Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors alive. Some may place him a small notch below Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, but he’s undoubtedly in the upper echelon, above even strong performers like Jamie Foxx and Matthew McConaughey.
However, he has been forced to watch Foxx and McConaughey give acceptance speeches on the stage of the Academy Awards while his trophy case remains bare. Until, if you believe the predictions, this year.
His performance in The Revenant is the fifth time DiCaprio has been nominated for an Academy Award (though it feels like many more). Previously, he had been up for Best Supporting Actor for 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Best Actor for 2004’s The Aviator, 2006’s Blood Diamond, and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. During that same time, he has been nominated for a Golden Globe eleven times, taking home the statue three times, for his performances in The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and now The Revenant.
Due to his powerful performances in five Martin Scorsese pictures since 2002, DiCaprio has often been compared to the prime of Robert De Niro, when he and Scorsese made eight films together, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas. However, De Niro took home the award the first time he was nominated (1974’s The Godfather Part II) and again on his fourth attempt (for 1980’s Raging Bull after having been nominated for Taxi Driver in ’76 and The Deer Hunter in ’79). DiCaprio’s ongoing Oscar drought is much more reminiscent of the flip side of the ‘70s De Niro coin: Al Pacino.
Between 1972 and 1990, Pacino was nominated for six Academy Awards — two for Best Supporting Actor (1972’s The Godfather and 1990’s Dick Tracy) and four for Best Actor (1973’s Serpico, ’74’s The Godfather Part II, ’75’s Dog Day Afternoon and ’79’s …And Justice for All) — and lost every time. My reverence for Pacino is well-documented so I’m not entirely unbiased, but all of those performances have resonated and endured over the decades and at least one of them should have been recognized. During that same time, he had been nominated for 11 Golden Globes, winning only once for Serpico, and had also won his second Tony Award for Best Actor on stage.
Finally, in 1992, he was nominated in both categories — Best Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross and Best Actor for Scent of a Woman — and won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Actor, even though it was by far the weakest of all of those performances. It still feels more like a Lifetime Achievement/Overcorrection Award, made all the more telling that Pacino has not been nominated in the two-plus decades since.
He didn’t completely fall off — he was nominated for his third Tony in 2010 for The Merchant of Venice and secured two more Golden Globe Awards, and another nomination, for his TV work in Angels in America 2003, You Don’t Know Jack (2010), and Phil Spector (2013) — but he began to coast. He no longer lost himself within every role, but instead played up or down to the quality of the entire project. The strength of his TV and stage work was offset by the laziness of his work in films he did for the paycheck (Gigli, 88 Minutes, Jack and Jill, etc.). The same inconsistency has happened with De Niro (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for Silver Linings Playbook , but he sleepwalked through New Year’s Eve, The Big Wedding, and others).
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, titans of the greatest decade in American cinema, no longer play a character in every film. Sometimes, if the script sucks or the money is irresistible, they play a version of Pacino or De Niro pretending to play a character, yelling a lot and smirking at the camera as if letting you know they’re purposely not giving it their all. I get it. Movies were not lucrative in the ’70s, so they’re cashing in now and it’s hard to argue with that. It’s also hard to watch it.
I’m not implying that DiCaprio is approaching that territory (though he has been yelling in his films quite a bit lately) and his four (so far) Oscar snubs are not yet Pacino-level, but he is one of the biggest stars on the planet that has been giving powerful performances in highly regarded films (rather than popcorn blockbuster fare) for over a decade and so far has nothing to show for it.
Maybe this is finally his year. Pacino waited twenty years for his first Academy Award and Streep went nineteen years (and twelve nominations) between her second and third Oscars. Even Scorsese himself went 26 years from his first nomination for Best Director in 1980 until finally winning it on his sixth try for The Departed in 2006 (also seen as more of an overdue award for an outstanding career). So DiCaprio is in good company. There has been some grumbling that if he wins this year it will be because he was due and not necessarily for his performance, but if it’s good enough for Pacino and Scorsese, it’s good enough for Leo.
He’s already put together one of the greatest acting resumes of his generation.
It’s about time he wins one.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on Medium on March 13, 2014