I’ll say it again: Leonardo DiCaprio‘s performance as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street is his finest ever. Which is to say his bravest and most revelatory. Certainly his most complex. Because Leo and director Martin Scorsese are dealing one hand off the top, another from the middle and a third from the bottom. And none of them are about “crass comedy.” You can call The Wolf of Wall Street a raucous party-boy howler and give Leo an award for a comedic performance but you know who gets it? Who really understands what’s going on here? Patton Oswalt. Tragedy plus comedy equals time. For Mssrs. DiCaprio and Scorsese have made a kind of hybrid farce out of a tragedy that everyone in this country has lived through, and in hundreds of thousands of cases are still living through. A comedy about pain.
Leo is portraying a world-class monster, a destroyer of worlds, an economic Rasputin for a million suckers…but at the same time he’s playing a brash and ravenous middle-class kid from Long Island who’s having the time of his life…and so, obviously, is Leo. And so are we. Holy Hope Holiday! Is there a moral compass here? Yes, obviously — in scene after scene the film is saying “do you believe these jackals, these swine?” And Leo is the king of this whoo-hoo. A lying scumbag, a 10 year-old kid in a go-kart, Caligula in his cups, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Lucifer on drugs, a guy who tries to bribe an FBI agent, James Cagney in One, Two, Three, a victim of quaalude cerebral palsy rolling down the brick stairs of a country club…love it but who is this kid, this plunderer, this worthless asshole riding the froth of a wave? And who are we?
I’ll tell you who we are in terms of our Best Actor preferences. We’re basically a “Matthew McConaughey has it all sewn up” community except…are you feeling that vibration? It’s a sense of certainty crumbling. Leo seems to be gaining ground.
McCoanughey isn’t nominated for this Sunday’s (2.16) BAFTA Awards, but I know that if Leo wins the Best Actor BAFTA trophy this tingly little “shift away from McConaughey” feeling will seem that much more advanced. I’m talking about a subtle change in the wind. The wind rustling the bushes and the trees in that famous scene in Blow-Up. The operative term is “seems.”
In a 2.12 piece stating a belief that DiCaprio will take the Oscar, Gold Derby‘s Tom O’Neil says that DiCaprio and McConaughey haven’t really competed against each other in a major awards show…not really. What they’ve been doing is basically splitting the favors. They both won Golden Globe Awards, McConaughey for drama, Leo for comedy. The same division occurred at the Critics’ Choice Awards. McConaughey won SAG, true, but Leo wasn’t nominated because, many suspect, too many SAG members hadn’t seen Wolf at the time of voting, and also — important point — because Leo’s momentum hadn’t even left the gate. It didn’t exist.
There’s also the Leo narrative, expressed not so much in his campaign as his Wolf performance. The two most successful campaign narratives have belonged to McConaughey and Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern. McConaughey’s is about creative resurrection — after nearly poisoning his career with a string of stupid romcoms, MM manned up and changed course, and now Dallas Buyer’s Club is the ultimate fruit of that strategy. Dern’s narrative is about a late-inning salvation — i.e., after decades of playing supporting roles he finally got to be the lead in Alexander Payne‘s film and he won the Best Actor prize in Cannes. Leo’s narrative is about creative discovery leading to creative freedom. For 20 years he mostly played struggling, in some cases anguished characters enduring great difficulty and tension and even hell. And then his big breakthrough came along when he played the same kind of character but with a fiendish comic twist. “Comedy” (which in the case of Wolf is more of a perverse Dante-esque scrambling of comedic principles) hasn’t just boosted DiCaprio’s game — it’s offered him a whole new universe of opportunity.
Here’s how The New Republic‘s David Thomson put it: “DiCaprio has hinted before that comedy might be his natural calling but his energy [in The Wolf of Wall Street] is not just fun, it’s discovery. There is an Elmer Gantry in him that has been noticeable before, but who dreamed that he could build comedy scenes of such sustained inventiveness? We should petition the actor (and all possible directors) that never again must he be confined in films like Shutter Island, The Aviator, The Great Gatsby, or J. Edgar. He has comic genius in him, and I hope in decades to come [Leo’s Wolf performance] will be treasured as a performance that shifted the gloomy overcast of American crime movies. Wake up, guys — if crime is our mainstream, why must it be noir?
“The nerve-wracked Scorsese has made not just a comedy of situation and language, of dementia and stupidity, but even a physical farce. There is a sequence where Belfort, luded to the gills, has to get home from the country club in his white sports car. It is a slapstick tour de force that deserves to stand with Jerry Lewis and Laurel & Hardy. The Wolf of Wall Street is a transforming celebration of Leonardo DiCaprio that annihilates the lofty emptiness of The Great Gatsby.”
This is why I believe DiCaprio has earned and fully deserves the Best Actor Oscar. He has not only delivered a performance that will be savored decades to come, but renewed himself in the process. Who among us doesn’t relate? You work your ass off, you’re good at your job, you invest the hours and the sweat and the passion…and then fate intervenes and you discover there’s a whole ‘nother side of yourself that you hadn’t thought of, or which you might have considered but which you hadn’t taken seriously. And suddenly a new door swings open and it feels right. Salvation!