Sorry, haters: Leonardo DiCaprio does deserve the Oscar for ‘The Revenant’

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That law is currently being clumsily applied to Leonardo DiCaprio’s likely Oscar win this Sunday for his performance in “The Revenant.”

Did I call it a performance?

Au contraire says the author of this assessment in The Muse: “The most moving dialogue from Leo in the movie is a series of Morse code grunts and you think that deserves an Academy Award?”

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Here’s another denouncement from a critic in London: “DiCaprio does very little acting in this movie. He has a handful of lines in over two and a half hours, and most of those are garbled and borderline incomprehensible.”

There are many other Leo dissenters voicing similar objections and some who dismiss his nomination as a career catch-up. He’s been nominated four times before and his mantel is bare.

Most of the anti-Leo stories have the feel of citizen critics looking for a little snark-time on the web, but the one that seems most out of sorts with reasoned opinion comes from Matt Zoller Seitz, an old New York colleague of mine who is now editor-and-chief of RogerEbert.com.

Matt is also TV critic for New York Magazine and he’s written books and made movies and is an all-around good thinker whose MZS blog might better be named InSeitzive. (You can have that, Matt.) But he has lost his way in arguing the premise that “A win for Leonardo DiCaprio … would only ratify the tendency to see acting greatness in terms of transformation and misery.”

Saying that “If you want that little gold man, you’ve got to pay some kind of physical price,” Seitz recalls, with apparent bemusement, the Best Actor wins for Geoffrey Rush’s turn as an idiot savant pianist in “Shine,” Tom Cruise’s portrayal of paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” Daniel Day-Lewis’ foot-painting cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” and the recent win by Eddie Redmayne for the Stephen Hawking bio-pic “The Theory of Everything.”

Seitz suggests that this school of “acting as punishment” probably started with Robert De Niro’s massive weight for the final scenes in “Raging Bull.” He quotes the high priestess of criticism Pauline Kael saying of that performance that “DeNiro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with; his [Jake] LaMotta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside.”

Jack Mathews’ Oscar predictions: Why I pick ‘The Revenant’ to win Best Picture

For starters, what DeNiro did in “Raging Bull” was provide verisimilitude for the full physical arc of LaMotta’s life, which started in sinew and ended in bloat. If the character seemed empty to Kael, the emptiness first appeared in the man being portrayed. That’s pretty much what the movie was about.

As for the others, what is it if not acting when an actor creates a believable character while miming that character’s physical being? Or, in the case of “The Revenant,” carrying an epic film while dragging himself across a hostile, midwinter landscape, disabled by a bear mauling and driven by the desire to avenge his son’s murder?

To the others’ complaints that Leo does not deserve the Oscar because he has very little dialogue, I will first state the obvious – who the hell was he going to talk to? – and then remind everyone that just four years ago, French actor Jean Dujardin won Best Actor for his performance in the silent movie “The Artist.”

Seitz knows better than to cherry pick through the Oscars to support a premise, but he does it anyway, naming a few actors who won portraying characters with marked physical and mental challenges. Lumping a half-dozen examples together in one paragraph does meet the three-is-a-trend test. But it really doesn’t support his premise.

Hollywood has long looked to historical figures overcoming obstacles to achieve greatness and those roles have tended to go to the hottest contemporary actors, including most of those mentioned by Seitz.

Should Day-Lewis have played Christy Brown as a stand-up guy who just happened to paint with his left foot? Should DeNiro have skipped the weight gain and asked audiences to imagine a blubbery gut on him at the end of “Raging Bull?” And, to the current point, should Leo have not been so obvious that he was acting when he crawled inside a gutted horse to keep warm, or make a face while eating an actual bison liver to keep from starving in “The Revenant”?

oscar best actor stats predictionsI am not a great fan of DiCaprio’s but I don’t get how what he does in this movie is not acting. And I don’t resent, as one critic does, his “endless boasting” about the physical hardships in the making of “The Revenant.” Obviously, it was hard making the movie in isolated, sub-freezing mountain settings, not just for Leo but for everyone in the company and it’s not boasting to talk about it.

There is something else I don’t get. Why is Leo’s acting in “The Great Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” more admirable, as Seitz says? In one, he plays an affected narcissist and in the other, an overt narcissist. Those roles should be catnip to a pampered actor. And his performances certainly did not deserve Academy Awards.

Finally, any attempt to discredit an actor on the eve on an Oscar needs to address his competition. Michael Fassbender and Eddie Redmayne were early favorites for Best Actor but their movies are not well-regarded and that demoted them to long shots. Bryan Cranston is fine in “Trumbo” but his nomination feels like a thank you for his work in the TV sensation “Breaking Bad.” And while I might personally vote for “The Martian” star Matt Damon, the sci-fi movie doesn’t have the heft of an Oscar movie.

None of that is DiCaprio’s fault. You may find his grunts and incomprehensible muttering overacting or underacting or something less than transformational, but it’s hard to imagine many actors agreeing with his critics that he went through hell in search of “that little gold man,” nor many who’d wish the task on themselves.

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Photo Credit: “The Revenant” by 20th Century Fox

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