If you watch the Oscars and care about movies, you learn to take the good with the bad, to prepare for unpleasant inevitabilities and celebrate the occasional fit of artistic justice. I have steeled myself for "The Revenant's" likely Best Picture win this year, as I did with "Birdman" the year before; Alejandro González Iñárritu makes moviemaking seem exciting and important, and if I find his films to be clangorous contraptions stuffed full of shopworn insights, too bad for me.
But every year there's one Oscar win I simply can't abide, one that's so monstrously wrong-headed it makes the fates cry out for justice. This year, as predicted by Indiewire's critics poll, that winner will, barring an act of God, be Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Revenant." It's not that DiCaprio's undeserving — far from it. But his performance in "The Revenant" is the fourth-most-interesting of his last four performances, and in recognizing him for this particular turn, the Academy is likely to demonstrate once more its toxic habit of confusing accomplishment with effort.
Let me stipulate here that this is not an argument that DiCaprio does not "deserve" an Oscar, as you cannot deserve something that has no reliable value. But after DiCaprio gave three of the best performances in his career in "Django Unchained," "The Great Gatsby," and "The Wolf of Wall Street" — all of them informed by wit, gusto, and a dazzling command of tone — it's a major bummer to think that he's going to win instead for crawling around in the snow and chewing on raw bison liver.
As Matt Zoller Seitz writes:
"The acting-as-punishment routine takes this mentality to its lowest depth. Right now Leonardo DiCaprio is the front-runner in the Best Actor race for his performance in the survival epic 'The Revenant,' in which he plays an 1830s trapper seeking revenge against a colleague who betrayed him and left him for dead in the wilderness. During the course of the film — which we've repeatedly been told was shot under very difficult weather conditions and in harsh terrain; filmmaker suffering is part of this narrative now, too — Leo wades and swims in icy water, crawls across hard tundra while dragging an injured leg behind him, eats raw bison liver, sucks the marrow out of the vertebrae of an animal skeleton, etc., in the name of survival, but also in the name of Art."
It's easy to understand why this kind of acting impresses moviegoers and many critics. We may not know what it's like to channel private emotions into a camera-ready performance while making sure the light catches our face just so, but we know, or can imagine, how hard it would be to lose 30 pounds or credibly affect a disability, or to submit to any of the physical ordeals that Oscar candidates' publicists habitually coach them to relate. (You can't blame DiCaprio for playing the game; maybe he should have talked more about how itchy Jordan Belfort's polo shirts were.) Is it easier to be charming on screen, to play most of your scenes opposite a computer and still fill a movie theater with warmth and movie-star charisma, as Matt Damon does in "The Martian"? Or to exude the wounded decency of an underdog prizefighter as Michael B. Jordan does in "Creed" — the most egregious omission from the nominees in the year of Oscars So White? Or to deliver a comic punchline at just the right speed, with no live audience to guide your aim, in a genre where the Academy rarely deigns to turn its gaze? I don't know, but I do know you're a lot less likely to win an award for it.
I won't say that DiCaprio should have won an Oscar for "The Wolf of Wall Street," but it's worth noting that he lost that year to "Dallas Buyers Club's" Matthew McConaughey, who as nearly every article on the film noted, lost 40 pounds to play a character who was HIV-positive. Given that McConaughey, who physically transformed himself for the role and was in the midst of a commercial and artistic resurgence, was living out two of the Academy's habitual favorite narratives — three if you count the fact the he was playing a historical person — it's likely DiCaprio never had a chance. But in a better world, McConaughey would have won Best Supporting Actor the previous year for "Magic Mike," leaving DiCaprio unopposed for the win. (In a perfect world, DiCaprio would already have won for "Catch Me If You Can" or "Shutter Island," but let's not get carried away.)
Rewarding the right actor for the wrong role is a venerable Oscar tradition: Would any Al Pacino fan suggest that "Scent of a Woman" is the peak of his art? But given that actors make up the largest branch of Academy voters — around 25 percent— it doesn't seem like better taste in acting winners is too much to ask of them. Then again, maybe they're the most susceptible to tales of on-set hardship: the anonymous actress who told Entertainment Weekly why she's voting Leo explained: "I could relate to working in extremely cold conditions. Sometimes it’s so cold it’s hard to even act." Professional camaraderie is a beautiful thing, but "It's hard to act when it's cold" is a terrible reason to give someone an award. Let's just hope the Academy doesn't hold it against "Room's" Brie Larson that she did most of her scenes indoors.
If they're as old as the rest of the Academy, perhaps it's no surprise that the actors branch's idea of great performances is mired in the ardors of the Method. It's not, of course, that hardship and physical transformation are never part of a great performance, but it's dull and more than a little embarrassing to see the same kinds of performances honored year after year, especially when the actors winning the awards have done so much more in other, less showy, roles. It's as if the Academy is less interested in acting than it is in Acting!
The steps the Academy is taking to diversify its ranks — aggressively adding new voters who aren't white and male, gently shoving members who haven't made a movie in decades out the door — are primarily aimed at addressing the Oscars', and the movie industry's, shameful record on diversity. But if we're really lucky, those new voters will bring with them some more diverse ideas about what great acting is as well.