Leonardo DiCaprio has basically become his own meme in the past few years, with the entire Internet poking fun at the fact that he had never won an Oscar. All that changed at the 2016 ceremony, where he took home his very first Academy Award for his role of Hugh Glass in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, and the internet exploded with glee. However, this Oscar really isn’t for his role in The Revenant, at least not entirely. It’s for a career that has spanned 21 years of working with excellent directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Baz Luhrmann. With many young actors, even children, winning Oscars on their first go – why did Leonardo never win? He just slipped through the cracks, and it could be said that he deserved to win for almost all the movies he was nominated for. However, I would argue that he deserved to win all the way back at his very first nomination – in 1994, for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
What are The Oscars celebrating? In my opinion, performances that truly shake me to my core are not ones that are impressive in terms of scope or sheer force of will – like sleeping in a horse carcass, or falling off a cliff in freezing sub-zero temperatures like DiCaprio does in The Revenant. While crazier and crazier sacrifices to get shocking images on screen do entertain, I feel like “Oscar-worthy” has a connotation of vulnerability, realism, and connection. These three things are nearly absent in the high-concept and big-budget The Revenant, while plentiful and easy to feel in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges follows a young man who cares for his mentally challenged younger brother and morbidly obese mother, in a small and sleepy town in the state of Iowa in the United States. DiCaprio portrays Arnie, the developmentally delayed younger brother, opposite Johhny Depp, who portrays his stoic and mysterious older brother Gilbert. What makes Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance so incredible in the film is that it absolutely never rings false, as many portrayals of individuals with mental handicaps often do. People often warn to never go “all the way” to the end of the mentally handicapped spectrum, since it can end up seeming like a false portrayal of flailing and mumbling. In DiCaprio’s young hands though, Arnie was a fully formed, nuanced, and complicated individual. In his eyes, you saw nothing but child-like innocence and youthful rebellion. The real Leonardo DiCaprio was nowhere to be found.
Also, the relationship between Gilbert and Arnie was probably the most important glue that keeps the entire film together. The way the audience can feel the palpable connection and deep love between the two brothers, through Gilbert’s frustration and Arnie’s pure unknowing naivety, makes the entire story glow with realism. I believe that while Johnny Depp’s performance was absolutely spectacular, and Darlene Cate’s moving role as the mother was brilliant, without DiCaprio’s pure understanding of who Arnie was, and his fantastic portrayal on screen, the film would never have hit such a high mark.
While DiCaprio could have won an Oscar later on for The Aviator, The Departed, or even The Wolf of Wallstreet, I think the entire meme-generation of DiCaprio could have been skipped entirely if DiCaprio won when he truly deserved it: in 1994 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Do you agree? Huge congratulations to Leonardo for his win, and I can’t wait to see what he does next!