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Why Leonardo DiCaprio Winning an Oscar for ‘The Revenant’ Will Be Just the Worst

Why Leonardo DiCaprio Winning an Oscar for 'The Revenant' Will Be Just the Worst

If you watch the Oscars and care about movies, you learn to take the good with the bad, to prepare for unpleasant inevitabilities and celebrate the occasional fit of artistic justice. I have steeled myself for “The Revenant’s” likely Best Picture win this year, as I did with “Birdman” the year before; Alejandro González Iñárritu makes moviemaking seem exciting and important, and if I find his films to be clangorous contraptions stuffed full of shopworn insights, too bad for me.

But every year there’s one Oscar win I simply can’t abide, one that’s so monstrously wrong-headed it makes the fates cry out for justice. This year, as predicted by Indiewire’s critics poll, that winner will, barring an act of God, be Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Revenant.” It’s not that DiCaprio’s undeserving — far from it. But his performance in “The Revenant” is the fourth-most-interesting of his last four performances, and in recognizing him for this particular turn, the Academy is likely to demonstrate once more its toxic habit of confusing accomplishment with effort.

Let me stipulate here that this is not an argument that DiCaprio does not “deserve” an Oscar, as you cannot deserve something that has no reliable value. But after DiCaprio gave three of the best performances in his career in “Django Unchained,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” — all of them informed by wit, gusto, and a dazzling command of tone — it’s a major bummer to think that he’s going to win instead for crawling around in the snow and chewing on raw bison liver.

As Matt Zoller Seitz writes:

“The acting-as-punishment routine takes this mentality to its lowest depth. Right now Leonardo DiCaprio is the front-runner in the Best Actor race for his performance in the survival epic ‘The Revenant,’ in which he plays an 1830s trapper seeking revenge against a colleague who betrayed him and left him for dead in the wilderness. During the course of the film — which we’ve repeatedly been told was shot under very difficult weather conditions and in harsh terrain; filmmaker suffering is part of this narrative now, too — Leo wades and swims in icy water, crawls across hard tundra while dragging an injured leg behind him, eats raw bison liver, sucks the marrow out of the vertebrae of an animal skeleton, etc., in the name of survival, but also in the name of Art.”

It’s easy to understand why this kind of acting impresses moviegoers and many critics. We may not know what it’s like to channel private emotions into a camera-ready performance while making sure the light catches our face just so, but we know, or can imagine, how hard it would be to lose 30 pounds or credibly affect a disability, or to submit to any of the physical ordeals that Oscar candidates’ publicists habitually coach them to relate. (You can’t blame DiCaprio for playing the game; maybe he should have talked more about how itchy Jordan Belfort’s polo shirts were.) Is it easier to be charming on screen, to play most of your scenes opposite a computer and still fill a movie theater with warmth and movie-star charisma, as Matt Damon does in “The Martian”? Or to exude the wounded decency of an underdog prizefighter as Michael B. Jordan does in “Creed” — the most egregious omission from the nominees in the year of Oscars So White? Or to deliver a comic punchline at just the right speed, with no live audience to guide your aim, in a genre where the Academy rarely deigns to turn its gaze? I don’t know, but I do know you’re a lot less likely to win an award for it.

I won’t say that DiCaprio should have won an Oscar for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but it’s worth noting that he lost that year to “Dallas Buyers Club’s” Matthew McConaughey, who as nearly every article on the film noted, lost 40 pounds to play a character who was HIV-positive. Given that McConaughey, who physically transformed himself for the role and was in the midst of a commercial and artistic resurgence, was living out two of the Academy’s habitual favorite narratives — three if you count the fact the he was playing a historical person — it’s likely DiCaprio never had a chance. But in a better world, McConaughey would have won Best Supporting Actor the previous year for “Magic Mike,” leaving DiCaprio unopposed for the win. (In a perfect world, DiCaprio would already have won for “Catch Me If You Can” or “Shutter Island,” but let’s not get carried away.)

Rewarding the right actor for the wrong role is a venerable Oscar tradition: Would any Al Pacino fan suggest that “Scent of a Woman” is the peak of his art? But given that actors make up the largest branch of Academy voters — around 25 percent— it doesn’t seem like better taste in acting winners is too much to ask of them. Then again, maybe they’re the most susceptible to tales of on-set hardship: the anonymous actress who told Entertainment Weekly why she’s voting Leo explained: “I could relate to working in extremely cold conditions. Sometimes it’s so cold it’s hard to even act.” Professional camaraderie is a beautiful thing, but “It’s hard to act when it’s cold” is a terrible reason to give someone an award. Let’s just hope the Academy doesn’t hold it against “Room’s” Brie Larson that she did most of her scenes indoors.

