For years we held aloft Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton as examples of how the Academy can somehow elude greatness. Not only are both men two of the most classic, greatest actors in the history of cinema, they were both neck-and-neck for years as having 7 nominations apiece without a single competitive win between them – O’Toole notched number 8 years later with Venus. Hell, Laurence Olivier only won once, from a total 10 acting nominations. Leonardo DiCaprio may or may not be in that league (are actors even allowed to be in that league anymore?), but he has the impressive filmography behind him from the last 20 years to warrant Oscarless discussions in the same circles. As Oscar nomination stats show us, he is perhaps not quite there yet.
Al Pacino incredibly won an Academy Award finally with his eighth nomination for Scent of a Woman (also nominated the same year in Support for Glengarry Glen Ross). Some say Pacino was nailed on for the win, they had to give it to him no matter what. Just look at what he did not win for – how could they? That this was the sympathetic vote perhaps, like when Paul Newman finally won for The Color of Money. In my view, as superb as Robert Downey Jr was in Chaplin, you would struggle to argue against Pacino’s devastating performance as the best. With the upcoming The Revenant, DiCaprio is now being talked up as not just a certain nominee, but the likely Best Actor winner. The buzz has been for some time he too was owed after not winning gold so far. Word around the awards season campfire is that his performance in The Revenant might actually be worthy of the “best” merit.
Last year’s Best Actress Julianne Moore is one such deserved actress who has an Oscar now, but was way overdue. Great for Moore and her fans, but whether that was the best or not, that category was signed, sealed and delivered long before Oscar night. Is this happening now with DiCaprio? The historic Oscar stats tell a tale that questions fairness and that does not truly reflect how these bald guys are handed out. It also clouds the judgement of us writing and talking about it, as well as those Academy members who are required to vote. There are 101 reasons over the course of the Academy’s history as to why he or she has won and he or she has not. Sometimes it is who you are up against, or the film, about time or place, the right ones. Sometimes it just does not happen. On the flip side, some actresses like Vivien Leigh and Hilary Swank are double winners with their only nominations. Lucky devils. The same for Kevin Spacey and Christoph Waltz. No such owed status there.
That said, the most recent win for the aforementioned Waltz is a real tongue-twister in the realms of award season banter and debate. His first win just a coupe of years prior was one of the most deserved in years, regardless of whether or not he was nominated before. His second nod was a little more surprising, more so when he actually went and won. Why? Because his co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was the real golden lion of the Tarantino show that year – a ferociously compelling turn, playing the bad guy with such confidence and swagger. For Waltz to go all the way and win and DiCaprio not even get an invite to the party is a real peculiar swing of the Oscar pendulum. The Django Unchained omission really sent the actor’s no-Oscar case souring. Just watch DiCaprio not get nominated for The Revenant to experience the internet explode once again.
If DiCaprio wins his first Oscar this year for The Revenant he joins great company with Gregory Peck and James Stewart, winning 1 from 5. That’s not bad at all. As is the theme on most film-talkers lips, is Leonardo now on top of the overdue Oscar list? His mere 4 Oscar nominations come for 1 in support (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), and 3 for lead, 2 of which (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator) many believed he ought to have won for, and Blood Diamond, bumping himself out in the same year with his role in The Departed. I know, I know, some of you think his performance in the Best Picture winner that year was supporting role – it was not. Those 4 acting nominations demonstrate DiCaprio at his very best – vulnerable, over the top, edgy, method, brutal, likable, captivating. DiCaprio is an actor you see with your own eyes how much blood and sweat he appears to give on screen.
DiCaprio is not just classed as an overdue actor because of his lack of Oscar wins, no, this is also about the movies for which he was not even nominated. You see his ability in the performances that perhaps fell victim to the film’s lack of Oscar buzz at the right time for whatever reason – like The Great Gatsby, Shutter Island, J. Edgar. I’m not saying I agree with that, his role in Shutter Island, as well as the movie itself, was vastly overlooked and under-appreciated. Inception is a great film, and although nothing wrong with DiCaprio’s turn here, he was never getting an Oscar nomination for that. A much greater sense of snubbery can be attributed to films like Revolutionary Road, an early front-runner in the Oscar race before it got swallowed up and spat out. DiCaprio was in acting overdrive here, giving his all, though many including me would argue his exceptional co-star Kate Winslet was even better – but she won the Oscar that year for The Reader. Swings and fucking roundabouts.
Prior to his transitional stardom-free break from film that progressed to being taken under the wing of a certain Martin Scorsese, DiCarpio was not nominated for Titanic. May not be so surprising on the surface, but for a movie winning 11 Oscars from 14 nominations it is somewhat head-scratching as to why he might not have got in. Power-house actors like Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall, Peter Fonda, and Dustin Hoffman were always going to hard to knock out though. DiCaprio’s transformation as a credible actor started to grow when he starred in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, but also the same year was arguably even better in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. No Oscar nomination anywhere. But the weight of the Oscar snubs were not on his shoulders that far back. Or ours. I wonder how much he even cares about this stuff. His 4 nominations do not correlate with the extensive coverage he gets as a snubbed actor, that’s partly due to the fact he could justifiably have been nominated 3 or 4 more times.
None of us really want Oscars to be handed out because the recipient is owed, but it does somehow quench that political Oscar justice we crave and scream about every year. Sure, AMPAS will never make up to all of us the countless examples of disappointment. Hey, we can’t all agree all of the time. I am sure DiCaprio has his haters, and boy will they show their faces if he wins Best Actor, but the truth is not many other performers consistently demonstrate a relentless effort of excellence in their work. Like him or not you have to admire that. There’s a void that needs filling then by Academy recognition, an itch we can’t quite scratch yet. As more of us now see The Revenant and judge DiCaprio’s performance for ourselves, how much of the indebted status bestowed upon him will falsify our judgement? Will we be able to say, hey, that is the best performance of the year regardless? If not swayed by trade ads will voters use their heads or their hearts? Does it really matter?