Barring a disturbance in the Force or an asteroid whimsically making a beeline for our planet, it’s the safest bet in the world: Next Sunday, Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar. And it will take an even greater freak occurrence to change our minds about this: He shouldn’t.
That’s no diss on DiCaprio himself. He’s a very fine actor. He even should have won the trophy two years ago, after he bulldozered his way through “The Wolf of Wall Street,” his fourth and by far best performance for Martin Scorsese. That took a lot of skill. He had to use his electric movie star charisma to make magnetic a smirking sociopath who cackles while stealing from the poor. It’s a tour-de-force, and not only during the instant classic slow-drug set piece.
Meanwhile, in “The Revenant,” which will likely nab him his first Goldie, he crawled across snow, swam through cold water and growled like the Muppets’ Animal. He suffered for his art, but only physically. And as a reward, he’ll join a long line of greats — which is to say, those whom the Academy feted for the wrong movie.
It’s a good list: It’s got Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, Kate Winslet and Reese Witherspoon, John Wayne and James Cagney, Paul Newman and Sean Connery. (You could even make the case that Heath Ledger’s quietly devastating work in “Brokeback Mountain” was superior to his frothing madman work in “The Dark Knight.”) In those cases, the reason Academy voters salivated was because of some feat of strength, subject matter or because they’d simply gotten it wrong the first (or second, or third, or 10th) time.
Of course, they’re not the only ones this time. Just about every awards body has drunk the “Revenant” Kool-Aid, buying into DiCaprio’s endless boasting about how super-hard the movie was to make. Most Oscar campaigns are played out in the media, but this is one that’s entirely about the public perception of DiCaprio as someone who has never received his just due. He was first nominated at 19 for 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Since then, he’s been denied it time and again, and it’s snowballed to the point where the question on everyone’s lips has not been “How great was Leo?” but “Is this Leo’s year?”
And so this time it probably is, which will be a shame, as people may one day notice he doesn’t get the chance to do anything but get hurt. He barely has time to explore his character; he’s just reacting to the elements. The film is essentially a documentary about an actor who really, really, really wants his Oscar already. If/when he wins, it will be a Pyrrhic victory: It feels great now, looks like a concession in the future.
Then again, who should win in his stead? None of the other nominated performances are, to be frank, for the ages, and true greats, like Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight” and — to go way outside the realm of the Academy, to tiny indies only noticed at all by a handful of journos — Christopher Abbott in “James White” and Josh Lucas in “The Mend” — were snubbed. So let’s go with, oh, let’s say Matt Damon for “The Martian.”