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Make the Case: Leonardo DiCaprio Delivered a Masterstroke in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the ‘The Joker’ is catnip for Academy Awards voters, but DiCaprio’s depiction of a fading star struggling to contend with his own irrelevance should get the nod for Best Actor 

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

The case for Leonardo DiCaprio as Best Actor begins with a bit of bad acting—at least as far as Rick Dalton is concerned.

We’re on the set of Lancer, a late-’60s Western TV show that Quentin Tarantino pays homage to in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s familiar territory for DiCaprio’s Dalton, who rose to fame in the early part of the decade as the hero on the breakout hit Bounty Law. Back then, he was the white knight plastered on kids’ lunch boxes. But now, he’s the villain—the heavy who’s occupied similar roles on the likes of The Green Hornet and The F.B.I. as his star has faded. And this time, he can’t remember his lines. Maybe it’s the weight of knowing his career is spiraling. Maybe it’s the eight whiskey sours he downed while rehearsing the night before. Either way, things are getting ugly quickly.

Playing opposite James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant, in a bit of meta casting), Dalton begins the scene well enough; he swaggers through a saloon, toasting to his wife and all of his sweethearts and establishing his and Stacy’s characters’ rich shared history in a few quick lines. It’s just the pilot for Lancer, but Dalton’s every word makes it feel like a fully realized world. By the time he’s spitting out his mezcal and growling at the barkeep that he won’t hurt his daughter—he just wants her to play the fiddle, you see—you’re wondering why Stacy and not Dalton is the lead in this show.

And then, Dalton goes silent.

“Line?” he calls out, unable to recall what comes next. An assistant reads off the script, and Dalton returns to character—but just for a moment. He blanks on his dialogue again, shouts at himself, and begins a full meltdown that includes a lot of throat-clearing, a Ric Flair woo, some very serious sitting down, and a few finger guns. Over the course of 30 seconds, DiCaprio-as-Dalton’s face shape-shifts a half-dozen times and his vocal tone conveys nearly as many competing emotions. He knows he may have blown his last chance to avoid being shipped off to Italy to film spaghetti Westerns. And DiCaprio—who convincingly bounces back and forth between Dalton’s superb acting and his complete fuck-ups without missing a beat—wrings the scene for every ounce of comedy and despair it’s got. When he shouts, “Goddamnit, I fucked this whole thing up,” after the second flub, you laugh, but you also feel his wounded pride.

DiCaprio’s Once Upon a Time costar Brad Pitt is getting all the hype headed into Sunday’s Academy Awards. It’s deserved—he’ll most likely win Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Dalton’s stunt double and BFF, Cliff Booth, a tender spin on the chill dude image that Pitt’s spent three decades perfecting. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Cliff is just Brad playing Brad, the super handsome bro you’d love to kick it with. Leo’s work in the film, by contrast, is a fresh take on an old archetype: a man watching himself become obsolete. He’s the small-screen icon that never broke out in the cineplex; the aging cowboy who can’t bust broncos like he used to. It’s a sympathetic performance, and one that’s being overlooked perhaps because it also features the most richly comedic work in DiCaprio’s filmography.

The laughs come in the form of Rick’s tremendous outbursts, like the largely improvised trailer freak-out or his margarita-fueled bathrobe diatribe to the Manson family members idling in front of his home. But he finds pathos in the film’s smaller moments: Look at the way pain sets in on his face as Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) tells him he’s becoming “the punching bag to every swinging dick new to the network.” Or how he quietly struggles with being so close to the “new Hollywood” he covets—Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate live just next door—but never getting invited to the pool parties. Even a throwaway scene DiCaprio shares with Olyphant is a showcase for quiet revelation: Stacy asks Dalton whether it’s true he was up for Steve McQueen’s role in The Great Escape. (The role which, not coincidentally, catapulted McQueen to “King of Cool” status.) As Dalton tries to debunk the rumor, Tarantino cuts to the actor’s imagination, where he’s playing out The Great Escape with himself in the starring role. Dalton never says it, but you understand this was the moment his career began slipping away from him.

DiCaprio’s nuanced performance peaks in that saloon, as Dalton fights through one of the worst afternoons of his career. A real-life actor playing an actor on the screen can be a disaster—if it’s not done right, it feels like a high school play dropped into the middle of a movie. But here, Leo whips back and forth between crushing it and getting crushed by the weight of his character’s failure, showing all of Dalton’s sweat without ever breaking one himself. Given the stakes for Rick, it’s a masterclass in how to give a comedic scene emotional heft.

DiCaprio is likely to leave empty-handed on Sunday despite his Best Actor nomination. He’s currently third in betting odds, and heavy favorite Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) has won BAFTA, Golden Globes, and SAG awards this season. Phoenix’s is the type of performance Academy voters often fall in love with: He reportedly lost 52 pounds for the part, which featured him plunging the depths of mental illness for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the man who would become Batman’s greatest nemesis. Leaving aside the film’s more troubling aspects—as well as the one-note, showy nature of Phoenix’s performance—this shouldn’t be all that shocking. Oscar winners from Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club in 2014) to Charlize Theron (Monster in 2004) to Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man in 1989) have mined similar territory and underwent drastic transformations to earn hardware. Leo himself did something similar with The Revenant, which famously netted him that elusive Best Actor win in 2016 after being denied in his four previous nominations. Like Phoenix does in Joker, DiCaprio turns in the most physical acting of his career in The Revenant as he battles the elements, festering wounds, a waterfall, and Tom Hardy. When you fight a grizzly bear or do whatever this is with your back, it’s hard for the Academy to ignore it. And that’s why Leo is a distant long shot to collect his second Oscar for Once Upon a Time.

Rick eventually figures it out, by the way. After the botched scene and the trailer tantrum, he returns to the Lancer set. We’re back inside the saloon, only this time, he’s not fumbling through his lines. He’s confident—alternately charming and menacing. In one moment, he’s joking with the young hostage in his lap. The next, he’s got a gun to her head. You’re enthralled, as are the actors on the set. The director calls him “evil sexy Hamlet,” and he’s not wrong. When the scene breaks and the little girl whom Rick just tossed to the ground tells him, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” he has to fight back tears. He’ll never be Steve McQueen, he may have to do spaghetti Westerns, and he won’t win any awards for his work here, but that’s OK. “Rick fucking Dalton,” he says as he cocks back his prop pistol. He’s finally back in the saddle.

An earlier version of this story misstated that Quentin Tarantino invented the TV show Lancer for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood; it was a real show in the 1960s.