So, first off, for those that don’t know, I work in Costumes for film and television. It’s an amazing job that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. I also belong to the IATSE Union which is comprised of craft workers for film and television. It’s a spectacular organization, and you should check them out.
But I digress, this Sunday, I got to attend an Oscar party hosted by the Young Workers committee of my union Local. It was a great night of food, drinks, socializing, and fun for the younger members of the Union. Big shout out to the YWC for setting it up. We laughed through pretty much the entire show, cried together, bonded together, and gave each other playful glares when our one of our faves lost to someone else’s. It was probably very much like the Oscar party you might have attended.
Then came time for the Best Actor award. Now, if you aren’t familiar, there’s an age old meme about Leonardo DiCaprio. The meme is simply that despite all of his extraordinary work, and numerous Oscar nominations, he has never won an Oscar. Now, this isn’t that uncommon, but Leonardo DiCaprio specifically became a meme that took on a life of its own. When he was announced as the winner for Best Actor, the union hall erupted into the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard. People were screaming “Finally!” and “You deserve it!” and we all have a few laughs before settling in for his breathtaking speech. His acceptance speech highlighted the importance of recognizing climate change and bringing awareness to the plights of indigenous people. For someone surely aware of the meme about himself, he took the moment of glory and shared it with those who needed it. He made us proud.
When I checked Facebook, yes, there was celebrating, but there was also a healthy amount of people who thought he shouldn’t have won, he didn’t deserve it, etc etc. That’s fair, the same conversations exist over every win. I personally went on a tirade previously when Les Miserable beat The Hobbit for hair and makeup (I mean COME ON!!). This time, though, it feels personal to people in a large way that I don’t think has occurred within the Oscar viewership. It left me wondering, how did this meme get so big and why were we holding our breaths before they announced his name? We all hope our favorites will win, but why did we feel like we won right along with Leonardo?
I thought out it for hours and what I realized is… We are Leo.
Now, I can speak from the film worker side of it, but I think many of you will feel similarly about aspects in your life. For one, we know Leo. A lot of us remember “What’s a Eating Gilbert Grape” in 1993 and the impression it left on us as kids. I was so young when it came out in theaters, that I remember seeing it on VHS at a relative’s house because I just had to see it. We remember the modern rebelling of “Romeo + Juliet” in 1996 with its stunning design and presentation. I was just 10, but had a deep love of Shakespeare, and this new heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. I remember carefully prying open the staples of my Tiger Beat, Bop, and Superteen to remove the posters of him, and other stars of the time, that would decorate my walls. Then came “Titanic” in 1997, and he became a household name. Many of us were teens and pre-teens and his name was first on a list of “Dream Guys”.
After that came other great films like “The Man in the Iron Mask”, “The Beach”, “Gangs of New York”, “Catch Me If You Can”, “Shutter Island”, “Inception”, “Django Unchained”, “The Great Gatsby”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and now “The Revenant”. There hasn’t really been a year where he hasn’t had a film come out. The man seems to never stop working. With that, we’ve grown up with him. Leonardo is 41 now, and I can recall knowing of him for over 20 years of that. That’s an amazing feat, and I think it’s a chief reason we care about him.
Working all the time, doing good work, not ruining everything, but still never getting recognized for almost a lifetime? Sounds like a struggle we all know too well. It’s in fact the struggle my generation is currently experiencing to a crippling level. The current generation works harder than ever before with little to no equivalent of reward. We are slamming our hands on the table, getting cut by glass, and continuing on as if it didn’t happen (as Leo did in the filming for “Django Unchained”). It’s a struggle we can relate to so well that it becomes second nature to laugh about.
We’ve grown up with his career. There’s hardly been a year that has passed since since the early 90’s without him releasing something as either an actor or producer. His body of work is also so diverse that he’s been able to appeal to nearly every single type of person. Even if you don’t like him as a person, you could probably pick out a film of his you enjoy. That’s very unique these days.
