Welcome to The Green-Light, a regular column from Gary Green. Find within spittle-flecked passion and encyclopaedic insight on everything to do with the movies.
Each year, the announcement of the Academy Awards nominations bring fresh gripes to the table, plus some old ones; the consistent lack of diversity is perhaps the institution’s biggest offence, along with the reliably dull picks – and glaring exclusions – for certain categories.
But I want to discuss one of the ceremony’s far less important contentions; the question of Leonardo DiCaprio finally nabbing his Oscar. With The Revenant earning him his fifth acting nomination, we ask the question: what are his chances of winning this time around? My answer is a little more complex – and way more profound – than even I had imagined.
Let’s take a brief look back in time: Leo got his first nom way back in 1993 for supporting actor in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he played Arnie, a developmentally disabled kid who’s always getting in trouble at the annoyance of his older brother, the titular Gilbert (Johnny Depp). It was a startlingly vulnerable performance, a quality that was one of the reasons director Alejandro Iñárritu picked him for The Revenant. Then came the heartthrob successes of Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, The Beach, and Catch Me If You Can – but it was his role as inventor-playboy-madman Howard Hughes in The Aviator that earned him his first lead actor nomination in 2005. He was up against his former on-screen brother, Mr. Depp (who was nominated that year for playing JM Barrie in Finding Neverland), but both lost out to Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Three years later, he was up for best actor again; Blood Diamond was possibly his most sophisticated work to date, while later in 2014, he was nominated once more for The Wolf of Wall Street; he lost out to the towering works of Forest Whitaker and Matthew McConaughey respectively. His peers in 2016’s best actor race – Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, and Eddie Redmayne – are no lightweights either.
With The Revenant, DiCaprio’s struggle behind his turn as Hugh Glass is already the stuff of legend; essentially the entire press campaign – and awards campaign – for the movie has centred around how difficult it was for Iñárritu to shoot, and how many struggles his lead actor DiCaprio faced. Whether it was eating raw liver, hiding inside horse carcasses or simply suffering from the biting cold of an extreme on-location shoot, The Revenant’s marketing wants us to know that Leo really suffered for his art (and in this ace piece by BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci, he asks the question, ‘who gives a shit?’). If DiCaprio’s haunted-yet-driven Glass really is better than Cranston’s masochistic Trumbo, Damon’s hyper-quippy astronaut Watney, Fassbender’s micro-calibrated Jobs, or Redmayne’s caterpillar-turned-butterfly Lili – then so be it. He should win that damn Oscar. But I actually don’t think that true artistic achievement will push him over that statuette-lined finish line; since when has that genuinely, sincerely ever played a part in the politics of Academy voting? Smaller than you’d ever want to believe.
Sadly, the case is that Leo’s much-advertised struggle will count for more with Academy voters – and the general audience – than who genuinely deserves the award. Whether conciously or subconsciously, the assault-course, endurance-test exhibition we see on screen in The Revenant counts for more than our actual emotional connection with that performance. Why? Because we can see it; it’s visible evidence that Leo is oh-so-good at acting, and it’s much easier to process and come to a qualitative conclusion about his performance by watching Leo go through immense pain and struggle than experience it with him. Not that The Revenant doesn’t do this – after all, truly great movies live and die by their ability to help us truly empathise with their characters – but it’s simply not what will be getting Academy members to vote for him.
All this perhaps counts even less than one other factor – the most important factor of all. I believe that if Leo does win, it won’t be because of genuine artistic merit, nor will it (entirely) be thanks to the suffering-artist campaign behind him. No; it’ll be because it’s been over twenty years since his first nomination for an actor Oscar, and another 4 nominations since then. Voters – and us – want to reward him. With or without knowing it, we’ve found ourselves in a narrative.
Remember when Martin Scorsese won the directing award in 2007, after famously going his entire career without a single statuette? It truly felt like voters were thinking, ‘Oh, The Departed is actually pretty good, so that validates my decision to vote for him as best director. He deserves it.’ Yes, I’m aware that it’s a stretch to pretend to be an Academy member – but it’s exactly how I remember that ceremony, and watching back, it feels good when Scorsese walks onstage to join his long-time contemporaries; when he stands alongside Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas, it just feels right. Why shouldn’t he get that Oscar?
Well, perhaps The Departed actually wasn’t the best film nominated that year – although it’s a tough decision for me between that and Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima and Greengrass’ United 93. Eastwood certainly had a case thanks to his long, illustrioius careeer – but he had already won Best Picture in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby, and Greengrass was too unknown back then to even have an underdog quality to his own Oscar tale, of the same kind that Mad Max: Fury Road has for the current Best Picture competition. Why did Scorsese truly win? Because it was the resolution of a narrative; a story began by snubs and losses for Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and the myriad other classics he had produced over the decades up until The Departed. And now, it really does feel like we’re coming close to the end of Leonardo DiCaprio’s grand narrative, where the actor finally gets what he deserves. That’s what the voters want, that’s what the audience wants – the resolution to the story. Hell, even I’d like to see it, if I’m being totally honest. Similarly, remember the epic sweep The Return of the King enjoyed back in 2004? Did it really deserve every single one of those awards? Possibly – but it really felt like an accumulation of what started with the barnstorming, surprising success of The Fellowship of the Ring, and cranked up another few notches by The Two Towers, so that by the time ROTK rolled around, everybody was watching. Winning all those Oscars made fans of the films feel that The Lord of the Rings were being validated by real-world, sophisticated connoisseurs. Like LOTR ever needed validation from such a crowd, I’ll never know – but again, it was the resolution of a powerful narrative, and it worked beautifully.
And that’s what the Oscars are, at their core: not an awards show, but the pedestal that the stories of people’s lives are played out on, where endless hopes and dreams are realised – or quashed – on one fateful night. The Academy Awards are their own long-running movie – an episodic tale where each instalment brings fresh accomplishments for self, peer, and audience validation. And you know what? That’s fine with me; more so than the awards themselves, the greatest thing the Oscars accomplish is in that moment between the envelope being opened and the celebrity’s mouth forming the first syllable of the winner’s name. Hope, dreams; they rise and fall on the lips of a stranger, ready to be held aloft in glory or shelved. It’s not about what the better film or performance is: it’s about something based in story itself.
So why do I think Leonardo DiCaprio will win this time round? Well, his extraordinary performance is certainly one reason – but it’s his history that counts most. His narrative has been written not only by himself, but by the media, fans, casual filmgoers, ardent film lovers – and now just feels the right time to close it, not with an award the actor may or may not deserve, but with a resolution the narrative deserves.