The highest level of recognized achievement in Hollywood—and in the world of acting at large—is the Academy Award. Winning that famous golden statue signifies a level of artistic skill, integrity and fearlessness in a single performance that is at the top of that particular year's class. There are thousands of movies made every year and many more roles doled out to various actors, but only one can rise above his peers to claim the title of Best Actor. However, time and time again there is one man that seems to always be in the conversation for this award: Leonardo DiCaprio.
Even after putting his innate acting ability aside, there are a multitude of factors that have driven DiCaprio's legendary career. No reason is bigger than his insistence on working with only quality, if not masterful directors. From Baz Luhrmann and Christopher Nolan to Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio's taste for champagne has led to a résumé of almost flawless quality. This incredible standard shows no signs of dipping this year as the actor teams up with Alejandro G. Iñárritu for the epic western thriller, The Revenant.
It's clear that while DiCaprio doesn't have an Oscar on his mantle, his career is something any actor would strive to achieve. The esteem we afford Leo is proof that you don't need awards recognition when you have the most varied and impressive body of work in Hollywood—but The Revenant may finally bring him the Academy recognition that he deserves.
Growing Pains of a Child Prodigy
While Leo is now familiar to us as a handsome, bearded Hollywood leading man, he first got his start as a fresh-faced boy on television shows like Growing Pains and literally grew up on screen. The desire to act burned within him and from an early age he treated his job as a craft, not a burden.
DiCaprio quickly caught the attention of film audiences with 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Despite being one of the youngest members of the cast, his performance overshadowed that of veteran actors, including Johnny Depp. He was also able to convincingly and respectfully portray a character with a debilitative developmental issue— the type of role that even the most skilled adult actors struggle to portray convincingly.
Critics agreed that his performance was something special and it garnered him his first Academy Award nomination. This honor had him following in the footsteps of some of his heroes, such as Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, who were recognized for similar roles in Awakenings and Rain Man. The reason that these performances are so difficult to deliver, beyond the intense amount of study and preparation, is that the actor has to give up a certain level of self-awareness. DiCaprio fearlessly threw himself into the role at such at a vulnerable age and announced to the world that there was a prodigious new talent on the rise.
Diary of a Teenage Heartthrob (1996-2000)
The baby-faced Leo connected with artistic director Baz Luhrmann in for 1996's Romeo + Juliet, a modern retelling of the Shakespearean classic that connected successfully with young audiences. However, the next year he would star in a movie that firmly charted his course for superstardom.
In 1997, his performance as Jack Dawson in director James Cameron's Titanic is the definitive portrayal of a doomed adolescent romance. The movie became the largest grossing film of all time, and the success of the film in any other actor's hands would define their entire career. However, the fact that a starring role in the most successful film ever is just one chapter in his transformative career, which speaks volumes of the accomplishments to come.
Leo the Oscar Contender (2002-2008)
In the early 2000s, DiCaprio's career began to transition from gifted child actor to a thespian who finely tunes performances worthy of high praise. When he first made films with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York, respectively), he kicked his career into a higher gear. While DiCaprio had standout performances in both movies, the roles opened the door for more opportunities to show off his astounding range. So when he reconnected with Scorsese for The Aviator and in 2006 for Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, the Academy recognized him as a leading man in the industry with multiple nominations.
His status among Hollywood's elite was cemented as he led an all-star cast, featuring Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson, when he reunited with Scorsese for the modern crime-thriller, The Departed. His role in the film also grounded the actor as a modern great, his transformation from teen heartthrob complete, and gave him more street credibility for conveying a tough, gritty cop in the film.
However, despite the success of The Departed, his desire to be seen in as a classic leading man was not totally lost, as evidenced by 2010's Revolutionary Road. Aside from the more graphic scenes, it's easy to imagine the film released in the black and white era. This film solidified DiCaprio's standing as a timeless actor. While actors such as Will Smith or a Tom Cruise are undeniably products of their time, DiCaprio proved his ability to seamlessly fit into any time period and appear at ease. This chameleonic ability will come into play in the future many more times, particularly in The Revenant.
