For a man blessed with adonic eyes, supreme acting prowess and a natural knack for attracting supermodels, Leonardo DiCaprio has been pretty unlucky. Every time he gets nominated for an Oscar, another leading man trumps him and goes home with that tiny nude dude.
This thesis excludes his breakout portrayal of Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. At 19 years old, DiCaprio nailed a sympathetic and spell-binding role, delicately toeing the line that black-faced Robert Downey Jr. so indelicately described.
He outdid the ever-wrinkly Tommy Lee Jones who won for his drawling Wyatt Earp-iness in The Fugitive. Jones was solid, but DiCaprio delivered the singular performance of that year. And in doing what no one else can do should be the foremost criteria of a winner.
But seniority threw the award to Jones because young Leo was the acting equivalent of high school LeBron. No doubt, he’d run the next two decades and fill a bookshelf with statuettes.
But then, he didn’t. In between “Pussy Posse” escapades, he got the nod for The Aviator and Blood Diamond, but lost to Jamie Foxx’s reincarnation of Ray Charles, then Forest Whitaker’s vilely charismatic Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Seven years later, he received consideration for his motivational debauchery in The Wolf of Wall Street. But, he smacked into the McConaissance and lost to Matthew's gallantly gaunt go as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club.
The whispers turned to snickers. DiCaprio, the beacon of dreaminess, had failed to achieve his craft’s highest honor. Honestly, I don’t think this ongoing snub bothers him too much. But we like to think it does, so at least something is wrong in the life of this stupid handsome, exorbitantly rich and radically talented dude who gets frequently laid by professionally good-looking blondes.
But among the all-white Oscar nominees this year, DiCaprio is most due. In The Revenant, the vegetarian actor ate a bloody slab of bison liver. His Hugh Glass guts, then sleeps naked inside a frozen horse cocoon. He dives into frozen rivers and rolls in the snow in rags. He embodies primal survival in the insta-classic grappling match with a CGI Grizzly that tears his vocal cords to ribbons—a “wound” he cauterizes with gunpowder.
He told Vanity Fair, “This was a film that had been floating around for quite some time, but nobody was crazy enough to really take this on.”
But DiCaprio was. And that means something because he doesn’t get the scene-chewing monologues usually traded for such sacrifice. Alejandro González Iñárritu deploys him as a semi-mute, rotten ragdoll against nature’s gargantuan beauty in the least fun episode of Man vs. Wild imaginable.
All Leo has left is his eyes. And those baby blues run the gauntlet of human emotion. They harden with malice, boil with helplessness, wobble with despair, glaze with weary persistence and brighten briefly in a mellow snowflake-catching moment. But always, they smolder with the deep heat of old coals to avenge his son and to rid the world of a bad man, Tom Hardy’s semi-scalped Southern scumbag, John Fitzgerald.
Which, here’s the thing: Tom Hardy acts laps around DiCaprio in this. The British chameleon delivers sociopathic koans of hardscrabble pragmaticism as casually as I would order a sandwich. He menaces as a desperate, racist man with an unrelenting thirst for cash and an utterly unromantic outlook on the bleakness of his crappy life.
Hardy had the better role. But DiCaprio deserves this award because he had the harder role. He did something that no other actor would or could. He can barely speak, barely move, and still, he turns in a tour-de-force. He captures the inspired, nihilistic soliloquies of True Detective’s Rust Cohle with his eyes alone.
And in case we forgot, in 2012’s Django Unchained, DiCaprio crushed a performance that flouted his entire past. Jack, Romeo and Arnie freakin’ Grape slipped on the greasy skin of slave owner Calvin Candie—aficionado of mandingos, feeder of humans to dogs and phrenological wiper of blood on the flawless face of Kerry Washington. DiCaprio went IN, but the nom and the Oscar that should have been his went to castmate, Christoph Waltz.
Now, I enjoy Waltz’s cultured-but-violent schtick more than anyone, but we had already recognized a superior version of that in Inglorious Basterds a few years before. Rewarding him twice rather than validating DiCaprio was absolute fucking nonsense.
So that marks three performances where DiCaprio did what nobody else could do. And this year, his competition is uncharacteristically weak. Damon, Redmayne, Cranston and Fassbender bring it, but don’t do anything knock-down brilliant, and didn’t nearly kill themselves for art.
Give that stupid piece of crudely molded gold to DiCaprio, so we can bury this tired joke and let him have the award that he earned when he was 19 years old.