Wednesday, January 13, 2016

No Gold for Leo: Or Why We Need a Best Stunt Performer Oscar Category

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
It seems like I have been extremely harsh on one film this past Oscar season: director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant. It started with its problematic production and continued with false allegations of bear rape and my own belief that it shouldn't even be Oscar nomianted. However, there is one reason that it bothers me more than anything else: it's Leonardo DiCaprio's worst role. For those who are quick to accuse me of underselling his sacrifices, I am not. The issue here is that we're mistaking stunts for acting. You see, there is a grand difference, and I intend to prove why DiCaprio's performance was not acting - but instead an outdoors version of Fear Factor (and you wouldn't give Joe Rogan's show an Oscar now, would you?), and that this whole facade to get him an Oscar is a great example of nonsensical favoritism.

To clarify, I am not against Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor. I have written at length why I think he's a rare and genuine movie star. In fact, I'd argue that his films are predominantly better consistently than almost any actor. He makes interesting decisions, and that alone is admirable. Should he have won an Oscar by now? While I try to avoid the meme culture of "Gold for Leo," I would be lying if I didn't say that he has something magnetic about his films. He has this confidence going back to The Quick and The Dead where he has unexplained charisma. You look at The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator, and you see an actor who swings for the fences so beautifully each time. Even The Great Gatsby has enough moments to justify this theory. It is generally why then that I feel a certain passion when it comes to The Revenant suddenly being his shot at The Oscar. Part of me is confident it is just run-off of the Gold for Leo meme. However, the fact that it feels like it's being taken seriously (he did win that Golden Globe) is bothersome.

I am aware that I am in the minority, but I thought that The Revenant was atrocious. Yes, it has beautiful cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezski, but the story is just bad. It could just be that I don't find wilderness survival tales interesting, but the film's decision to replace character with masochistic stunts of DiCaprio swimming in cold water, eating raw bison liver, and sleeping in animal carcasses made for a miserable experience. Yes, the scenes are themselves compelling to watch, but very little of it serves context to the bigger film beyond the craziness of nature. In a way, the whole thing reads more as an epic "Pity me" story than an actual story. Is it a revolutionary film? In theory. Lebezski's cinematography is amazing and Inarritu definitely takes us into interesting parts of the forest. But without a story beyond "He crawled his way to revenge," it's a dull as nails experience that cuts out any excitement that we'd get from these stunts.

If it seems jarring to call DiCaprio's work here stunts, let's explain what acting is. According to Wikipedia's definition:
Acting requires a wide range of skills, including vocal projection, clarity of speech, physical expressivity, emotional facility, a well-developed imagination, and the ability to interpret drama.
I am aware that this is vague in some respects and that there have been silent performances that continue to resonate. With limited exceptions, The Revenant isn't driven by dialogue, but action. So in theory, the acting here should be to convey something through physicality. Yes, this was a very demanding role and we do believe that DiCaprio did those things. However, how did he actually show any "expressivity" in his actions? For the most part, he was seen with wide eyes, a loose jaw, and heavy breathing. Unless you count looking rugged as acting (which you shouldn't), DiCaprio didn't show anything through physicality that wouldn't come naturally to anyone wafting through cold water and being tossed around by a bear. It also transcends acting when the whole point is not to convince us that you're in pain, but that you're willing to do nonsensical things that anyone would feel the same way in.

Okay, let's step back from bashing The Revenant for a minute. I am aware that it takes a lot out of you to do something that physical. However, he doesn't bring anything else to the role that isn't instinctual. I do believe that DiCaprio could do physicality and express himself rather easily. In fact, he did just two years ago with The Wolf of Wall Street. In a scene lasting almost 10 minutes, DiCaprio decides to take a hallucinogenic capsule called a Lemmon. As the side effects of the digestion kick in, he loses control of his body, having to crawl his way home, stuttering the entire time. The scene is comical not only because Martin Scorsese is a great director, but because DiCaprio is committed physically to the role. True, to stumble through a mansion is different from the mountains, but it still shows how impressively capable DiCaprio is with the right material.