Leader of the New School
For better or for worse, we are undoubtedly living in the age of the movie franchise. Since at least the 1940s, actors have been the primary attraction for moviegoers when deciding what movie to watch at the theater. The recognizable name on a marquee used to signify the brand, much like how seeing the Lucasfilm or Pixar logo in the opening credits gives the audience an indication of just what kind of movie is in store. Actors' names used to signify the level of quality and even the genre of film that an audience could expect. Whether it was Jimmy Stewart or Arnold Schwarzenegger on the billboard, the name and body of an actor's work signals to audiences what to expect.
In recent years, DiCaprio has managed to make his name synonymous with quality filmmaking. However, particularly in recent years, the actor has managed to pick such colorful and varied projects that it is impossible to know what to expect next, aside from a great performance and film.
Aside from a flirtation with playing Spider-Man for James Cameron in the late 1990s, DiCaprio has resisted franchise films. However that hasn't stopped him from making bold choices in roles, in the past few years. Around 2010, the actor seemed to make the conscious decision to pick characters and films that were much more challenging. This same year, he took on the role of Randall Cobb in Christopher's Nolan's reality-altering action movie, Inception. This is the first time that audiences saw DiCaprio as an action star in a science-fiction film and they were rewarded with a classic film.
Leo's Heel Turn (2011-present)
While most actors at this time would have cashed in on the $800 million dollar worldwide success of Inception and become an action star, DiCaprio chose a different, darker route. His sway toward villainy began to take form when he portrayed the infamous former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. However, the actor was still willing to stretch his antagonistic muscles even further in the near future.
The role that proved there were no boundaries to his range came in the form of nefarious plantation owner Calvin J. Candie in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. In a scene that has since become evidence of his commitment to his craft, DiCaprio really did shatter a glass and cut open his hand. However, he never breaks character and delivers one of the most menacing performances in recent memory, smearing blood across costar Kerry Washington's shocked face.
His last role as real-life Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfour, in Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, gave him his latest Best Actor nomination. Twenty years after his first nomination as Arnie Grape, he is still being consistently recognized by the Academy. However, what is most interesting is how diametrically opposite his first nominated role and most recent nomination in 2013 are from each other.
The Future: The Revenant
From the moment Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on screen in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? the actor has proven that he is Oscar-worthy. Through the various phases of his career, whether it was in his teenage heartthrob era, his superb dramatic run in the 2000's, or even when he is playing the most vile creeps, he has consistently given award-caliber performances, in all roles and genres. All which will seemingly culminate in the upcoming film The Revenant. The movie is based on true events and DiCaprio plays early American explorer Hugh Glass, who is mauled by a bear during an expedition and left to die by his fellow explorers. Glass unexpectedly survives the attack and goes on a murderous path of revenge on those who betrayed him.
The film promises to be an incredibly visceral experience. Academy Award-winning director Iñárritu (Babel, Birdman) decided to shoot the film using only natural light. Which is a risky, yet rewarding gamble, when surrounded by actors and crew as talented as DiCaprio, Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman), who has a couple of Oscars on his shelf as well.
This movie looks to be the culmination of all of DiCaprio's acting experiences. Combining the will to survive seen in Titanic, the totally unhinged elements of his performance that was glimpsed in Wolf of Wall Street, and the qualities of righteous anti-hero seen in numerous other films, it looks as if this might be another definitive masterpiece and the beginning of a new chapter in DiCaprio's career. Though it has not been defined by an Oscar win, his oeuvre is the living definition of an Academy Award career. With all these pieces in place, Leonardo DiCaprio is surely set for another nomination, and his part in The Revenant gives him the best chance yet to take home the gold.
The Revenant opens in limited release on December 25, 2015 and wide release on January 8, 2016.