The year has been filled with great performances by actors. So many good ones – Oscar worthy turns – that you could fill a list of 20 deserving names and find 10 more besides. Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Will Smith in Concussion, Josh Brolin in Sicario, Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes, John Cusack in Love & Mercy, not to mention Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul – that’s just scratching the surface. To have to narrow it down to five is not easy.
The festival season began with two performances that were strong enough to be considered frontrunners out of the gate. Michael Fassbender, whose Steve Jobs icily delivered Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue to chilling effect. Fassbender can be a powerful presence on screen — evil incarnate in 12 Years a Slave, and now, the witty, charming asshole behind the Apple empire. Fassbender’s Jobs was different enough from the real man that he enabled the Sorkin dialogue opera to be a few steps removed from the “true story” of Jobs. How willing a person was to depart from the truth and embrace the myth and the symbol would determine how they responded to the film. The one thing that was irrefutable was the quality of Fassbender’s work. The other performance seen at Telluride was Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Depp never wavered from the blackness of this character’s deep soul. Even in the scenes with son and wife where he is supposed to be almost human, it’s clear that Whitey Bulger had a dark hole where his soul should be. Depp’s work is magnificent — even with the makeup that almost distracts from it. These performances defined the polar opposite paths that two outsiders took in their non-traditional routes to success. Neither was likable but both were remarkably accomplished. Deep down in places we won’t admit we admire people who succeed at any cost — especially when those people get get rich.
But neither of these would be a match for two performances that would come later: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Both had long been considered slam dunk nominees sight unseen. Redmayne won last year, inexplicably beating Michael Keaton, whose Birdman was so beloved it won Picture and Director and Screenplay. It just didn’t win Lead Actor. That’s an extremely rare situation when the entire film revolves around the lead actor’s performance. Birdman WAS Michael Keaton. For him not to win defied logic. Either way, Keaton’s loss means he remains owed. Redmayne’s win has the reverse effect. All the same, the astonishingly graceful physical transformation Redmayne underwent in The Danish Girl is the kind of thing acting nominations are built on.
All that seemed left to be seen was DiCaprio in The Revenant. Given his outstanding work in the past, the stunning clips and trailer, and the well-publicized ambition of Inarritu’s project, no one turned out to be wrong in their very high expectations of DiCaprio’s work in this film. He spends agonizing stretches of the film unable to speak. He endures all manner of extremes in the unforgiving environment — cleaving as close to reality as possible, freezing half the time, persuasively portraying a man near death. The Revenant is not an easy film to watch. DiCaprio is so overdue for an Oscar, though, that this really does seem to be his year.
Then along came the surprise of Trumbo and Bryan Cranston. The topic of the Hollywood Blacklist has never been that popular with Oscar voters, or critics either for that matter but this film’s approach is a little different than the usual. Not only that, Cranston brings a charm offensive like few others can do. There is less ambiguity in his performance than in Leo’s. It’s also an easier sit than The Revenant, hitting more traditional narrative beats. If voters resist watching the Inarritu film for whatever reason, they might still vote for Leo anyway. A DiCaprio victory will also count as a vote in support of a film that most consider to be among the highest cinematic achievements of the year. Some of us in the pundit world, however, are wondering if Cranston won’t emerge the winner after all is said and done.
All the conflicting stories and theories about Leo and whether he will finally win an Oscar lay an additional burden upon the situation that’s a bit unfair. So many critics writing about The Revenant brought up those two words no one ever wants to hear: Oscar bait. It is assumed because the noisemakers on internet thinks DiCaprio “wants an Oscar” that a film this physically demanding must mean he really does. The thing is, he could have won an Oscar by playing the kinds of roles that ordinarily win — or gaining or losing 50 pounds. No one said Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club was “Oscar bait.” Perhaps because of the sensitive and honorable subject matter, they largely just accepted it as a brave, winning, challenging performance.
DiCaprio’s performance in Wolf of Wall Street was beyond brilliant — or to put it another way, if he wanted to win an Oscar would he have filmed a scene with a lit candle in his ass? His performance in The Departed — among his very best — is, in no way, reaching for an Oscar, nor was his work in Inception. It’s cynical to see his work that way. It’s the kind of stupor you wake up from in decades and wonder why no one ever gave him an Oscar. Well, here’s why. The hive mind decided that he wanted one too much. Really?
What seems to drive DiCaprio more than any gold statue is his focused desire to be a good — maybe even a great — actor. His ongoing dedication to living up to that check written on Gilbert Grape, undoing his matinee idol status from Titanic and onward, to join the ranks of the best of the best – like DeNiro, Pacino, Brando, Davis and Streep. There are higher goals to shoot for as an artist than winning a statuette from a certain eccentric and often fickle demographic.
DiCaprio is the top of the A-List because he’s a box office draw. He can choose whatever project he wants and is almost always the first person to be offered plumb roles. Given the opportunity to pick and choose, he always chooses well. He never goes for the superhero crap, and is never motivated purely by money. He has been lucky to be privileged enough to work with the best filmmakers. He’s more than earned his overdue Oscar win by turning in such consistently good performances. Shutter Island, Inception, The Aviator, Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed – he simply knocks it out of the park each time, digging down deep to find the difficult emotional truth in every performance. One day, DiCaprio will be regarded as one of the greats. It’s just that his fame at at early age, and perhaps his ageless beauty, have hampered his trajectory to an Oscar.
So you might think, “Why are you advocating for someone who already has it in the bag?” The reason is that this a crucial moment to show DiCaprio our support. If I know my Oscar voters they will collapse under the pressure of the hive mind and may decide not to do the right thing here. They will waffle and fall back on old habits, choosing someone they like best — which amounts to picking their friend over the guy they never spent any quality time with. Some of them might not pick DiCaprio because they know it’s his time and still want to withhold his reward. Some of them might opt out of even watching the film altogether. Some of them might watch it and not like it and thus, punish DiCaprio for their disappointment. Maybe the Academy are once again going to pick someone who is more into the kissing babies part of the Oscar race. Either way, we’re either watching the year wherein DiCaprio really should win his Oscar, or else we’re watching the year where he finally does. All things being equal — in a race for a prize that’s about so many other things besides whether someone deserves to win or not — DiCaprio, I’d say, has more than earned this win for his unforgettable, horrifying, deeply moving performance in The Revenant.