DiCaprio Goes to the Ends of the Earth

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Now that Leo’s destiny has been fulfilled, it’s time to concentrate on saving the world.

It’s all about redemptive narrative arcs. The arduous making of revenge trek The Revenant – and the unanimous recognition for his own part in that making, culminating in Best Actor glory – closes a long (and equally arduous) chapter in the singular showbiz story of Leonardo DiCaprio.

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When accepting his Academy Award at the Dolby Theatre last Sunday, he moved on quickly from some brief thanks to make an impassioned plea for global action on climate change. DiCaprio has long been known for his campaigning and ambassadorial presence on pressing ecological issues; that he should use his Oscars speech as a platform to speak on such issues should hardly be surprising.

In eloquently and succinctly voicing his concern for the ‘most urgent threat to our species’, he argued for something genuinely meaningful beyond the congratulatory razzmatazz of Hollywood’s awards season. Yet he also managed to position his personal achievement in the context of a collective, even societal achievement…

Justice has now been done. His (finally?) winning the Best Actor award to which the world believed him to be entitled was not only his triumph but ours. Last Sunday it was not DiCaprio who redeemed himself but everyone invested in the cinematic art form. Just when it seemed he would go down in history as a perpetual snub and the world’s easiest pub quiz question, the impossible was achieved. Now, he urged us all, go one step further.

In his speech he called The Revenant ‘a transcendent cinematic experience’ which, given that (almost) all cinema aims to be at the very least transportive, suggests that it was somehow more than a film; it was a piece performed by its entire production team, a feat of endurance suffered by artists for their craft. He described its gestation not as film-making but as an ‘endeavour’, and Tom Hardy as being not merely a co-star but a ‘brother’, as if being anything less would have resulted in certain death.

DiCaprio’s acceptance speech was the final act of an expertly managed performance of which his role in The Revenant was only a part. Throughout this entire performance, he has told a story of powerful endings, of art and salvation, and tapped into an aesthetic of extremity and almost superhuman exertion.

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This may require some explaining. As soon as anyone knew anything about The Revenant, the critical consensus went something like, “If Leo doesn’t win an Oscar for this, he never will.” The bare-bones plotting, the stark widescreen landscapes; everything was being stripped away ready for an actor’s showcase. There seemed to be something absolute about his efforts this time. When pictures emerged of his lank hair, wild eyes, and snow cone beard, it was apparent that he was going all out. We all know he wasn’t attacked by an actual bear, but surely acting like you have been is the next best/worst thing?

In his speech he explained that, thanks to rising global temperatures, the production literally had to go to the ends of the earth to find the necessary frozen conditions. Despite its period setting in the nineteenth century, the film itself is replete with apocalyptic imagery that invokes less of an old world lost and more of a post-societal slaughterfest. The film’s title card appears over undulating waters as if the ice caps had melted and sea levels had risen. Bones are piled high into imposing pyramids. Humanity huddles around any available source of warmth or comfort. The scarcity of resources necessitates theft and murder. Of all the other nominees this year The Revenant has the most in common with Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Oscars always arrive as the culmination of awards season and therefore have a definitive feel of industry consensus. But even so last Sunday seemed like the night-to-end-them-all, the now-or-never. If the Oscars are a beloved, high-budget drama, then this instalment was billed as the series finale. DiCaprio knowingly kept his big gesture for a cathartic climax.

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Every year there are films released between November and January that hope to gain awards traction by addressing big issues. This year was no different, with Spotlight a front runner and serial gong-botherer Eddie Redmayne giving trans identity the chocolate-box treatment in The Danish Girl. But DiCaprio and The Revenant were going for something altogether more abstract. He described the film (and its making, don’t forget) as being about ‘man’s relationship to the natural world’, a subject so elemental or even sublime as to instil a sense of overawed panic. Perhaps all this simply terrified the Academy into finally recognising his supremacy. Stunned, they were the perfect audience for the ecologically-minded appeal that followed.

Much of the reaction to his speech has interrogated DiCaprio’s own eco-credentials; Forbes were amongst the first to feature comment on his carbon footprint before Fox News turned grizzly and went for the jugular. And yet all the private jets and mega-yachts do nothing to undermine the narrative; instead, they contribute to the impression of DiCaprio as Hollywood’s last hedonist, a reforming character now ready to reform the world. There’s never a more reliable source than someone who’s been there and come back, who’s lived the life and returned with a conscience. His recent roles have further cultivated this myth: The Wolf of Wall Street gives us the downfall of a man who had anything and everything he pleased, while The Revenant is about the triumphant survival of a man who had everything taken away.

Last Sunday was a night of reconciliation and redemption. The Academy and audiences worldwide could agree on a job well done. Meanwhile DiCaprio did more than simply seize the moment; he implicated the ceremony’s global audience, still basking in the afterglow of justice being done, in a narrative in which commitment to art has a reforming effect with far-reaching implications. Ω

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