If they’re as old as the rest of the Academy, perhaps it’s no surprise that the actors branch’s idea of great performances is mired in the ardors of the Method. It’s not, of course, that hardship and physical transformation are never part of a great performance, but it’s dull and more than a little embarrassing to see the same kinds of performances honored year after year, especially when the actors winning the awards have done so much more in other, less showy, roles. It’s as if the Academy is less interested in acting than it is in Acting!

The steps the Academy is taking to diversify its ranks — aggressively adding new voters who aren’t white and male, gently shoving members who haven’t made a movie in decades out the door — are primarily aimed at addressing the Oscars’, and the movie industry’s, shameful record on diversity. But if we’re really lucky, those new voters will bring with them some more diverse ideas about what great acting is as well.

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Comments

Josh

Oh, God you Leo fanboys are worse than the fangurls. Nobody thought Leo was going to win the Oscar in 2013 except tumblr. If McConaughey hadn’t won, Ejiofor was probably No. 2. And no way was McConaughey losing – you seem to forget he gave the best performance in Wolf of Wall Street and he also had a brilliant performance in Mud that year in addition to Dallas Buyers Club.

Walter Velvet Gregson

As you mentioned above, it’s an notoriously inevitable Oscar’s tradition. But frankly speaking, who else would they have voted for if it wasn’t Leo? Matt Damon? Or Michael Fassbender? In terms of their roles, Leo is still superior as compared to his fellow nominees, even when we all know that his role in "The Revenant" isn’t his best performance to date. Eddie Redmayne won it last year, he’s out of the game even though his performance in "The Danish Girl" is genuine art. It’s not disappointing, undeserving or whatsoever, it’s just too predictable and not so exciting.

Steven

The hate for The Revenant and Leo’s performance are so clearly driven primarily by the exhaustion of it’s marketing/Oscar campaign rather than anything within the film itself. It is a fine film (pretty but hollow) and Leo gives a fine performance but critics and "film people" are just reacting negatively to the constant reminder that it was difficult to make. It is a clear case of everything surrounding a movie influencing people’s opinions rather than the film itself. Leo winning will not be "the worst." My personnel vote out of those nominated would be Fassbender but Leo is perfectly fine. Damon was also fine in The Martian but both Redmayne and Cranston were awful, Cranston especially. His acting was so over the top, in an already heightened film, that he was practically doing Kabuki theater.

^

Yep. This article is a reaction to everything but the film and performance, a reaction to reactions, even other articles, which is everything that’s wrong with film writing, criticism, and cultural journalism of every kind today. I blame Twitter.

Alex

@^ Agree, senseless whining

Thesaurusrs

Let’s not forget that these tiresome award campaigns ("he suffered") are marketing campaigns in the most depressing sense, and cost millions. I’m so depressed about Leo winning for this empty, meaningless, revenge movie that I won’t even watch this year. Damon, who gave a more interesting, more technically challenging and more emotional performance, is getting robbed. So Leo can get "his" Oscar. The whole thing is asinine.

lisa runnels

remember…god,can DO anything…he can do what, he wants to…

Jev

Remember Paul Newman? The Hustler, Somebody up there likes me!, Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict you would of thought all shoe ins for Best Actor. But no, he didn’t win until the sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money which was a solid performance but no way the powerful dramatic presence of the other Films mentioned.

Is it Leo’s time? I say not yet.. but will be soon.
@JEV1A

Tom

I find it funny that no one ever mentions Leo’s great performance in Inception – a haunting, riveting, and layered performance – my favorite from that year.

Ken the Magnificient

@Steven – totally agree with you.

Dax

This is pretty funny how few points the article makes to this performance and how much it focuses on the focus surrounded the movie itself. IE: how cold it was, how harsh the conditions were, etc. I would vote Leo, Fassbender would also be a great choice. But it’s pretty sad that people are this against Leo getting one at this point. And I’m sorry, but Leo’s performance was superior to Damon’s in every facet. I’m a big Damon fan, but it’s not a competition between those two performances.

I mean...

