In the year of DiCaprio, some thoughts on acting and this year’s Oscar for Best Actor.
One moment during this year’s Golden Globes left me misty-eyed. It was when an actor, long overlooked, took home a prize. Clearly, others in that glitzy hall felt the way I did, for they gave the actor a standing ovation. Everyone seemed happy he’d finally won. I refer, of course, to Sylvester Stallone, who took home his first Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor for playing Rocky Balboa in Creed. He’s the reason I’ll be watching the Oscars on February 28 – he’s nominated, again, for Best Supporting Actor. Don’t ask me to explain it. It’s a generational thing. You have to have been around when the Rocky movies meant a big deal, you have to have that Bill Conti theme ringing in your head every time you decide to start gymming again. I feel an… affection for Stallone that I don’t for the other Supporting Actor nominees, whom I merely respect: Christian Bale (The Big Short), Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). If you tell me Stallone cannot do what the superb Rylance did in Bridge of Spies, then I’m just going to say, “And vice versa.” Besides, these award ceremonies aren’t always about who deserves to win. They’re also about who you’d like to see win.
There’s another actor, this year, everyone would like to see win: Leonardo DiCaprio. I hope he does. I like watching him on screen. He isn’t a Great in my book, but he’s good and he’s consistent, as he’s proved in many films – even in ones, like J. Edgar, where he’s been hilariously miscast. My only major complaint with this actor is that he doesn’t act his age very often. For someone who’s just stepped into his forties, his resumé is remarkably light on… light roles. Watch him cut loose in Django Unchained, and you get a full measure of why he’s such a major star. He’s magnetic, he’s feral, he’s fun – he’s what people are when they’re the one per cent of the one per cent. You feel you’re seeing the side he shows those supermodels he keeps dating. DiCaprio is most inspired when indulging in some kind of caddishness. The Wolf of Wall Street. Catch Me If You Can. The Great Gatsby. Even Titanic, the movie that made Leo Le-ohhh!, had him play a grown-up version of the Artful Dodger. But in the heavy stuff (Blood Diamond, Inception, Shutter Island), his range shrinks, boxed between two settings: “earnest” and “worried.” He keeps frowning like he’s carrying the fate of mankind in that frown.
These aren’t bad performances at all, but you sense a sameness – and you sense the strain. I’m doing all this heavy lifting, dammit, give me that Oscar already! And one reason I hope DiCaprio gets this Oscar is so it liberates him to take on roles where he doesn’t have to eat bison liver on the sets. Yes, that’s one of the things he did for The Revenant, as the publicity machine around the movie has drummed into everyone who picks up a newspaper or clicks on a hyperlink. More from the machine: He waded into frozen rivers!!! He decided not to wrap the tops of his fingers in warming bandages on the first day of shooting!!! He almost got hypothermia!!! He slept in animal carcasses!!! You may be reminded of the (maybe apocryphal) anecdote from the sets of Marathon Man, when Dustin Hoffman, in order to simulate sleeplessness, stayed up for many days and nights, only to get this reaction from his incredulous co-star, Laurence Olivier: “Dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
But in Olivier’s time, one could still treat the cinema screen as an extension of the stage. The theatre/opera director Richard Eyre, beautifully summed up Olivier’s performing style as “marked by high energy, a bravura romanticism and more than a touch of camp.” Hoffman, on the other hand, was a product of the post-Brando era, where it wasn’t just enough to put on a sad face, you had to remember the time you were five and your stepfather snatched your ice-cream cone away and your stepmother cackled as she squelched it in the mud. Suddenly, acting had transformed from embodying to… being. And what good was it if only you knew what you were putting yourself through? Slowly, actors realised that they had to not just impress their directors while making the movie but also, after shooting wrapped, impress upon the world how much “acting” they did. Hence, from the late-sixties onwards, the widely publicised phenomenon of “suffering for one’s art.” Hoffman putting pebbles in his shoe to keep his limp consistent in Midnight Cowboy. De Niro upholstering himself with 60 pounds for Raging Bull. Nicole Kidman dowdy-ing up for The Hours. We are at a point where acting isn’t so much about vanishing into a role as making the efforts visible.
But can you really blame actors, DiCaprio included, for wanting to externalize so internal a process? If you portray a writer who’s thinking, most people are going to think you’re just sitting there. But stick a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, keep a glass of whiskey at hand, clack away furiously at a typewriter – now you have something people can point to as a performance. Matt Damon gave a superb performance in The Martian. It’s also a great “movie star” performance, one that distils and showcases the things about a star that make him a star. But it’s too… Matt Damon. It doesn’t look like he did anything. It’s as if he just showed up on the set. But DiCaprio in The Revenant… ah! It’s a performance not just with a capital P but also a capital ERFORMANCE. Plus, did you note the spin DiCaprio put on his efforts at the Golden Globes when accepting his Best Actor trophy, talking about awareness of indigenous cultures and corporate greed? The people who vote for these awards like to think they’re rewarding something… worthy. Not only did DiCaprio suffer, he’s now saving the world. Give him the Best Actor statuette already.
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