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Sunday, February 28, 2016

DiCaprio or Not – What Makes a Performance Oscar Worthy?

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How much does an actor or actress have to do to procure an Oscar nomination? It’s a topic of conversation that usually falls into the trap of appearances over substance. If an actor “suffers” for his art – as we have been told over and over again about Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio in the making of The Revenant – does that add bonus points?

The problem goes far deeper than DiCaprio eating raw bison liver or floating in an icy river – it is about what we perceive as acting a part as opposed to what is a great performance. The devil is in the details and, alas, it makes all the difference.

A film like Concussion garnered great reviews, and anyone who has seen it knows Will Smith gives a dynamite performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu. While there has been a good deal of drama regarding the lack of diversityf550f85cd8ef873edaa5a4d140815e7a6e5121c1 in this year’s Oscar nominations (Smith was not nominated for this film), putting that aside what about the performances?

Smith’s characterization is measured and subtle. He manages a foreign accent well, and he registers various extremes of emotion throughout. His character ages gracefully, and there is no dramatic weight gain or loss, no prosthetics, and nothing CGI about what he does in the film. In short, it’s just good, old fashioned, solid acting.

Comparing that to DiCaprio’s performance is kind of like apples and oranges, but DiCaprio lost the obligatory weight needed for him to portray a starving guy trapped in the wilderness. He gets beaten and partially devoured by a bear, buried in a shallow grave, thrown off a cliff, sleeps inside a horse carcass, and it goes on and on. Oh the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations of the part on this poor fellow!

While I enjoyed the film and the performance, it really falls in a different realm entirely. It’s sort of the Tom Hanks in Castaway or Robert De Niro in Raging Bull mode of acting, or we can even link it to Matthew McConaughey  in Dallas Buyers Club and Hanks again in Philadelphia. All of these are memorable performances in great films, but is the craft of acting shining through or is it all the physical effort by the actors to get into the part.

To give you some clue as to my background, earlier in life I trained to be an actor in New York City. While I took classes learning “the method” and had a teacher who studied with Stella Adler, I knew other actors who were getting more parts than I did with little or no training. One friend, who got a great part on a soap opera, said, “Vic, throw out that method crap and just be yourself.”

I think about this all these years later after I left the idea of acting behind, and I look at all these films and wonder about that. How much has DiCaprio put of himself in each part since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Surely there are vestiges of him in all his roles, but many of his parts seem unique. Compare Jack in Titanic to the troubled undercover cop in The Departed. DiCaprio established himself as a serious actor along the way, and I had no trouble believing he was those characters in those films and not himself.

Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and numerous other performers have made careers on playing various versions of themselves in films. While there is nothing wrong with that, there is no dispensing with the notion that they are saying the lines and hitting their marks in what could be interchangeable roles.

akids5So what is good acting you may ask? It should be effortless, with a displacement of self and immersion into another identity. In the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Harrison Ford pulls this off so ingeniously. You never for one second think this is Harrison Ford on screen – it is Han Solo! The fact that he did not get a nomination – even that the film didn’t get a Best Picture nod – still boggles the mind in its incongruity.

But back to DiCaprio, he is going to win unless everyone including me is wrong. The idea of him winning for this role is based on a collective body of work – he was really great in so many other movies, and now it’s his time. Sometimes that happens in Hollywood, but Hollywood (or more importantly the Academy) sometimes gets it wrong.

More powerful performances without the “suffering” factor are to be found – Bryan Cranston in Trumbo and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, but these are not films caught up in the hype that has followed The Revenant from its premiere. As the saying goes, “This is DiCaprio’s year,” but we have to marvel at what Hollywood deems great acting as opposed to what acting can or should be.

Having watched The Revenant a second time, I started thinking is this DiCaprio playing the scene as Hugh Glass would have reacted or as Leonardo DiCaprio would have? That may seem unfair, but it’s worthy of consideration. Watch the scene again when he has to eat the bison liver (steak tartare it is not). Glass was a grizzled frontiersman, so my call is that he would have devoured that thing like we eat a Big Mac. DiCaprio in that scene gives away disdain and disgust, which seems perfectly normal for us but not for the character that he’s playing.

Perhaps I am grasping at straws here, but the point is that film captures moments and they coalesce into a story that we accept or reject. As difficult as the process to make The Revenant must have been for DiCaprio, that doesn’t make the acting good or great – only he can do that. While he seems to be genuinely suffering and struggling in this film, it’s hard not think that the actor is hurting and not the character.

There is a fine line here – and I am certain I will have those who hate me for saying these things, but I would like to see the notion of “Oscar worthy” be more aligned with Marlon Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront than what we have been seeing of late.

We have to get to that place where Hollywood respects the actor for playing a part and not him or herself, where the reactions are genuine and the slings and arrows suffered are not the reasons for greatness but just an addendum to it. Yes, that process is difficult, but it is like separating the wheat from the chaff. In the end that may be the only way to judge if a performance is truly worthy of that gold statue.


Photo Credits: foxmovies, starwars.com, concussionmovie.net

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