Now ask yourselves, defenders of The Revenant, how is his performance better than it was in The Wolf of Wall Street? The fact of the matter is that The Revenant could never give DiCaprio one of his best roles, solely because it's a movie about him getting beaten up for over two hours. Which brings me to my next point: The Revenant does not have much acting in it. What it has is stunts. For those who need a reminder, here's the definition according to Wikipedia:
A stunt is an unusual and difficult physical feat or an act requiring a special skill, performed for artistic purposes usually on television, theatre, or cinema. 
There's a fine line between acting and stunt performances, and some performers do it with ease. For instance, Johnny Knoxville's work in Jackass Number Two is at its core stunts. When he rides a rocket or gets bitten by a snake, he's doing something "unusual and difficult." Nobody would mistake this for Oscar-worthy material, but it's more reliant on visceral reaction than acting normally is. The only real difference is that The Revenant has a loose story to connect the stunt vignettes together where even DiCaprio's scenes of survival are meant to highlight the atrocities of nature. In fairness, both The Revenant and Jackass Number Two deserve equal respect for doing incredibly dumb things for our entertainment. I just don't believe that we should be giving away acting awards for that.

Which brings me to my main point. Even if DiCaprio doesn't deserve acting recognition, should we ignore him? Of course not. It's insane what some people have done solely to entertain us. The only thing is that these people are often seen in action films, and usually mistaken for the lead stars. I am talking about the stunt performers who dedicate their lives to doing the physical stunts that would put too much of a liability on their lead stars if they broke bones or, worse yet, be unable to act ever again. These people have thankless tasks and, alongside  motion captured actors, haven't been getting the respect that they deserve from general audiences. While many could argue that The Oscars only reward specific types of acting, it makes less sense that they ignore a certain variety of talents that are so integral to contemporary cinema. We have categories for special effects, even hair and make-up. So why not stunt performances?

I'll admit that I don't know a whole lot of stunt performers, though I admire their work. They're the names that are usually buried in the credits and only surface when the actors take Instagram pictures showing just how similar they look next to each other. Among the few that have broken out is Zoe Bell, thanks in large part to Quentin Tarantino. After working with him on the Kill Bill movies, Bell has slowly gained regular parts in his movies (including last year's The Hateful Eight). As the video above should suggest, she does some impressive work. By comparison, her career-long dedication to doing ridiculously physical stunts makes DiCaprio look like an amateur. The same could be said for many others who I sadly cannot recall at the moment. The fact of the matter is that without them, movies would be a lot more boring.

I am not a huge fan of action films, but I recognize the value that they serve to spectacle seekers. This is generally where stunt performers thrive, and their momentary appearances could make for some awe-inspiring scenes. Last year saw Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation feature several crazy stunts from household name Tom Cruise. In the film, he is seen holding onto the side of a plane as it flies away. He is also said to have learned to hold his breath underwater for seven minutes. These are insane stunts, which frankly make DiCaprio look like an amateur. Considering that Cruise has always been that ambitious with stunts, it's not like it's a new thing. Even if the actors are well known, it's a shame that they don't get credit for their hard work in making something look compelling. If nothing else, this only drives the point home more.

The fact of the matter is that cinema has evolved way beyond its early days. The Academy has done a lot to recognize it, but is sorely lacking in other fields. We reward appearance and even special effects, so why is it hard to reward people who do physical stunts that go above and beyond most of our Oscar-winning actors' capability? More than The Revenant just  not featuring DiCaprio's best, it feels offensive to reward the film for an acting reward when it clearly doesn't have much acting. It also feels offensive that DiCaprio's nomination is based solely on the principles by which stunt performers have never gotten credit for. Visually: The Revenant is something new. Acting-wise: The Revenant is nothing new and is only reflective of disappointing favoritism. I am upset over his potential nomination and win not because I don't think he did something daring, but because it's taking credit away from people who actually do this for a living and don't complain about how bad they have it.

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