We’ve all seen the unfortunate memes. Now, after four prior nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio is the odds-on favorite to win his very first Oscar this year, for his portrayal of a 19th century fur trapper who survives a vicious bear attack and then treks across the wilderness in search of revenge in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant.
The reason DiCaprio is destined for victory, according to many, is not because his performance stands head-and-shoulders above the pack, but rather because he’s “due.” That line of reasoning has struck many as wrong, since the Academy is expected to simply celebrate a given year’s finest work, not make up for past faux pas. The problem with such objections, however, is that they assume the Oscars are capable of accomplishing that mission—and they also mistake the real, lasting value of the awards in the first place. Which is another way of saying: If the Oscars are worth anything (a debatable point), DiCaprio should triumph precisely because he’s overdue.
While the Oscars aim to commemorate the best of the best, they often fail spectacularly at this task. As a reminder of the Oscars’ consistent wrongheadedness, one need only mention a few jaw-dropping, ire-raising decisions: Around the World in 80 Days being selected ahead of Giant and The Ten Commandments (not to mention the un-nominated The Searchers) for 1957’s Best Picture; Ordinary People trumping Raging Bull for 1981’s Best Picture; Driving Miss Daisy beating Do the Right Thing for 1990’s Best Picture; Adrien Brody besting Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson for 2003’s Best Actor; Crash beating out Brokeback Mountain for 2006’s Best Picture; and The King’s Speech toppling The Social Network for 2010’s Best Picture.
Furthermore, when they’re not downright embarrassing themselves with selections such as these, the Oscars have a habit of spreading the wealth around in order to make sure that multiple nominees don’t go home empty-handed, thereby proving that the organization’s members don’t vote based solely on quality, but instead take into account other factors that have nothing to do with their ostensible duty.
In other words: The Oscars can’t be counted on to faithfully do what they’re supposed to do. They’re a gigantic, fickle group whose members are apt to be influenced by PR campaigns, popular sentiment, media narratives, and other assorted cultural forces. And compounding problems this year is the fact that there isn’t a single “correct” Best Actor pick. There’s no guiding consensus that any one of the all-white nominees (DiCaprio in The Revenant, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Matt Damon in The Martian, Bryan Cranston in Trumbo) delivered a jaw-dropping performance that towered above the rest; it’s an anything-goes category devoid of an inarguably illustrious standout.
For those reasons alone, DiCaprio is as deserving as anyone. The Revenant is a success both critically (83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially ($142 million domestic box office and counting), and he’s the unquestionable center of its attention. DiCaprio may spend most of his screen time crawling around the snowy ground, grunting unintelligibly, and hiding inside animal carcasses, but regardless of whether or not he ate raw bison liver for the part (a production tall tale that’s certainly aided his cause), it’s the sort of commanding, larger-than-life movie star turn that singlehandedly carries a major motion picture, and is as magnetic as any big-time performance this year. Considering the category’s weak crop, as well as the Oscars’ dismal track record of pinpointing what’s “best,” DiCaprio is a worthy choice.
But there’s an even larger issue at play here, and it’s that, considering their consistent ineptness at identifying a given year’s best work, the Oscars’ value isn’t in assessing annual quality—rather, it’s in providing a historical perspective on the art form’s truly great artists. Their worth only comes from their macro, not micro, view of the movies.
This is why it’s fantastic that Denzel Washington won for Training Day; that Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman; that Paul Newman won for The Color of Money; that Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich; that Martin Scorsese won for The Departed; that Jeff Bridges won for Crazy Heart; that Julianne Moore won for Still Alice. None of those were their finest achievements (not by a long shot), yet since the Oscars had already repeatedly failed to award those all-timers with the awards they so obviously deserved, they at least made sure that—in historical terms—they could say they recognized, and commemorated, cinema’s most distinguished actors and moviemakers. No matter that they did so late, and for “lesser” works.
For a body dedicated to honoring the preeminent members of their industry, handing out de facto career-achievement awards is a far, far preferable alternative to, say, not bestowing a single acting award upon Cary Grant, or Robert Redford, or Peter O’Toole, or John Barrymore, or Richard Burton, or Edgar G. Robinson, or Ralph Fiennes, or Bill Murray, or Samuel L. Jackson, or Glenn Close, or Joseph Cotton, or Harrison Ford, or Donald Sutherland, or Annette Benning, or Albert Finney, or Will Smith, or Johnny Depp, or Richard Gere, or Jim Carrey, or Myrna Loy, or John Travolta, or Gary Oldman, or Tom Cruise…
…Or DiCaprio, who’s already failed to nab trophy for his work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries, Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, Inception, The Great Gatsby, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The 41-year-old DiCaprio is the A-list leading man of his generation, an international superstar who routinely collaborates with many of his medium’s foremost auteurs, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, and now Iñárritu. In an open 2016 Best Actor field, he’s a man among men, and the only one who, if the Oscars are to be taken seriously as authorities on excellence, most needs to have a win under his belt—even if it’s for The Revenant, which might be a minor work in terms of the rest of his canon, but is certainly no more minor than Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, or The Martian.
In order to build a track record of toasting brilliance, the Oscars have to stop wasting time feting one-hit wonders like Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, and Roberto Benigni—each of whom has the same number of Oscars as Al Pacino and Paul Newman for Chrissake!—and start dispensing statuettes to the industry’s inarguable legends, lest they look so clueless as to be absolutely useless. Barring the Academy suddenly choosing to give out retroactive Oscars, it’s better that they award thinly veiled career achievements to titans than continually ignore them (perhaps permanently) in favor of flavors-of-the-month in soon-to-be-forgotten roles and films.
Which is all to say that, for their own long-term health as a legitimate arbiter of greatness, the Oscars are best served by calling DiCaprio to Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre stage come Feb. 28.
It’s about damn time.