You all would know that Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe quite recently for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. In his acceptance speech, DiCaprio profusely thanked Martin Scorsese for the opportunity, and at the same time I profusely thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for giving the man his due. It is no secret that one of the most talented and versatile actors of the modern times continues to find it more difficult to win a coveted award than it would be to find a needle in a haystack (and I mean that literally). Sunday’s Golden Globe win was only DiCaprio’s second Golden Globe award despite being nominated nine different times for his acting performance. At the (not concluded) BAFTA film awards, he has been nominated for the third time this year and is yet to win the top honours. Nor has he ever won the Screen Actors Guild Award despite numerous nominations. And most notably, he has so far been nominated three times at the Academy Awards , but the elusive Oscar statuette has never reached his hands. It is a growing mystery as to why an obvious talent like Leonardo DiCaprio does not find the prefix “Academy Award winner” attached to his name, much in the same way that Johnny Depp (three Oscar nominations) and Will Smith (two Oscar nominations) receive the royal snub by the members of the Academy too. While the latter are puzzles to ponder over some other day, we try to unravel the DiCaprio conundrum for now.
Leonardo DiCaprio made his film debut in the comedy-horror film Critters 3 which was released direct-to-video, back in 1991. You could be forgiven for not having heard of that movie, but it is highly unlikely that the name What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has also gone unnoticed. By the time this 1993 film made it to the theatres, DiCaprio was not even 20 years old. And here he was with his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role! The character of Arnie Grape, a mentally handicapped lad, stirred the hearts of many, and deservedly put DiCaprio in the limelight with his Oscar nomination. So why did he not win the coveted award? In hindsight, it seems to have been DiCaprio’s best chance. But he was probably let down by the lack of penetration that the movie itself had made. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape had a limited release in December 1993 which made it eligible for the Oscars, but a wide release followed only in March 1994, which was after the awards. So DiCaprio ended up against acting performances from much more popular movies – The Fugitive (Tommy Lee Jones), Schindler’s List (Ralph Fiennes) and In the Line of Fire (John Malkovic), though the final nomination was for In the Name of the Father (Pete Postlethwaite) which also had a wide release post the Academy Awards. Tommy Lee Jones went on to win the Oscar, and interestingly of the whole bunch of five actors nominated in that category that night, this is the only Oscar win amongst them all, till date. Pity, it was not to be DiCaprio.
Mainstream recognition and success followed DiCaprio and it reached its peak with the mega-blockbuster Titanic in 1997, when Jack Dawson became the heartthrob of almost any lady eager to fall in love. The movie was a behemoth at the 1998 Academy Awards as well, winning 11 of 14 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for James Cameron. While Leonardo DiCaprio had a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the movie (but did not win the award), there was no Oscar nomination that year, and rightly so; he would not have stood a chance against the eventual winner Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets, a performance which even ousted Matt Damon’s memorable role in Good Will Hunting. DiCaprio hit an iceberg in his career after that year which led to some poor film selections; he in fact won the Razzie (these are awards for worst performances of the year) for Worst Screen Couple in The Man in The Iron Mask for playing twins(!) and was nominated for Worst Actor for his performance in The Beach. DiCaprio’s career came back on track when Scorsese came in the picture with 2002’s Gangs of New York, and from then on it has been a glorious decade and counting…
The 2003 Academy Award nominations surprise me, for it was the time when DiCaprio should have been in the running for his roles in Gangs of New York and the far more memorable performance in Catch Me If You Can. The former movie got Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar nomination in Best Actor category, while the latter for Christopher Walken a nomination in Best Actor in a Supporting Role category. Both were to lose out eventually, but the absence of DiCaprio was a bit surprising. Maybe the members of the Academy had yet to realise once again the acting talent of this fine actor, the one who had slipped away in the past five years; maybe DiCaprio was plain unlucky, and he needed to do a bit more to be back in the spotlight. So off he went to do a biopic on Howard Hughes under the guidance of Martin Scorsese in 2004’s The Aviator, which earned him his second Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category.
