Suffering for Art (and Oscars)

Leonardo DiCaprio’s grueling experience filming ‘The Revenant’ might add him to a long list of actors who’ve found awards glory via endurance.


Stories of Leonardo DiCaprio’s resilience on the set of The Revenant, the upcoming biopic of the frontiersman Hugh Glass, have buzzed around Hollywood for months as Oscar season approaches. “I was sleeping in animal carcasses,” the actor told Yahoo. Crew members told the The Hollywood Reporter that the shoot was “a living hell.” On Tuesday, the hype reached apocryphal levels with the Drudge Report headline, “DICAPRIO RAPED BY BEAR IN FOX MOVIE.” Attached to all of this hoopla is a more curious question: whether all the physical pain DiCaprio endured will help him finally win his first Oscar.

It might. Since The Revenant started screening for critics and the industry in November, DiCaprio has emerged as the compelling favorite to win the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance. But most of the reasons seem to be separate from the quality of the movie itself. DiCaprio, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most consistent stars, is a five-time Oscar nominee with a storied career, which means he’s seen as being “overdue” for a trophy. And The Revenant, which follows a 1820s fur trapper as he seeks revenge on the men who abandoned him in the wilderness after a devastating bear attack, was reportedly so demanding to shoot that DiCaprio can qualify for a whole new category: endurance acting, the macho, Method heroics that so often speak to Oscar voters.

The Oscars are, after all, as much about the stories behind the scenes as they are about the films they honor. Sometimes it’s the career win, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, or Kate Winslet in The Reader; such trophies are partially awarded as recognition of an actor’s previous snubs. But more often, voters are won over by tales of commitment on set: Daniel Day-Lewis spending the whole shoot of My Left Foot in a wheelchair, Robert De Niro gaining a scary amount of weight for Raging Bull, Matthew McConaughey losing just as much weight for Dallas Buyers Club. Such devotion to their craft is surely worth recognition. Right?

A similar phenomenon exists in the Lead Actress race, but it’s tied more closely to physical appearance. Voters have long been impressed by the “bravery” of famously beautiful women being willing to appear dowdy or unattractive in a role (known as “deglam” work in Oscar circles). When Nicole Kidman won for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Denzel Washington noted her prominent makeup job in the film by joking that she had won “by a nose.” Charlize Theron donned an entirely new face to play the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. These were great performances, but the media narratives around them during awards season seemed focused on the physical transformations at play.

In DiCaprio’s case, the stories of his on-set trauma are already legend. His feats on The Revenant set include battling hypothermia and getting flung around in the snow by cables during a simulation of the crucial bear attack. Despite The Drudge Report’s claims, there’s reportedly no animal-on-man sexual assault in the film, but that hysteria confirms the consensus that the film is a grueling experience—both for its actor, and for audiences. The film blogger Jeff Wells praised it for being so gritty that it could only be stomached by male viewers—“Forget women seeing this,” he wrote. He later clarified that he was moved to this opinion by the sight of a female friend covering her eyes as she watched the film, but the implication was clear: The Revenant is the ultimate in macho filmmaking, and voters should be impressed by that fact alone.

That probably wasn’t DiCaprio’s intention in making the film, or the reason the director Alejandro González Iñárritu has discussed the fraught process of shooting it. Wells and his ilk certainly aren’t the only audience they’re interested in. But awards publicity campaigns often settle into an easy narrative, and before the public has even seen the film, The Revenant is pitching itself to voters as a heroic sacrifice at the altar of cinema. Most Oscar winners have a big “clip” they can focus their campaign on—a powerful speech, or an emotional breakdown—but DiCaprio is largely silent in the film as he forges his way through the snow. And if that effort is enough to impress viewers, he could very well find himself on the Oscars stage in February.