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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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If We Picked the Winners 2016: Best Actor

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Despite Matt Zoller Seitz's on-record disagreement, Leonardo DiCaprio won the survey by a landslide. Susan Wloszczyna explains why. Stay tuned for our Best Director and Best Picture choices tomorrow.


One of the truest of truisms when it comes to long-held prejudices exhibited by Oscar voters? They might nominate heartthrobs like Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling, but unless these handsome devils go out of their way to de-glam onscreen, they hardly ever win.

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The best insurance, however, is physically suffering for your art. When George Clooney won a supporting Oscar for 2005’s “Syriana,” he didn’t just pack on 30 pounds and sacrifice his lovely hairline. He also badly injured his spine during a fight scene and ended up requiring surgery.  

Few know the burden of beauty better than Leonardo DiCaprio, still boyishly debonair at 41. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, the former child star has been previously nominated for acting four times and lost four times. Even more galling, when 1997’s “Titanic” earned a record-tying 14 nominations, DiCaprio—a then-teen idol and the film’s biggest box-office draw who spent countless hours being dunked, drenched and fake-drowned in the ship-sinking epic—was snubbed.

Therefore, one can’t help but think that perhaps DiCaprio signed on for “The Revenant” just to prove—once and for all—how committed he is to his craft. Few major stars in recent memory have willingly subjected themselves to such bodily abuse at the hands of Mother Nature. As Hugh Glass, a 19th-century trapper left for dead in the frigid wilderness of South Dakota after being hideously mauled by a bear, the actor endured icy waters, sub-zero temperatures and damp costumes while routinely risking hypothermia during the mostly outdoor nine-month shoot. The vegetarian even voluntarily ate raw bison liver on camera. As for his famous face, it was obscured by mangy hair, a long tangled beard and scars. Even his blue eyes were dulled by his character’s constant pain and grief over the loss of his family.

This is all impressive and DiCaprio is certainly overdue for a victory, but does he actually deserve the win for his performance alone?

The answer is a resounding yes. With sparse dialogue and often solo, he manages to convey his frontiersman’s grueling yet poetic journey with a haunting eloquence. Agony, compassion, determination, loneliness, fear, frustration, devotion, rage, courage, hate, hunger, exhaustion—there are few emotions DiCaprio doesn’t get to express in this role. Yet the scene that most convinced me he deserved the Oscar is the one time that Glass feels joy: When he and the Pawnee Native American who befriends him smile as they take turns catching snowflakes on their tongues. The grimness lifted for a moment and I felt my heart thaw.

  

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