A baby-faced movie star who thrives at playing rebels, misfits, and swindlers capable of dashing off seductive speeches at the drop of a dime is heavily favored to win his first Oscar for a largely wordless performance in which he grunts and growls while trying to kill Tom Hardy in a vast, unstoppable wilderness.
Strangely enough for an actor who’s still quite young, the prevailing tone residing over the awards-season race suggests that this crack at the hardware is somehow overdue — perhaps because Leonardo DiCaprio, 41, has now been an Oscar-nominated actor for more than half of his lifetime. But even considering the Academy’s long and decorated history of allocating recognition to actors for underwhelming or non-representative roles, the division between DiCaprio’s traditional modes of expertise and his performance in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is striking.
He’s the scared, wisecracking boy who never grew up — a slick maneuverer of cons in his comedic roles, a bottle of hot-tempered vulnerability in his dramatic ones — finally hitting pay dirt for exhibiting heroic strength and superhuman bodily willpower as a bereaved, rugged adventurer.
At 19, DiCaprio earned his first nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), in which he plays Arnie, the title character’s (Johnny Depp) younger brother with a developmental disability. The role’s exceptional behavioral quirks might seem to distinguish the performance as a one-off, but Arnie in fact has much in common with future DiCaprio characters. On the cusp of turning eighteen and the product of a broken home (his father committed suicide and his mother is an obese, couch-bound hermit), Arnie has a habit of throwing tantrums at the dinner table, latching onto and repeating depressing thoughts that make everyone uncomfortable: “Dad’s dead! Dad’s dead!” or “We’re not going anywhere! We’re not going anywhere!” Just over a decade later, in The Aviator (2004), DiCaprio played another mentally unstable character prone to stilted repetition and confrontational supper-time outbursts, as when his Howard Hughes bitterly tells a tableful of yammering Hepburns: “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it.” The Aviator ends with DiCaprio alone in a bathroom, saying “The way of the future” over and over again.
Interestingly for an actor with such a likeably boyish, all-American face, these rebellious, unruly, convention-defying characters are not exceptions but rather classic DiCaprio. At the start of The Basketball Diaries (1995), he squats on all fours at the front of a prep-school classroom, receiving an onslaught of paddle spanks from his fed-up teacher. When the end-of-class bell rings out, DiCaprio snickers: “Too bad, Father, I was just starting to enjoy myself.” Later in The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll (DiCaprio) and his pals sniff carbonic cleaning fluid, snort cocaine, and shoot heroin. A similar instinct resurfaces in other early DiCaprio roles — Hank in Marvin’s Room (1996), who winds up strapped to a bed in a juvenile center after setting his family’s house on fire; the orphaned Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs of New York (2002), who spends sixteen formative years in a reform house on Blackwell’s Island — with the actor applying a cherubic face worthy of inclusion on a Wheaties box to characters with profoundly antisocial tendencies.
DiCaprio seeks out these roles — lost souls cast adrift, who mask their crippling vulnerability with a cocksure attitude and misguided brashness. His interest in playing wayward outsiders extends to such a point that several of his characters take on aliases or multiple identities. In Gangs, he infiltrates the inner circle of the vicious man (Daniel Day-Lewis) who killed his father, posing as a nobody with a first name. In Catch Me If You Can (2002), he runs away from home after his parents divorce and concocts innumerable personalities for himself: a Pan Am copilot named Frank Taylor, a Secret Service agent named Barry Allen, a Georgia doctor named Frank Conners. In Shutter Island (2010), his character is so unsure of his own identity that Ben Kingsley needs a whiteboard to try to explain it to him. And in both Gangs and The Departed (2006), in which DiCaprio’s lonely Billy Costigan volunteers to go undercover to derail the operation of a notorious mobster (Jack Nicholson), there is a hint of Stockholm syndrome — of a confused, desperate kid who gets in too deep and would rather have some companionship than none.
In a great scene in The Departed, set to “Comfortably Numb,” DiCaprio shows up unannounced in the middle of a downpour at the home of Vera Farmiga’s cop shrink. He’s nervous, hunched forward against the kitchen wall and tapping his fingers, then leaning back and crossing his arms, then canvassing the space behind him, searching for words. Farmiga tells him: “I have to say, your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now.” It’s a line that could apply to so many DiCaprio characters: to Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, who’d sooner call his sworn enemy on Christmas Eve than spend the holiday without talking to anyone; to Howard Hughes in The Aviator, who isolates himself in his projection room, shunning all visitors and pissing into empty milk bottles; to Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, introduced vomiting in a bathroom at sea and telling his reflection in the mirror, “Pull yourself together, Teddy”; and even, in a couple of fleeting moments, to the awful Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), who admits to a relative point-blank, “I’m a drug addict. I really am,” and later, when asked about his aspirations to sobriety, tells his best friend, without a trace of humor, “Fucking sucks. So boring. I want to kill myself.”
DiCaprio’s repertoire of gestures is long and varied: active, anxious eyes; confident hands-in-pockets struts; resourceful fiddling with objects (a desk lamp in Catch Me If You Can, sly sips of wine when he tries to bribe Kyle Chandler’s federal agent in Wolf); a furrowed-brow intensity always threatening to boil over; a capacity for precise, salesman-like enunciation. The Revenant only adds to this list. Under the demanding scrutiny of Iñárritu’s circling long takes, DiCaprio relishes the challenge of animalistic physical exertion, catching fish with his bare hands, devouring raw bison liver, shooting saliva out of his mouth when in distress, and providing the movie with a soundtrack of constant heavy breathing. He also polishes a rifle in real time, applies gunpowder to a simmering neck wound, cuts off some of Tom Hardy’s fingers, and again proves, as he did with the country club quaalude fiasco in Wolf, that he can be unintelligible when he wants to.
What The Revenant doesn’t show is the vulnerable DiCaprio — the kid who asks for milk before takeoff in Catch Me If You Can or cranberry juice at the ramshackle bar in The Departed. For all the suffering the character endures throughout the course of The Revenant, DiCaprio’s Glass, in Iñárritu’s dubious attempt at a meaningful closing image, stands before the audience, gazing into the camera, as a weirdly invincible presence — a character who has barreled through so much physically and yet seems bafflingly assured and self-possessed. Can you imagine Vera Farmiga in a kitchen with Hugh Glass, looking him in the eye and saying, “I have to say, your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now,” as he grunts and gnaws on a raw slab of bison?