Oscars: When the Right Person Wins in the Wrong Year

Eva Vázquez

Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the stars who may take home their Oscar for a film that’s not their best, as the Academy sometimes seems to base its vote on who’s waited long enough for their turn at the podium.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the acknowledged frontrunner for the best actor Oscar for The Revenant. And it's a memorable performance: He grunts, he looks cold, he pretends to sleep in a horse's carcass. But he should have gotten the award for his playboy-turns-recluse role in The Aviator or as a penny trader who becomes a drugged-out mogul in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Both of those nominated performances were more layered than his survival-and-revenge quest in The Revenant. But a win for DiCaprio would continue a long Oscar trad­ition: Right Person, Wrong Year. The Academy has a consistent pattern of giving the award — or at least a nomination — to someone who totally deserved it for a different film. Often this happens because voters who should know better favor conspicuous acting over subtlety. Sometimes Academy members are out of sync with the times because they're making up for previous slights. Leo checks both boxes, and that trend is going strong with other nominees, too.

Matt Damon's witty delivery carries The Martian, but that's not even the best of his performances, much less one of this year's. He should have gotten an award for his subtle (non-nominated) portrayal of a CIA agent in the underrated The Good Shepherd, a flop directed by Robert De Niro. And Damon has never gotten Oscar attention for his career-defining Jason Bourne roles.

Jennifer Jason Leigh's supporting actress nomination for The Hateful Eight is not Right Person, Wrong Year but Right Person, Wrong Film. She snarls and gets bloodied as Daisy Domergue, the unrepentant prisoner being hauled off to hang. But she is amazingly moving as the voice of Lisa in Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's eloquent relationship story with puppets. Leigh creates a wistful yet resilient woman there, but Lisa doesn't have Daisy's blackened eye — or any real eyes. So her attention-getting performance in an underwritten role received the Academy nom.

Outsized and conspicuously hard-to-play roles are not always as superficial as DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, whose quest to avenge his son's death in The Revenant feels like the film's heavy-handed justification for sending the character trekking through the wilderness.

Last year, Eddie Redmayne deserved his best actor win for The Theory of Everything because he conveyed the emotional layers and spirit of Stephen Hawking. And it didn't hurt that all that depth also was wrapped in a physical challenge.

This year in The Danish Girl, Redmayne captures the painful emotional trajectory of Lili Elbe. But would he have been nominated if he hadn't transformed into a woman? Changing the outside is not always a stunt, but stunt acting almost always gives a contender an advantage. Colin Firth should have gotten the Oscar for his quietly devastating performance as a buttoned-down gay professor grieving over the death of his lover in 2009's A Single Man. Jeff Bridges won for playing a fall-down drunk in Crazy Heart instead. Firth got the award the following year for The King's Speech largely because he stuttered, and we know Colin Firth doesn't stutter.

Matthew McConaughey lost 40 pounds and won for Dallas Buyers Club two years ago, beating Chiwetel Ejiofor, who deserved the honor for his more visceral performance in 12 Years a Slave. The year McConaughey really deserves the award is still on the horizon.

In addition to his campaign narrative of physical hardship — "I was cold for my art" — DiCaprio has four previous losing bids going for him. He has been nominated when he has earned it, beginning with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? And he has gotten a nomination for less deserving turns. In Blood Diamond, he gave a flat-footed performance in a flatter-footed film.

And it's not just a contemporary phenomenon: Katharine Hepburn won her first time out, for 1933's Morning Glory, then had eight losses in a row. The Academy made up for the losing streak by handing Hepburn three late-in-life, knee-jerk Oscars, including a win for her unabashedly sentimental role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

When someone has been nominated so often, the Academy has to say yes eventually. Deny a genius like Scorsese an Oscar long enough, and it just becomes embarrassing. He won his compensatory trophy for 2006's The Departed. That's a terrific film, but it's not a classic like his Raging Bull or Goodfellas. Head-exploding fact: The year Goodfellas was nominated, 1991, Scorsese lost the directing honor to Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves. Perhaps it looked harder to wrangle horses than mob guys.

Alfonso Cuaron's best film is 2006's Children of Men, with its tense dystopian narrative. The filmmaking is bravura — the camera glides through the streets and around corners in extended takes — but not in a special-effects way that calls attention to itself. Cuaron wasn't even nominated for direction on that, but won for the splashy technical magic of 2013's Gravity.

Among directors, this year George Miller checks the same two boxes as DiCaprio. His nom for Mad Max: Fury Road covers a career's worth of Mad Maxes and other movies. And the action-driven directing is the equivalent of outsized acting. That doesn't mean he'll win; the compe­tition is too tough.

But Ennio Morricone probably will win for original score because he never has before, and he's one of the masters. His brilliant music goes way back and includes the unforgettable theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 (not nominated). His tinkly score for The Hateful Eight sounds repetitive and slight. But this is his sixth race, so a make-good Oscar is probably coming his way. Too bad for the should-be winner, Carter Burwell, whose elegant score for Carol is, amazingly, his first nomination in a career of fantastic work for the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze.

Morricone has picked up an honorary Oscar, which might more honestly be renamed We Apologize for Not Giving You a Real Oscar. Paul Newman got the honorary award after six losses in the acting category, then finally won competitively for 1986's The Color of Money. Of course, he was great as the aging "Fast Eddie" Felson in that film, but the Academy was clearly making up for not honoring him when he created the role 25 years earlier in The Hustler, or for his even more iconic characters in Hud and Cool Hand Luke. This year's prime example of making up for past lapses: the honorary award for Spike Lee (who received it at November's Governors Awards dinner but now is declining to attend the Feb. 28 Oscar ceremony).

Academy voters don't always go for the obvious. One of this year's best surprises was Lenny Abrahamson being included in the director category for Room. Thanks to Abrahamson's deft touch, the film gains immense power from controlled performances in a small space.

Knee-jerk nominations are more typical, though, like this year's for Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, already her fourth. No one expects her to win, and the performance isn't as strong as her winning role in Silver Linings Playbook. But she has moved into the select group of stars who are in the race if they show up for work.

Cate Blanchett is in that group, too. But the pressure is off voters in the actress category this year. No award is needed for Lawrence or Blanchett, nominated for Carol and rewarded already for Blue Jasmine and The Aviator. That clears the path for Brie Larson. Her expected win for Room would be the rare example of the Academy actually rewarding the best performance and being in step with the times.

Choosing the right winner in the wrong year is more benign than the serious, socially urgent #OscarsSoWhite issue. Being distracted by flashy acting or directing is not nearly as troubling as being blind to the multiracial society that movies actually live and thrive in. There's no excuse for ignoring black actors and filmmakers, especially when a movie like Straight Outta Compton seemed to have everything, including an Oscar campaign.

But the right-person, wrong-year pattern isn't entirely unrelated to the controversy about diversity. Until Academy voters begin really seeing the movies in front of them, and stop reacting in an unthinking or backward-looking way, they'll always be out of step.

This year it's too late for should-have-been nominees like Michael B. Jordan in Creed. Voters still have time to look harder at Michael Fassbender's striking nominated performance in Steve Jobs. Fassbender deserves to win, but let's not be ridiculous. He brought to life a complicated, tightly wound guy who is more brain than heart and doesn't eat a morsel of raw bison liver. That does not scream Oscar winner.

James is a film and television critic and the author of the novel What Caroline Knew.

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