Warning: here there be spoilers.
Let’s cut to the chase: I watched The Revenant a few days ago. It has already won three Golden Globe awards, and has twelve Oscar nominations. One of those nominations is for Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor. Everybody’s talking about how great he is in this movie, and how great the movie is in general. I will sort of agree with both counts, but…
Should Leo get an Oscar for his performance in this movie?
The biggest argument in favor of him finally winning that elusive Academy Award is how he had to endure such harsh filming conditions, including extreme cold and eating raw food. Well, yeah, that was impressive for sure, but that’s not what it should take to win an Oscar for Best Actor. The acting awards are for dramatic performances; what Leo gave us was an amazing physical performance.
To get my point across I will mention arguably the greatest physical performer in the history of cinema: Jackie Chan. I think no one can argue that Jackie Chan’s stunts not only look impressive, but were extremely dangerous. He put his life on the line just to make a particular sequence real. I don’t recall any other celebrity actor of that caliber doing that to such an extreme (Tom Cruise comes the closest). There’s no denying he was very passionate about his craft, but did he ever get an Oscar nomination for those performances? Nope. Why? Because physical performances don’t count towards a dramatic performance award.
For a physical performance you have to be tough; you have to be willing to endure shit most people will say no to in a second, because it’s real. It’s really real. For a dramatic performance you have to act; you have to pretend to be feeling a wide variety of emotions, convince us they are real. I would argue that it would have been tougher for DiCaprio, actingwise, to convince us of what he went through if conditions were ideal on location or on set. Remember Titanic, and the scene towards the end where he freezes to death because he left Kate Winslet’s Rose to have the whole log to herself? Guess what? The water there wasn’t freezing cold, not really (it was about 80 degrees F). It didn’t matter: he convinced us that he was freezing. That was a better acting job than The Revenant.
So how was he, actingwise, in this movie?
He was ok. You believe he loved his son. You believe his rage when his son is murdered. You believe his determination when he finally has Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald in his sights, and is very close to completing his vengeance. But at no point are any of those sequences impressive. They serve their purpose, and stop at that. Everything impressive about his performance lies in the physical parts. His stunts.
The best dramatic performance in the movie, and by far, is Tom Hardy’s. While Leo remained Leo (he always sort of remains Leo in everything he does), Hardy transformed himself. He gave character to his character. He was a frontiersman with a shitty life, and all he wanted was to get his money for his hard work so his life would be a little less shitty. Leo’s Hugh Glass was done for. Even the doctor agreed. Can you really blame Hardy’s Fitzgerald for wanting to get it over with? The one thing Fitz really messed up in was killing Glass’ son. Without that, he had moral justification to get away scott free. I felt more identified with the antagonist in the story than with the lead character. If anyone should get an Oscar for a dramatic performance in The Revenant, it’s Tom Hardy (he probably won’t, though).
Disclaimer: yes, I actually like Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m a fan of his, despite how he always remains Leo through his many roles. If he wins, I’ll cheer for him. I just don’t think he deserves it, not this time. The Wolf of Wall Street was a far better dramatic performance, but he was up against a very tough field of nominees that year.
Also, while I marvel at the technical masterpiece that The Revenant is, I don’t think it should win Best Picture. I think it will win it, but it shouldn’t. The plot is too thin and simple, akin to Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road (two other technical marvels with thin plots that got nominated for Best Picture). Iñárritu should have his Best Director award on the bag. Lubezki should win for Best Cinematography (I mean, holy shit this movie looked beautiful!). Best Picture? Nope. Best Actor in a Leading Role? Nope.