Look at that face. It’s almost a silent film performance. Really beautiful and captivating and even harder to carry a story and audience with such little dialogue. Truly great performance. And any recognition is well deserved.

sean

I agree. The Leo win will certify this year as the "Bro-Cademy Awards." Beyond the white thing, a bigger issue was the Academy’s slant towards all things dude. The Carol omission for best picture illustrates this beautifully.

KB

Your entire argument falls flat. Leo winning this year would be fine. The biggest affronts in Best actor category this year were the absence of nominations for Tom Hardy for "Legend", and the little boy from "Beasts of No Nation."

Roberto

"clangorous contraptions" – what does that even mean

Ocean

Another pompous critic who is clueless. I still do not think McConaughey should have won because of weight lose; that is such an old trick. Leo deserved to win back when he made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Laura Jane Stevens

Alright, you supercilious-priggish-acidulous-adjective-wielding asshat. I customarily circumvent caustic critics like yourself; however, your self-appointed seat on the ivory tower of all things movies is worth razing the bastion. For anyone else reading this comment, I am purposely using unnecessary adjectives and alliteration to echo his absurd treatise. Personally, I do not care if you hate The Revenant or Leo’s performance, but I disdain your disrepute for those who love The Revenant and revile them as abecedarian moviegoers—neophytes that worship at the feet Inarritu, because we are too awestruck to know better. I have a four letter word for you, but it is too “low art” for your extensive vocabulary.

BD

His performance in The Aviator is one of his finest and certainly deserved to win. He lost to Jaime Foxx that year for Ray. But he is not undeserving of the honors this year, his performance is subtle and emotional and told in very quiet moments, not big bombastic speeches. Give the guy a break it’s not the worst ever.

Brian

The Martian is an atrocity.

Melissa Siebert

I agree — Leo’s role in ‘The Revenant’ isn’t his best…but he was passed over previously. I think his cumulative acting roles amount to a lot. For me, his best acting was in ‘Who’s Afraid of Gilbert Grape’, long ago. But he deserves an Oscar! My vote is ‘Spotlight’ for best film this year. And other best actors? Not so ‘best’. Hope Tom Hardy gets best Supporting Actor, though. Thought Redmayne was awful in ‘The Danish Girl’ and Damon fantastic in ‘The Martian’ — also a huge fan of Fassbinder’s in whatever. So let’s see!

Jonathan Tipton Meyers

Ejiofor gave the most towering performance full of power and nuance, physically and emotionally and was blocked, not only by Matt’s monster resurgence, but the academy needing to "squeeze some white in there."

John

This is, perhaps, the most idiotic drivel I have ever seen written. Fire Sam Adams for god’s sake.

Agree with ^

It’s so true, all of the commentary is more of a reaction to Twitterdom than the performance itself. If The Revenant was the least likely the win and Leo was last place in the estimation of oddsmakers then we would see the internet rife with supports and defenders saying the Academy is missing a moment in history. People have let themselves become servants to the feeling of the moment and it’s such a shame. Let’s talk about the movie, as a movie, and enjoy the experience we’ve been given by talented performers.

Anne

Agree with most if not all of the above. I cannot really stand DiCaprio as an actor because he never EVER really disappears into his character….we still see the handsome face, the coiffed hair, the buff shoulders. I mean, did anyone SEE the real Jordan Belford?!! C’mon! Mr. Scorsese, at least attempt to suspend my disbelief? Well….Mr. Innaritu, being the control freak that he is, finally made Leo look as disgusting as a frontiersman should, and act accordingly….with nothing to fall back on but facial expression and grunting. Yes. YES!! This man deserves that golden statue.

glitzandglamour

matt damon’s nomination rubs me the wrong way. Talking about acting, i think matt damon is a decent actor but in the martian he basically plays matt damon on mars. I think Leo should have won for whats eating gilbert grape and the aviator. No way he’s was gonna win for the wolf of wallstreet. He was ranked third behind Ejiofor and mcConaughy. But winning best actor is not about who gave the best performance is more about who suffered the most. Nobody in this category can beat Leo eating a raw bison liver, unless Eddie Redmayne underwent real surgery to become a woman.

Tom C

I get what your saying that in your opinion his other performances are more Oscar worthy. However they where not going to win for those years. I get you think, he deserves an Oscar for his body of work so we will give him one for The Revenant, however I personally think he does deserve it for this role. I mean if you think he deserves it based on the slightly mad eccentric comedic performances he gave in Django and The Wolf Of Wall street, then your effectively saying you do not like him in serious roles. I mean I don;t think he has done a bad film in my opinion, granted I do not like Titanic, The Beach or Romeo and Juliet much but I do not think he has ever done a stinker of a film. Not like George Clooney or Even Brad Pitt. If Leonardo DiCaprio is not going to win, which he is. I would like Matt Damon to win, however as we know the Academy does not reward Sci Fi films that often if at all.