So we come to the meme. The one that has lead people to make amazing photo edits and even video games of Leo trying to get an Oscar. People theorize that he goes to more and more extremes just to win one. For that I offer two sides. One, Leo is an artist like any other actor, and he likely goes bigger and bigger because every new challenge is exciting. Who can’t relate to that? Two, even if he was solely going more over the top for Oscar bait, who can’t relate to that too? To have a career spanning almost 30 years, creating work you are extremely proud of, receiving numerous nods but no actual recognition? We all would create some bait pieces for it. Haven’t you ever put in some extra overtime, or done more work than was asked, solely so your boss would give you a raise/time off/promotion/praise? That’s your “The Revenant”. Who cares if it’s Oscar bait. It’s a good movie with wonderful acting, beautiful visual effects, spectacular cinematography, and gorgeous storytelling. No matter what his intentions were for being involved, we the audience still reaped the biggest benefit in receiving an enjoyable movie. It’s the same as your boss, and customers, directly benefitting from you merchandising that shelf better to make it easier to shop.
Leo’s struggle to win an Oscar is one so familiar to us that we became obsessed with it. He became the archetype through which we aired our own feelings and fears of never being recognized for the long, hard work we accomplish. He became the symbol of our struggle, and if he hadn’t won, it would’ve confirmed it even more. We are a generation growing more and more pessimistic as we are told we must put in four times the effort as our predecessors for half the reward (and half is generous). “Leo and the Oscars” has become almost a shorthand way of saying, “I fear that I too will put in the greatest efforts of my life and it will amount to nothing.”
Now, before I continue, I want to address the fact that most people think an Oscar means nothing. Largely, no, it doesn’t. It didn’t cure world hunger. His life is still exactly the same. “The awards are just political bullshit.” All these things are essentially true, but it misses the point of receiving one. I am a costumer, and when Jenny Beavan won for costume design for Mad Max: Fury Road, my heart went into my throat. I watched Mad Max in awe of the costume design, because it is my craft. I looked at costumes like Furiosa and Immortan Joe and thought, “I want to make something like that for a film someday.” But those costumes aren’t the types of elaborate things that usually win awards. They’re often beloved by fans and cosplayers, but largely missed by the higher honors. I can design you a great Cinderella gown, but my passion lies with Furiosa. Seeing Jenny Beavan win gave me hope that my style has a place in this huge landscape of film. That win gave costume designers hope for style, just as I’m sure every other award spoke to some group of people.
The Oscars, whether you believe in them or not, are a high honor. It’s the sole reason we want more diversity, because those people deserve to be represented for their work.
So to go back to Leonardo DiCaprio now, our patron saint of overdue recognition. I feel I must continue my work metaphor. Did you ever bust your ass on a project, do amazing, and receive no feedback, only to receive positive remarks later for a minuscule thing you felt didn’t matter? Did you deserve that praise any less? Should that praise be largely disregarded because that wasn’t as important as your other thing? No, no one would reasonably think that. These days we all work so hard that any scrap of positive reaction or reinforcement is the stoking of the fire in us to continue to work hard. I don’t think for one instant Leo won only for “The Revenant”. He won for how far he’s come, how he’s grown as an actor and filmmaker, and for the culmination of nearly 30 years of work displayed in “The Revenant”.
With Leo being such a symbol of unrewarded effort, you would think that the struggling folk would almost resent his win. While there’s plenty of people who think others deserved it more, as is always the case with every single Oscar ever, this is different. When his name was announced, the hall I was in cheered and celebrated as if it was our own victory. That’s because, in some relation, it was. In that instant he went from a symbol of the crushing reality of your work never being recognized, to a symbol of hope that if you just keep going, maybe work a little harder, it can happen. It gave anyone who’s burnt out on their efforts a bit of much needed fuel. Especially in a career like film where there’s only so many awards and millions who deserve them, it says that you just have to never give up.
Some may call a wish for recognition shallow, but I disagree. The desire to be recognized is a very basic human desire, and one you should never feel ashamed for. So if you’re afraid being a “Leonardo DiCaprio never getting an Oscar”, just remember he finally did. He worked insanely hard, and perhaps even did exactly what he needed to do to achieve it.
He did it and so can you.
So can we cut the “can we stop talking about Leo?” and the “we get it, he won” and let this man, and the people who feel his struggle, just enjoy a win for once. Can we stop being so pessimistic that we can’t even allow celebration for 24 hours without being annoyed by it? This win meant a lot to a lot of people, and while it was not the most significant win of the night, it’s still important.
Congratulations, Leonardo DiCaprio. For your entire body of work, I salute you, and bravo for taking your moment of personal glory to focus on other issues so in need of attention. That was your moment you waited a lifetime for, and you used it for good. Thank you. And congratulations to all the hardworking people who now have some hope that one day your hard work could be recognized.