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On Sunday night, after a 22-year wait since his first nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Leonardo DiCaprio was finally awarded the Oscar that so many, rightly, believed that he deserved. There is one problem though: He didn’t give the best performance of the year – that honor goes to Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Heck, The Revenant doesn’t even represent DiCaprio’s best personal acting performance.  Last Sunday, the Academy, as it has done many times in its history, gave a make-up Oscar to an actor who had given far better performances, but had lost in bad luck coincidences or got out hyped by another performance.

Leonardo DiCaprio had previously lost to Matthew McConaughey’s body-transforming, tour-de-force performance in Dallas Buyers Club; Forrest Whitaker’s great, but over-hyped and largely forgotten, turn in The Last King of Scotland as Idi Amin; and Jamie Foxx in Ray – which managed to be both great and timely as Ray Charles passed during production of the film.

The 2007 Oscars is where he should have gotten his due. Two things combined to ruin it: Runaway hype for Forrest Whittaker’s performance and Leonardo DiCaprio being nominated for the wrong movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio had two performances hyped prior to the 2007 Oscars: Blood Diamond and The Departed.  His performance in The Departed was better, but Blood Diamond found him trying on an accent and was much more gimmicky. The film generated all sorts of hype about blood diamonds. I specifically remember friends picking out engagement rings around the time of the film and asking where the jewelers sourced their diamonds. The cultural fad surrounding the weaker performance doomed DiCaprio.

My problem with his performance in The Revenant is that it is overwhelmingly physical and a total gimmick in that sense. If you throw tons of stunts and action at an actor it is easier, in my opinion, to craft a realistic performance. When you are given actual things to react to, I feel that doesn’t demand as much acting skill. Ask this question: If it wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio and was instead an unknown or lesser actor, would this have even been nominated? I lean towards no – and while some would argue that is because DiCaprio is that good, I would respond it is because DiCaprio is that good and the Academy felt it owed him.

When I think of great performances, I typically lean toward occasions where actors or actresses are able to convey an extensive amount of emotion without as many physical things to react to.

F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn in Amadeus is a fine example. Most critics concur that where he won the award was in his handling of Old Salieri. Sure, make-up helped him to achieve the performance, but he conveyed every emotion – and nearly all of it came by virtue of his line delivery. He was confined to a wheelchair and barely moved.

Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Chuck Noland in Cast Away is another performance that comes to mind. Hanks was so convincing that he created a living, breathing character that the audience actually cared about out of his inanimate companion, a  volleyball named Wilson. Hanks didn’t manage to take home the award because of the massive hype around Gladiator – much of it deserved – though, in my opinion Hanks bested Crowe in terms of Best Actor. In some ways, Crowe won in much the same way DiCaprio did – pulling off a physically demanding performance with more aplomb than what the audience is accustomed to.

Finally, in what is, to me, one of the great snubs in Oscar history, Bob Hoskins’s turn in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? didn’t even get nominated, which remains beyond me. Hoskins gave the hammiest of noir performances and managed to handle all the madcap antics going on around him with unquestioned seriousness. Even more impressive, Hoskins gave a physically skilled performance, but unlike Crowe and DiCaprio he was reacting to nothing. His costars were mostly animated, so he had to use his acting skill to react to the choices of an actor who hadn’t been drawn in yet, and he pulled it off seamlessly.

I’m happy for DiCaprio. He earned the Oscar he won, he just got it nine years late for a performance that was more about gimmick and physical stunts than it was about acting; and that is a shame, especially for Redmayne who should have won Best Actor back to back years.

13 thoughts on “DiCaprio’s Oscar: A reminder of the Academy’s past cruelty”

  1. I hadn’t put much thought into the “Blood Diamond” fiasco, but that was an excellent point to mention, especially alongside “The Last King of Scotland.” Those types of movies are vehicles for nominations, while the truly great performances sometimes go underrepresented come awards season. I’m hoping Oscar Isaac is able to pull in a Best Actor win at some point in his career, but he hasn’t gone for those types of safe roles yet.

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