Real blood, sweat and tears... will The Revenant win Leonardo andOscar?
Will acting through the pain finally win Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
Leonardo DiCaprio's new film, The Revenant, is about a man who goes on a miraculous journey after his life takes an unexpected turn. But Eat, Pray, Love it ain't.
Instead, try Retch, Curse, Grunt. DiCaprio plays a 19th-century fur trapper called Hugh Glass who's mauled by a bear and left for dead - and then drags himself out of his grave, cauterises his wounds, plunges into an icy river, tears raw fish apart between his teeth, guzzles raw bison liver, dodges bullets, takes a dagger in his thigh, has his ear bitten off, and rides a horse over the edge of a cliff.
If you've read the early reviews, you'll know it's a scream: imagine the worst scouts expedition you ever did crossed with the most horrendous roller-coaster you've ever been on, but fun.
You'll probably also be aware that a central feature of the film's publicity campaign is a kind of deranged pride in the fact that DiCaprio did much of this himself. He careened down icy rapids, slept in animal carcasses, and sank his jaws into the bison liver for real (his reaction - pretty much what you'd expect - is in the final cut).
That kind of self-immolation in pursuit of a more truthful performance is nothing new, though it's normally the preserve of specialists such as Daniel Day-Lewis, who spent a month living in the woods and killing his own food to prepare for Last of the Mohicans (for which he got a Bafta nomination), camped solo in the desert for There Will Be Blood (Best Actor Oscar), and wore only threadbare 19th-century clothes throughout the making of Gangs of New York (Bafta, Oscar nomination and pneumonia).
Sometimes, method and madness can be hard to pull apart. While filming The Passion of the Christ's crucifixion scene, Jim Caviezel dislocated his shoulder and came down with hypothermia and a lung infection.
For a scene in Marathon Man in which Dustin Hoffman's character had been awake for days on end, Hoffman actually stayed up for days on end - prompting his co-star Laurence Olivier to waspishly advise: "Try acting, dear boy."
The idea that art is worth more if it's harder to make isn't a new one, but in the film business, it's currently booming. During the publicity tour for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film's director, JJ Abrams, barely missed an opportunity to point out that the sets, stunts and creatures were all pulled off "for real", rather than added digitally at a later date. They did it for the same reason Tom Cruise made sure we knew he was really on the side of that aeroplane while filming the new Mission: Impossible film.
Because films can now dupe us so easily, and do so with such regularity, it's thrilling to know when you're watching one that something real - whatever that means - was at stake.
On the blockbuster circuit, this kind of talk is now par for the course, but in the context of the Oscar-season arms race, The Revenant is an escalation. The Academy Awards are little more than seven weeks away, and as Academy members fill out their ballots, you can bet many of them will be thinking of Leo with his lips around that raw liver.
Suffering for your art has become entwined so tightly with art itself that you can't just breeze through a film like Grace Kelly or Cary Grant any more and expect people to notice. The breezing cancels out the noticing, and vice versa.
Except many of the stars of Kelly and Grant's era did suffer - and far more so than DiCaprio in The Revenant, who's sufficiently at peace with his ordeal to chat about it less than six months after filming wrapped.
On the set of Singin' in the Rain, the shooting of the iconic Good Morning sequence ran for 15 hours, from 8am to 11pm, and Debbie Reynolds, who'd previously been driven to tears by her co-star Gene Kelly, danced until her feet actually bled.
During the filming of The Wizard of Oz, the green make-up worn by Margaret Hamilton (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) was both flammable and toxic.
She had to survive on a liquid diet so she wouldn't accidentally ingest any, and was hospitalised with second-degree burns to her face when a smoke grenade set her alight.
Even in the 70s and 80s, this kind of stuff remained firmly off the publicity agenda. Martin Sheen's heart attack and mental breakdown on the set of Apocalypse Now were explained away in the official shooting schedule as "heat exhaustion" because Francis Ford Coppola was terrified of losing funding if the news leaked out.
These stories might add to your appreciation of these films - or they might ruin them. But Debbie Reynolds's footwork is no less astonishing because we can't see her bruised toes squeaking through blood. If all you can think when you're watching a film is how awful it must have been to make it, the film probably isn't doing its job.
'The Revenant' is out on January 15. It will be reviewed in the Irish Independent on January 16.
Five more actors who suffered for their art
Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Foxx shed 30 pounds to play Ray Charles in this 2004 biopic, but that wasn't the worst of it. Director Taylor Hackford asked Foxx to have his eyelids glued shut beneath prosthetics during shooting.
"Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day," he told the New York Times. "That's your jail sentence." Luckily, the hard work paid off: Foxx won that year's Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the blind musician.
Shia LaBeouf (Fury)
LaBeouf proved his method mettle in this gritty Second World War drama, playing the gunner of a Sherman tank.
Director David Ayer insisted his lead actors should undergo an intensive training programme, including a one-week Navy Seals military bootcamp. LaBeouf had already signed up for the US National Guard the day after being cast, where he was baptised, tattooed and lived on a military base. Unhappy with his make-up effects, LaBeouf would cut his own face for added realism.
Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry)
Swank lived as a man for a month in preparation for playing Brandon Teena, a transgender man murdered in 1993 after a sexual assault. She cropped her hair and bound her chest with tension bandages. Swank won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the role.
Daniel Day- Lewis (My Left Foot)
Daniel Day-Lewis is well known for his immersive rehearsal process, but his 1989 performance as the disabled Irish writer and painter Christy Brown took things a little far. He refused to leave his character's wheelchair between takes, and asked members of the crew to spoon-feed him his meals. He put severe strain on his ribcage, and eventually broke two ribs under the pressure. Day-Lewis won a Bafta and an Oscar for his performance.
Christian Bale (The Machinist)
Christan Bale virtually starved himself in 2004 to play the titular insomniac factory worker in Brad Anderson's psychological thriller. Living on just 200 calories a day, Bale's diet consisted of "water, an apple and one cup of coffee per day, with the occasional whisky".
- Tristram Fane Saunders