Rhy

when you’re talking acting skill though, the art of disappearing into characters and make the audience gives empathy to however-bad the character is, Fassbender is the man. He should’ve won a long time ago with Hunger, just as much as he outdo Leto last year. But yeah, it’s THE Oscar where actors don’t get measured based on real talent.

michael donovan

get a life and get real, honkies…the revenant is a revelation and cinematic masterpiece on all levels…dicaprio’s performance is his best, hands down, and simply one of the greatest of all-time..

will hc

shutter island???? THE AVIATOR IS HIS BEST PERFORMANCE EVER!!!!!

fishtank mike

this article couldve written itself

Anderson

The academy do not like the kind of movies that DiCaprio used to act, that as fact and that why i think that him do not won until now. He deserves win this time? For sure. I’m willing for him? Fucking yes, he deserves. But believe it: i’m gonna laugh for about three days if he does not win.

mark a

really? isnt there more important stuff to complain about that leo’s oscar win. give the guy a little credit, i would base his win more on preformance throught out the year. doesnt the oscars come once a year? how can you give an oscar to someone who done one good film and ten bad ones?

George Vreeland Hill

Maybe not his best effort, but an effort that was better than the others.
Don’t blame Leo for a mediocre field, blame the lack of talent out there.
By the way, Leo’s career is Oscar worthy.

George Vreeland Hill

Mark

I have never understood the fascination with Bryan Cranston. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and a lot of my friends love Breaking Bad and Cranston’s performance throughout the series. I always found him to be overacting and hamming it up to the worst degree (as did many of the others on that show, again my unpopular opinion). I actually thought Cranston was great in his small role in Argo – probably the best piece of acting in that film – but I found him almost unwatchable in Trumbo. Matt Damon is a solid actor – not the greatest, but a likable and authentic presence. He can turn in some truly great performances – his best work is Ripley, Bourne, True Grit, The Departed, and The Informant – but I found his role in the Martian to be slightly shallow. Eddie Redmayne is talented no doubt, but I feel he was rewarded last year for giving a physically adept performance in a showy, awards bait role and this year was no different – The Danish Girl capitalizes on being topical and while he has some good moments, he is out-acted by Vikander in every scene they share. I think he would be better served in strong supporting roles – he shines in Les Mis, My Week with Marilyn, and some good tv parts like Pillars of the Earth. Michael Fassbender has become one of the more consistent actors working today. He was absolutely excellent in Inglourious Basterds – another example of a well-written, scene-stealing minor role in a QT film. He’s also superb in A Dangerous Method, Fish Tank, The Counselor, and Jane Eyre – which he deserved to be nominated for in 2011. Again, this may be the unpopular opinion, but I really enjoyed Steve Jobs – I found it late in the game when I was sent a screener copy and, while I understand that it probably never had a chance at connecting with a large audience, I can’t see why it was so unloved. Fassbender is utterly compelling to watch in the film and bursts off the screen in every frame. If this hadn’t been "Leo’s year," there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have been a frontrunner in many conversations. Just look at his work in Macbeth and Slow West as well – 2015 was a banner year for him, but he’ll eventually get his due. In my mind, Leo should have won for The Aviator way back when. That was a remarkable performance by someone at the peak of his craft. Wolf was too. I think he was ultimately helped by an overall weak year for movies – in terms of prestige films – but you can’t blame him for the Academy’s backwardness. Julianne Moore was long overdue and won for a mediocre film just last year.

TWB

Michael and Eddie were far more deserving of the win because they acted better than Leo. And I’m sorry but Matt didn’t even deserve a nod, his work in the Martian wasn’t Oscar-nod worthy let alone the win. But all in all Michael and Eddie were the superior actors whereas Leo winning just felt like the Academy shying away from backlash again.

Disqua Account

Tom Hardy’s character, ‘Fitzgerald’, was miles ahead of Leo’s ‘Glass’ in 1) character development 2) intent 3) authenticity 4) delivery 5) power and oh…6) acting. I feel bad for him. He rocked it Mad Max, Legend and Revenant. Damn. 3 shots, all better than Leo, and zero wins. The Academy constantly, yet unwittingly, shows its true colors.

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