Monday, March 3, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio Didn't Win An Oscar...And That's Okay

Last night something happened that has happened every other single day in history: Leonardo DiCaprio did not win an Oscar.

This has become a bit of a joke amongst movie fans. Despite being one of the most recognizable stars of the screen, DiCaprio has never won an Oscar, and some people (including me) find this particularly hilarious. The thing is that he clearly wants it so badly. He continuously takes on what people refer to as “Oscary” roles, and every year, it feels like there are several projects that have Oscar buzz for Leo, only for him to be left out in the cold come Oscar night. Many jokes have been made. They are all funny.

But with the jokes, there is also a genuine consensus that DiCaprio is overdue. He is generally considered the #1 actor to have been snubbed by the Oscars. In reading predictions for this year’s awards—which is a thing I do in my spare time why do you ask doesn’t everybody?—I  saw one reason for why DiCaprio wouldn’t win listed over and over again: that “The Oscars just don’t like him.” And some argued that DiCaprio might “finally” win the award this year. Basically, DiCaprio is seen as an actor who is consistently overlooked time and time again by The Oscars—never getting recognized despite giving superior performances. Sure enough, after McConaughey won the Oscar, there was a wave of people saying that, once again, Leonardo DiCaprio was denied “his award.”

But why? Why have we singled out DiCaprio as forever being the Oscars anti-darling. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor, but I have always been confused as to why he’s treated as if this award is more elusive for him than for anyone else. So, I’d like to analyze why I think DiCaprio is really not all that hated by the Academy—at least not to deserve the reputation he has. And I shall pepper this post with multiple pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio looking sad because there are sooooooooo many.

So, so many.

First, let’s start with the Oscar race this year. Now, it’s no secret that I wasn’t a fan of The Wolf ofWall Street, and although DiCaprio gives a strong and committed performance, I think there were better choices to be nominated this year. But even if I loved his performance, there simply wasn’t a precedent for him to win this year. Matthew McConaughey won pretty much every other major award leading up to the Oscars (the exception being the BAFTA, where he wasn’t nominated—and that didn’t go to DiCaprio either, it went to Chiwetel Ejiofor). DiCaprio’s loss this year is not a slight—it was basically expected by everyone.

The fact that he was nominated at all should be a sign that the Oscars don’t hate Leonardo DiCaprio. He has been nominated five times. That’s not too shabby at all. And in such a competitive year, he beat out numerous other buzzed-about performances, including those of Tom Hanks, Forest Whitaker, and Robert Redford. Speaking of Robert Redford, he has been nominated for acting a total of one time in his entire career. And he’s considered a screen legend whose career has spanned considerably more years than DiCaprio. Yeah, DiCaprio hasn’t won yet, but he’s certainly been more recognized than most actors. Some may say, though, that DiCaprio has given consistently strong enough performances throughout the years and that sets him apart—but there are many consistent actors who have fared far worse. Gary Oldman, who it feels like has appeared in every film ever made, has been nominated exactly one time for his efforts. John Malkovich has been nominated twice. Neither has won. To be fair, these actors are not exactly playing the same roles as DiCaprio, but what about some of DiCaprio’s contemporaries? Matt Damon and Ethan Hawke are two tremendous actors who have given many fantastic performances, yet Damon has been nominated for his acting twice, and Hawke has been nominated once. And none of the actors I just mentioned have ever won either. DiCaprio has at least twice as many nominations than any of these actors. And it’s not cliché to say that it’s just an honor to be nominated—it really is. Those nominations are accolades in their own right. the point that I'm making is that DiCaprio might not be as decorated by the Academy as some think he should be, but there are other acclaimed actors who have, in fact, been given less recognition by the Academy.

By the way, Cary Grant—voted by the American Film Institute as the second greatest male movie star of all time, was only nominated for an Oscar twice in his entire career. If he had not been given an honorary Oscar at the end of his life, he would never have won at all.

