Saturday, February 27, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Blood Diamond" (2006)

Scene from Blood Diamond
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Blood Diamond (2006)
Directed By: Edward Zwick
Written By: Charles Leavitt (Screenplay), Charles Leavitt & C. Gaby Mitchell (Story)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 143 minutes
Summary: A fisherman, a smuggler, and a syndicate of businessmen match wits over the possession of a priceless diamond.

The Movie

If you have access to the internet, there is one joke that you've likely heard for years. Leonardo DiCaprio loves to endanger his life just to get an Oscar. Of course, that's easy to back-up with evidence. Most of his roles are physically demanding and feature him going above and beyond the norm. To say the least, he is an actor who doesn't take defeat lying down. If he is, he's probably doing rolls while punching everything around him. While it's a joke, it's also an ongoing attitude that many face when assessing the actor's work, who at the age of 41 has done so much enviably charismatic work that you'd be hard pressed to wonder why he isn't donned with anything but mediocre Golden Globes.

To go back a decade, one could easily ask a different question: why was he nominated for Blood Diamond? For what it's worth, DiCaprio started forming a politically charged career following The Beach. Along with many speeches that he's made along the way of his The Revenant sweep, he has shown himself to be extremely passionate about activism. Blood Diamond seemed like an easy pick then, especially with its focus on the diamond trading industry in Africa. While it wasn't the only film of the mid-60's to explore how awful Africa was, it was one that featured a high caliber cast, including an underrated performance by Djimon Hounsou.

Yet here's the thing. In a career packed with enviable performances, Blood Diamond is among DiCaprio's least compelling. It could be that his acting got buried underneath his accent, which is distracting enough. It could be that Hounsou got the key moments and stole the show from the established actor. There's a lot of components that go into why the film doesn't work. For whatever reason, it is a film with its heart in the right place, but sometimes fails to get outside of the Hollywood sentimentality that is thankfully kept to a minimum, but strikes in unfortunate places. It's an action film with a message, which is admirable.

Even then, it should remain DiCaprio's worst Oscar nomination when properly ranking what he should have won for. There's a lot of questions to ask one's self when assessing this decision. However, there's a simpler answer as to why DiCaprio shouldn't have gotten nominated for Blood Diamond. The fact is that DiCaprio got in the way of DiCaprio, and maybe if he hadn't - we wouldn't be making the Academy Awards jokes a decade later. It's one of Oscars' great mysteries, and perfect evidence as to why there's politics as well as quality at stake with these awards shows.

The Campaign

In order to understand why Blood Diamond is worthy of a Failed Oscar Campaign selection, you have to look at the competition in 2006. The most noteworthy comparison point was director Martin Scorsese's The Departed. To summarize, it won Best Picture. In fact the whole thing came across as a legacy award. Having made such iconic films as GoodFellas and Raging Bull, the idea that Scorsese was overdue was something that ran rampant for decades. It doesn't help that in that time, history has pretty much solidifies those Best Picture losses as some of cinema's greatest achievements.

The Departed was also a really great ensemble movie. It was a film that managed to feature the likes of Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, and a dozen or so others. It's an enviable team that you don't often get for crime dramas. However, there was one character at the center that couldn't be denied: Leonardo DiCaprio. Having worked twice before with Scorsese, they were revealing themselves to be a fruitful pairing, especially with their third Best Picture nominated collaboration in a row. It could even be argued that DiCaprio gave one of his better performances in The Departed

So, what went wrong? Well, the ensemble thing probably got in the way of what could've been his inevitable Oscar win. Because the film was due to come up strong at The Oscars, most of the ensemble got the familiar For Your Consideration pushes. The one catch is that most of the cast, at best, would wind up in Best Supporting Actor - including DiCaprio. The actor's legitimate reason for bowing out of The Departed's Oscar push was mostly because he didn't want to compete against his own film. Historically, it makes sense - notably in the case of All About Eve where Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both up for Best Actress and considered potential winners. Both would lost to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday. Likewise, it seemed likely that The Departed's many cast members would stand a better chance of losing to someone else.

With this in mind, he turned his attention to a role that would definitely get him the Oscar nomination. It was politically charged and had all of the weight that made message movies such a staple at The Oscars. Blood Diamond was a fairly successful film during its run and captured an important subject matter. While its campaign can be summarized more as being a "Plan B" for DiCaprio, it was something that altered the course of history. Had DiCaprio campaigned for The Departed, maybe things would look differently. Instead, there's Blood Diamond: a film that hasn't held up that well despite setting the course for what the actor would do over the next decade politically.

The Payoff

In a sense, DiCaprio wasn't wrong about The Departed. The film ended up winning Best Picture as well as several other key Oscars. His prediction also panned out for Blood Diamond, which was no slouch with five Oscar nominations as well, including Best Actor for him. True, his goal was to not run against his The Departed co-stars in the supporting category, but the one thing that is overlooked is that maybe,  just maybe, he could've taken one of their spots. Considering that Mark Wahlberg was the only actor nominated from the film, it definitely would suggest that there was room for a healthy dose of competition.

Though the shift didn't do DiCaprio any favors. Also featured in the Best Actor category was Peter O'Toole for Venus. While it doesn't seem important to DiCaprio's chances, it is important to note that O'Toole is a far more established actor who had almost twice as many Oscar nominations as DiCaprio as of 2016, yet he came away without a single trophy. If anything, one should take a humbling lesson from O'Toole's unfortunate losing streak. Of course, DiCaprio and O'Toole actually lost to Forrest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. By comparison, Wahlberg lost to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. In a sense, this is a Failed Oscar Campaigns double whammy. Would DiCaprio have lost to Arkin if he campaigned for The Departed? Considering that Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls was the perceived favorite, who actually knows.

Whatever the cause, DiCaprio hasn't had an easy run of luck with The Academy Awards. True, he's been deserving in the past, but Blood Diamond may remain the only time that he didn't deserve to be nominated. It wasn't a terrible performance, but not one of charismatic skill. While one would hope that he wins for something other than The Revenant, it's easy to accept that it is a legacy win, and that is okay. However, that sets a new dangerous precedence given O'Toole's lack of Oscars and the potential that everyone in this year's Best Actor field will deserve a legacy award too. Still, it just goes to show the complexity by which these awards are handled. All it takes is good campaigning, and Blood Diamond was not that.

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