steve McQueen (for 12 Years a Slave) was the first black producer to earn a Best Picture prize. In 2012, T.J. Martin made history when he won for Best Documentary for Undefeated.

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Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay… and that’s all.

However, while these gains are significant, it is still an issue that the majority of Oscar-winning films featuring black actors are ones that focus on the subservience of African-Americans. Too frequently, they are asked to play slaves (12 Years a Slave), servants (The Help) or people struggling in dire poverty (Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild). The collection of powerful stories involving black characters this year were tales of artistic and athletic entrepreneurship. A more positive, less essentialized depiction of black America on the screen is important, and changes like the ones recently enforced by the Academy make a step toward quashing predictable stereotypes.

Meanwhile, as for the representation of female talent on the screen, this year’s Academy Awards are a noticeable improvement from the prior ceremony. Three of the eight Best Picture nominees in this current slate have a female protagonist, compared to zero last year. Four of the 10 nominees for screenplay had a woman writing (or co-writing), up from, again, zero last year. A bit less heartwarming: Carol, a critically acclaimed romance that just happens to be about two women having affections for each other, couldn’t muster a Best Picture or Director berth, despite six other nominations.

The Academy has a role as one of the world’s most prominent arts organizations to insist on more cultural inclusivity, and recognize that these changes are necessary. Even so, a new controversy has taken shape among Academy members who feel that they may not earn the necessary status to vote for future ceremonies. Various letters from infuriated Academy members have been printed in The Hollywood Reporter in recent weeks. In them, members complain that their voter status is now jeopardized; to combat racism, they argue, the Academy has created an age-ist double standard. However worthwhile their criticisms, these instances should be seen as the exception to the norm.

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Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed.

Close to a year ago, Vin Diesel said in an interview that he thought Furious 7 would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, “unless Oscars don’t want to be relevant, ever.” Was that prediction all that ridiculous? Well, if one looks at the entertainment industry as a business of commerce, Furious 7 would be a serious Best Picture contender. No franchise in movies today has managed to expand its audience with such speed – the seventh film more than quadrupled in worldwide box office what the fourth film made. More importantly, the audience for this series is more reflective of the type of America that is far too underrepresented on screen.

So, when Diesel was proclaiming Oscar gold for a high-octane sixth sequel, the relevance he was insisting upon may have had little to do with the Academy awarding a box office success. (Only four of the past 10 Best Picture winners surpassed the $100 million mark at the U.S. box office.) He was likely shining a light on the widening gap between what the Academy typically honours – films that appeal to an older, establishment crowd – and what the real face of America looks like. By taking a stand and giving more women and non-white people in the industry a say, the Academy should move closer to the cultural relevance, as well as representation, it merely thinks it has.