Some might say, however, that the very fact that he has been nominated so many times and still hasn’t won is indication that the Oscars hate him—that he simply cannot win. But, take a look at DiCaprio’s Catch Me If You Can co-star Amy Adams. She has been nominated five times and never won. Not just that, but those five nominations have been awarded over the span of only eight years. That’s pretty incredible. Yet there is not the same feeling surrounding her that the Oscar keeps falling out of her grasp, as there is with DiCaprio. DiCaprio's Titanic co-star Kate Winslet-- who is perfect in pretty much everything-- didn't win the award until her fifth nomination. And then there’s Meryl Streep. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Streep is not an Oscar darling. After all, she has won an impressive three Oscars (one of only six actors in history to do so). But…she has been nominated eighteen times.  EIGHTEEN! That means she has not won five times more than she has won. And there was a gap of 29 years and twelve nominations between her second and third wins. If DiCaprio wins the Oscar on his next nomination (and considering how much the Academy likes to reward people because it’s “their time,” that’s pretty likely), he will have a better win to nomination ratio than Streep.

And, look at the actors who I have compared to DiCaprio. Notice one thing about them? They're all white. Only four black actors have won Best Actor in a Leading Role in the 86 years the Oscars have been around. That's fewer than the number of nominations DiCaprio has received. And Halle Berry remains the only black actress to have won Best Actress in a Leading Role. I don't want to go into this point too much right now, because it's part of a larger problem that many others have addressed in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but I felt I had to bring it up.

But then there’s the argument that…it just really really really seems like Leo wants an Oscar. And that’s what makes it seem so elusive for him. But, I’ll let you in on a secret. EVERY ACTOR WANTS AN OSCAR! I mean, take the reigning “Best Actor,” Matthew McConaughey. A few years ago it would have been ridiculous for him to have ever hoped to be an Oscar nominee, let alone a winner, considering the films he was in. But then he started taking on more and more challenging and dramatic roles. Yeah, some of it might have been to further his reputation as an actual artist and prove his acting ability, but I’m sure the thought of an Oscar was in the back of his mind. This is the award that every actor dreams of—not just Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, with DiCaprio, the sheer quantity of Oscar-baity movies he has been in is ridiculously huge. But, many of those films eventually kind of fizzled out, and any buzz they had faded. The Great Gatsby was at one point considered a Best Picture contender (until it was released). The same goes for DiCaprio-helmed films like J. Edgar and Shutter Island. Perhaps the best example of this, though, is Revolutionary Road, which gained just three nominations despite being heralded the Best Picture frontrunner a year before its release (again, buzz kind of faded as soon it was released. I wonder if this is coincidental or if there is some sort of link).

But, then there’s the list of performances that many people think DiCaprio should have been nominated for. In reading about how DiCaprio is constantly snubbed, people mention that it’s “outrageous” that he was not nominated for his work in films like Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, J. Edgar, Shutter Island, Inception, and Django Unchained. An impressive lineup, but our memories are definitely distorted here. Let’s look at them one by one. Films like J. Edgar, and Shutter Island were incredibly disappointing and there was never any Oscar buzz surrounding DiCaprio. Titanic and Inception were critically acclaimed films, but certainly not for DiCaprio’s performances. I’m not saying that he’s bad in these, but they’re just not Oscar-worthy roles.  As for  Catch Me If You Can, which strikes me as DiCaprio’s most underrated performance (it’s such an incredible movie and he’s spot-on in it). But, again, it was not expected for him to get nominated here. For this film, he was only nominated for one major award—the Golden Globe, which is hardly the most esteemed of awards. That's hardly a precedent.

The only two non-nominations for Leo which I think can actually be described as “snubs,” are Django Unchained and The Departed. But, again, these were not major upsets. The fact that he wasn’t nominated for Django Unchained is probably considered the biggest snub against him. People bring this up all the time—“How could he not have been nominated for that movie?!” But…again, our memories have been distorted. I think many would be surprised to learn that DiCaprio was, again, only nominated for one major award for his performance in Django Unchained. And, again, that was the Golden Globe. DiCaprio was not snubbed for Django Unchained, he was actively not expected to get a nomination. Sure, there was some minor buzz, but it was as a dark horse, never as a serious contender.

