Leonardo DiCaprio is on the World Service – and it's clear he takes Method acting seriously

You have to admire DiCaprio’s performance, no question, but “epic neo-realism”? 

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“Does that sound like an ‘art movie’ to you?” asked a sceptical Nikki Bedi, the presenter of The Arts Hour (25 January, BBC, 11pm), after describing the plot of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, with its by now infamous bear attack and Boy’s Own slog up the 1820s Missouri River. “Well, that’s how it’s being sold . . .”

Cut to an interview with the movie’s star, Leonardo DiCaprio, newly nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a frontiersman on his uppers, talking about the film as being “almost docudrama” (it isn’t) and an example of “epic neo-realism” (not even close). It’s difficult to separate that sort of hyperbole from the usual marketing guff, but with The Revenant there’s a marked and somehow slightly unpleasant pomposity to its claims of authenticity.

DiCaprio described the camera moving so close to his face during the making of one scene that it was virtually “taking his pulse”. The rehearsals were so encompassing, so precise, he felt he was “inside a Swiss watch”. The interviewer, Kirsty Lang, asked about his willingness to eat raw bison liver and crawl naked into the carcass of a dead horse. “Was there anything you said you wouldn’t do?” she challenged. Her tone was more brisk and newsy than sycophantic and artsy, and this was going down well with the generally unreadable DiCaprio.

“There was nothing I said no to,” he confirmed and Lang chuckled, delighted.

Extraordinary, the allure of Method. Some six decades after Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan first threw their weight behind it, the immersive acting process retains the air of the universal skeleton key, the secret code to acting. An answer to the craft. And the subconscious desire to witness it runs fiercely through cinema. At the end of the film, DiCaprio is as staggeringly beaten and bloodied as Brando at the end of On the Waterfront. The message: for the actor, this was a trial of strength. This has been hard.

You have to admire DiCaprio’s performance, no question, but “epic neo-realism”? It is something of an excruciating moment for supposedly “art” cinema when it has to try to sell itself by means of the same bombastic boasts of affect as P T Barnum, or 1950s 3D spectacles.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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