Leonardo DiCaprio was now no longer the young kid on the block, or the newcomer against the veterans. He was well placed with his contemporaries in the Oscar nominee list, with a very much realistic chance of grabbing the golden statuette. It was a peculiar nominee list in this category for the 2005 Academy Awards, for four of the five actors had played real-life characters. Also, the movies had been largely quite popular with the audience too. DiCaprio won his first Golden Globe that year (for the Drama category) which did make him one of the popular choices for the Oscar, but alas, he was up against the one who won a Golden Globe too (for the Comedy or Musical category), and the BAFTA and the Screen Actors Guild Award and a host of others. That someone was Jamie Foxx who portrayed the blues musician Ray Charles in the movie Ray. If only Ray had released a year before or after, one feels Leonardo DiCaprio would have walked home with the Oscar; but sometimes you may hold three kings only to find the next guy holding three aces.
But an actor like DiCaprio is bound to resurface again. In 2006, he came to the theatres with two gems, The Departed and Blood Diamond. Both incredible films, again displaying the versatility of DiCaprio. In The Departed, he played the cop who is planted as a mole in a mobster’s gang, while in Blood Diamond, he depicted the journey of a greedy ambitious man who comes to learn a lot more about relationships and emotions. In a not so common occurrence, DiCaprio was nominated for both roles in the same year at the Golden Globes. The Academy was not so generous, and while there were five Oscar nominations for The Departed, there was none for DiCaprio. He did win his third Oscar nomination though for Best Actor for Blood Diamond. Even before the 2007 Academy Awards function would have begun, DiCaprio would have known that his chances were going to be very slim. For just as fate would have it, he was up against easily the best performance in Forest Whitaker’s career, which he may in fact never come to repeat, and one of the most incredible role portrayals of the past decade, that of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. DiCaprio had already lost the Golden Globe award to him, despite his two nominations, and eventually went on to lose the Oscar as well. So despite starring in Blood Diamond and The Departed which had five Oscar nominations each, Leonardo DiCaprio saw another chance slip by to a performance in a movie that had only one Oscar nomination… and went on to win it.
DiCaprio’s quest has continued with some more memorable roles, which have somehow not been deemed Oscar worthy. Playing a distraught husband in the drama Revolutionary Road, a diligent investigator in Shutter Island, a skilled “extractor” with a debt to pay in Inception and a portrayal of the well-known FBI director in J. Edgar got him no recognition from the Academy. If there could have been a Best Villain category, then it should have landed on the doorstep of DiCaprio for his performance in Django Unchained, but then of course, there isn’t.
So is there a pattern that we see in this enigma? Is there an answer to this riddle? DiCaprio has played some of the most memorable cinematic characters, and depicted his versatility to the fullest, but maybe he has not been loud enough. His roles are generally mild, in the sense that they do not hit the right notes immediately but grow onto you as the movie progresses. The greatness of his acting comes in his subtleties, the manner in which he can twitch and flinch and bring more life in the character, without being brazen and loud. It is in his pauses where much of his intensity comes from. Maybe DiCaprio stays in the shadows a bit, maybe he needs a role similar to a Colin Firth in The King’s Speech or a Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, where the movie is all about portraying things around him, highlighting the nuances and the oddities of his character, maybe only then would the members of the Academy consider that role “award worthy”. Looking back at the winner’s list for Best Actor, I have to go back to the 2003 Awards when Sean Penn won for Mystic River wherein the story was larger than the lead actor, and the character was part of the tale rather than the tale being about the character. For those are the kind of movies that DiCaprio usually is a part of, and maybe that is why there is an Oscar missing from his trophy cabinet.
Or maybe I am over-analysing. Maybe DiCaprio is plain unlucky, for when he did make it to the nominee list, he came up against some of the greatest acting performances. The nominee list for this year’s Academy Awards is to be announced soon, and any absence of Leonardo DiCaprio for his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street would be surprising indeed. But equally surprising would be if he were to win the Oscar itself, for no matter how much I would love to see this tremendous actor give an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, the likes of Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years A Slave have simply stood out, and are to be the favourites. Or maybe there is a surprise in store. And even if there isn’t then one has to look no further than one of DiCaprio’s long-term collaborator, Martin Scorsese who won his one and only Oscar in 2007 for Departed, a full 26 years after his first nomination for Raging Bull. Leonardo DiCaprio has a long career still in front of him, no doubt one which would be filled with exciting and challenging roles, ones that would make him raise his bar further and further up, ones that would bring out more from him. It is easy to see that an Oscar cannot be much further away…