Then there’s The Departed. This time, there was reason to believe that he might have been nominated, having been previously nominated for a BAFTA, a Critic’s Choice Award, and a SAG Award for this role. And also a Golden Globe. But while it was definitely possible for him to have been nominated, look at who was nominated that year. It was a tough year with five great performances being nominated—including DiCaprio’s The Departed co-star Mark Wahlberg. The only surprising nominee of the five was Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children, and even he had some precedent, having been nominated for a SAG Award and giving a truly incredible performance. And this same year, DiCaprio got a nomination in the Best Actor category for Blood Diamond, which might have influenced his lack of a nomination here. While it was a snub, it wasn’t really a major one. As you can see, the preconceived notion that DiCaprio is consistently passed over for a nomination is kind of unfounded.

But, to be fair, the argument isn’t that he can’t get nominated for an Oscar, it’s that he can’t win an Oscar. But, there’s a really good reason he hasn’t won yet. Are you ready for it? The reason he hasn’t won yet is because…he never gave the best performance in any given year. It’s as simple as that. Of course, judging performances is completely subjective business, and some people may think that he did in fact give the best performance in one or more of the years he was nominated. But, given the times he has been nominated for Best Actor, he lost, in turn, to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jamie Foxx for Ray, and now Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. Not only are all three strong performances, but all three were HEAVILY FAVORED TO WIN THE AWARD. So, when faced against juggernaut performances like that, how can DiCaprio's not winning possible be seen as a slight against him personally?

The award he had the best chance of winning was for his very first nomination—for Best Supporting Actor in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (which remains, for my money, his best performance).   

I criticized Wolf of Wall Street, and have now spent a whole article not feeling sorry for him, so I felt he needed some deserved praise. As you can see, though, he's still sad.

He lost to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive, which was indeed a bit of a surprise. But, even though Tommy Lee Jones was not the favorite, neither was DiCaprio. The favorite going into the award was Ralph Fiennes for Schindler's List. Once again, DiCaprio was not snubbed—he was actively expected not to win each of these years. Like I said, you may think he deserved to win one, or more than one, of these years. His girlfriend at the time, Gisele Bundchen, famously said that DiCaprio in The Aviator should have won the Oscar of Foxx for Ray. But there is nothing to quantify this. And there is nothing in DiCaprio’s performance that is objectively better than Foxx’s. Foxx was the favorite going in, not DiCaprio, so how can it be a snub when DiCaprio doesn’t win an award he wasn’t expected to win anyway?

 I’m sure that DiCaprio will win an Oscar one day. It’s basically guaranteed. As I already mentioned, the Academy likes to reward people because it’s “their time.” They’re like the GOP that way (also because they’re all old white men). The Departed happened to be a great movie, but Scorsese would have won Best Director that year even if he had released a movie of Jack Nicholson flossing. At this point, the perceived slights against Leonardo DiCaprio have become so pervasive that the consensus is that he’s “due.” And that will win him an award. It’s generally accepted, for example, that Dame Judi Dench’s Oscar for Shakespeare in Love had little to do with her performance in that film (which is basically just a cameo) and everything to do with her not winning for Mrs. Brown. And Leonardo DiCaprio will similarly win an award, and everyone will say that “it’s about time,” and congratulate the Oscars on correcting the error of their ways.

But I think this cheapens the meaning of the Oscars. As flawed as they are—and they really are quite flawed—the idea is that the award should be given to the best performance of the year. Like I’ve said, DiCaprio is an incredible actor, and he has given consistently amazing performances all throughout his career. He has rightfully earned his place as one of the best actors of his generation. But the Oscars are not given to a body of work—they are given to individual performances. DiCaprio gives some great ones, but he simply has not held the distinction of giving the best performance in any given year. That’s why he hasn’t gotten the Oscar. Not because The Oscars hate him, and not because of some grand conspiracy against him. By all means, let’s keep making jokes about how much he wants to win an Oscar, but let’s not take them too seriously. And let’s not pretend that The Oscars are like a Little League game where the winner is whoever “wants it more.” If that were the case, then Lee Daniels’ The Butler would have won Best Picture this year.

He can play happy too! That, my friends, is called "range."

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