I started bickering with a colleague about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-viability a couple of months ago, shortly after the release his now career-defining brah-vs-nature thriller, The Revenant. We weren’t arguing about whether Leo would or should win the Academy Award for Best Actor. We both acknowledged that he was a shoe-in for an honor that was a long-time coming, but we could not agree why we wanted DiCaprio to win the award. My colleague considered Leo a talented actor who has given a couple decades’ worth of strong performances that entitle him to join the ranks of the De Niros, Day Lewises and Brandos of this world. The Revenant may not have been the best movie or his best performance, she said, but come on, he’s Leo, he’s great and he’s earned it.
My argument was considerably more cynical. I was happy to see Leo take home Oscar gold not because I think he is extraordinarily skilled in the dramatic arts, but because I hoped a win would get him to stop making the pretentious Oscar bait movies of which I considered The Revenant to be only the most recent example (too long, too self indulgent, not even a compelling revenge fantasy, etc.). Leo is far from terrible, but I’ve always felt that his serious dramatic performances scream “Look how hard I’m acting!” or “Hear how good my accent is!”as if he’s still trying to defend himself against Titanic‘s legacy twenty years after the fact. When a performance constantly calls your attention to the actor performing it, then the actor isn’t doing the best job, no matter how much raw bison liver he eats.
I didn’t think DiCaprio’s Revenant performance could be described as the “best” in any objective sense, but the Oscars have never been that objective. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded so that Hollywood power players could better exert control over the powerless (writers, contracted stars, etc.) and the awards they hand out each year are mostly a reflection of how the industry wants to be viewed at that particular time. Can you think of any reason for Argo to have won best picture in 2013 other than Hollywood patting itself on the back for once having kind of saved lives?
These days studios will spend millions marketing a film during the balloting period. Actors must submit Oscar-winning performances on talk show couches and at gala luncheons long after their films have wrapped; this year, Leo played that game with precision. He broke up with his young model girlfriend before his seriousness could be obscured by an association with the Baywatch franchise. He did a bunch of interviews in which he referenced multiple near death experiences. He donated $15 million to environmental efforts and met with the Pope about climate change. He posed for photos with Kate Winslet at every available opportunity and even referred to her as his “homegirl.” He kissed Maggie Smith! And through it all he emphasized the physical challenges of making The Revenant, which is exactly what you should say if you’re appealing to a group of people that tend to favor physical transformations over emotional ones.
It took Leo & Company eleven months to make The Revenant and at least another six to promote his performance, so yeah, he deserved something for his efforts. That something might as well be an Academy Award.