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Chasing The Oscar: Is There A Formula?

Chasing The Oscar: Is There A Formula?

The Wolf of Wall Street is sending all the right signals as far as Oscar buzz is concerned, but will it win Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar? Is there a glory-guaranteed formula and, if so, is he on the right track?


The trailer for DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, exudes cool, class and confidence, all the while offering a glimpse into the fluctuating fortunes of DiCaprio’s protagonist. Put simply, it looks to be as exciting and as accomplished as what we’ve come to expect from them. It also happens to be the subject of knowing nods and whispers hyping it up as a serious Oscar contender. Will this film see DiCaprio finally clinch that gleaming statuette that has eluded him despite three previous nominations?

The Wolf of Wall Street is undoubtedly another canny choice by DiCaprio. Reprising a fruitful working relationship with Oscar-winning Scorsese is a sure-fire hit with critics and punters alike, while the story relies on the clout and charisma of a leading actor to enthral audiences for a couple of hours almost single-handedly. DiCaprio is an old hand at this of course, having done so for Scorsese in 2004’s The Aviator and 2010’s Shutter Island. His upcoming turn as Jordan Belfort, the titular “Wolf” of Wall Street, will provide him the opportunity to express a spectrum of emotions as the film recounts the hedonistic highs of insane wealth, yachts and leggy blondes to the anxious lows of crime, corruption and a world crumbling beneath his feet.

Hollywood relentlessly churns out biopics exploring the lives of powerful men, and they have a recent history of Oscar success, as both Daniel Day Lewis and Colin Firth can attest to. So, if DiCaprio is hounding after that pesky Oscar, it seems he’s doing something right where his judgement is concerned.


If this is but one characteristic chosen to serve the pursuit of long-overdue Academy recognition, can we assume that there may be others to consider? According to the extensive research of one David Shaw, illuminated by the illustrations of Christian Tate, we can construct a formula which will lead to Oscar success and, as a result, use it to assess a contender’s likelihood of winning. By analysing the roles of all the winners to date of the Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role, we can begin to recognise trends that appear to offer a reliable path to acquiring a fairly prestigious decoration for the mantelpiece.

Their guide to winning an Oscar suggests that the most likely recipe for success is playing a fictional or historical character, who’s North American, from the present day or recent past, works as either a soldier, lawman, businessman, monarch, politician, performer, artist or parent, who participates in no sexual scenes and who, in the end, doesn’t die on screen. Although it may seem like a bit of a mouthful, there’s evidence to support the formula. The majority of winners do fit at least a couple of these and the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were rewarded for their portrayals of North American performers and artists from the recent past, as Truman Capote and June Carter respectively. It’s easy to see why these types of characters tend to capture the imagination, as they had a dramatic influence on the world we live in today and, as such, demand our interest.

Participating in no sexual scenes applies to the majority of winners, but this criterion is perhaps the most coincidental. You could argue that sex scenes serve the story, rather than being superfluous, and are true to the character, although, if executed poorly, it could be detrimental to the film. Not dying on screen avoids the all too prevalent trend of cringe-worthy death scenes, in which the rise and fall of the deceased’s chest cannot fail to interrupt the required suspension of disbelief. It also preserves the dignity of the character, by allowing them to live on in the imagination of the audience, giving us some ownership over the story, and thus be remembered fondly.


Taking this formula at face value, DiCaprio could be forgiven for fancying his chances. Previous roles of his, such as Howard Hughes and J. Edgar have come close and Jordan Belfort seems to stand as good a chance as ever. Seeing as the real-life Belfort is still alive it would be an unexpected twist were he to die on screen, and he ticks all the relevant boxes so long as he keeps it in his trousers, although the trailer does suggest this is a distinct impossibility.

However, if Leo wants to apply this formula to achieve instant success he should probably consider the numerous exceptions to the rule. Of all the winners of Best Actor in a Leading Role, only three of them (Al Pacino, Gregory Peck and William Holden) satisfied every criterion. Most, in fact, only satisfy two or three and, after all, this is a study which deems it valuable to inform us that 17% of winners had moustaches, implying that this must have swayed the judges somewhat.

The facts are there in black and white though; the types of roles that this formula identifies are more likely to win Oscars, so why not choose projects based on this evidence and give yourself favourable odds? Forgive this cynical analysis of DiCaprio’s career ambitions – I suspect he merely wants to work with the best in the business and raise his game with each outing – but it’s all too easy to correlate his career choices with the pursuit of glory.

Working with the best and choosing rich, complex, vibrant roles can only endear DiCaprio to moviegoers and critics and working with Scorsese may set him up as a natural successor to Robert De Niro, in which case his place amongst the pantheon of screen greats looks assured. But, as was the case with his director, the plaudits will surely come. It seems improbable that the consistent quality of his work can he can be snubbed for much longer, but, for the time being, at least he can take comfort in the knowledge that he’s the Internet’s favourite Oscar underdog.

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