We wanted to see Timothée Chalamet give a speech at the Academy Awards. How could we not? The 22-year-old not only delivered a stunning, Oscar-deserving performance as Elio in Call Me by Your Name, but over the course of awards season, he also became one of the most lovable stars in Hollywood. He danced in the streets of Italy; he pledged to donate his paycheck from an upcoming Woody Allen film to Time’s Up, RAINN, and the LGBT Center in New York; he sang a line from Frank Ocean’s “Seigfried” to Frank Ocean, who immediately told him, “Don’t do that;” he wore Off-White to the Independent Spirit Awards; he wore all white to the Oscars.
During the ceremony on Sunday night, whenever cameras cut to Chalamet (which was often), he was an exuberant ball of energy. He was never once sitting entirely in his seat. He leaned toward the stage, on edge, mouth wide open, belly-laughing as Jimmy Kimmel more or less called him a 6-year-old. (“Timothée is missing Paw Patrol to be here tonight.”) Though he absolutely deserved to be in that audience, he’s spent the past few months trying to comprehend how he’s gone from being a kid from LaGuardia High who played the vice president’s asshole son in Homeland to being in the same category as Denzel Washington. “This is crazy to be here,” Chalamet told ABC’s Michael Strahan on the Oscars red carpet, stuttering a bit. “I have nothing to add! It’s just insane. Talking to Michael Strahan; my mom’s here. So, very happy to be here.”
Now just imagine if he had won. Up there in his all-white tux, struggling to find words, maybe crying, maybe yelling, definitely thanking Kid Cudi. On a night that didn’t have many surprises or iconic speeches (save Frances McDormand’s), an acceptance speech from Chalamet would’ve been a highlight. Instead, Gary Oldman took home Best Actor. I’ve already forgotten his speech.
But don’t cry for Chalamet—in this business, rejection is important.
Losing his first shot at an Oscar on Sunday night may push him to continue working with interesting, skilled directors and to stay out of the arms of the DC extended universe. (“Coming in 2020, Timothée Chalamet is … Robin.”) Those who lose at the Oscars at a young age tend to return, and while that’s partially because they’re gifted actors, it’s also because that level of rejection is an incentive to take roles in the complex, attention-grabbing types of movies the Academy historically treasures. A year after Ryan Gosling lost at 26, he starred in the very weird but very well-made Lars and the Real Girl; a year after Ben Affleck won (for screenwriting) at 25, he starred in Armageddon. It’s a lot easier to do “one for them” when “one for you” earned the ultimate prize on the first try. That mountain’s already been climbed, so why not take a cushy job with an outsize paycheck? (Less than a decade after Good Will Hunting, Affleck literally made a movie called Paycheck.)
But the easiest comparison to make for Chalamet is Leonardo DiCaprio. Both actors came up on television; both were nominated for Oscars at young ages for their first true acting showcases (DiCaprio was nominated at 19 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape); both bring their moms everywhere; both make questionable sweater choices; both probably vape. DiCaprio’s career has been defined by his tireless quest for an Oscar, which finally came to an end after four losses when he won in 2016 for crawling into an animal carcass in The Revenant. After Titanic in 1997, DiCaprio was, at 23, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. He could’ve cashed in—I’m sure the Star Wars prequels would’ve welcomed him with open arms. And yet, with the Oscars loss in mind, he worked exclusively with prestigious directors, taking on roles that required acting acrobatics—screaming internally and digging deeper into that commitment with each subsequent loss. That’s how he ended up portraying a yellow-toothed, racist maniac in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and then getting mercilessly mauled by a bear in The Revenant. DiCaprio’s decisions were forged by the constant rejection of his peers—without it, I’m not so sure we would have the quaaludes scene from The Wolf of Wall Street.
Maybe Chalamet doesn’t have the same burning desire for approval that DiCaprio did. Maybe 15 years from now we won’t see him biting into buffalo liver. But his career is going to remain interesting. As robbed as he may have been on Sunday night—and I really don’t know if he was, because Daniel Day-Lewis was also in that category—losing at the Oscars at an early age is a rite of passage for those who go on to become the most decorated stars in the industry. It’s an important, almost necessary step. And thank god Chalamet had to take it Sunday night. I don’t think I wanna see what he looks like trying to stop an over-budget meteor from crashing into Earth.