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Oscars: Is It Finally Leo’s Year?

Could Leonardo DiCaprio win the Oscar for “The Wolf of Wall Street”? Any other year, the answer would be an easy yes.

Many consider Matthew McConaughey the frontrunner and DiCaprio embodies the biggest advantage and disadvantage in Oscar-voters eyes: on the plus side, he shows aspects of his talent in the film we’ve never seen before, and awards voters love that. On the minus side, he’s a movie star.

Laurence Olivier said that by the time an actor is mature enough to understand romantic characters like Romeo, he’s too old to play them. After several strong performances (including his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in the 1993 “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) he confirmed his abilities in “Titanic”; that’s why audiences got so swoony. (And DiCaprio played Romeo shortly before James Cameron’s blockbuster drama).

But he wasn’t Oscar-nominated for “Titanic,” maybe because the film also cemented his status as a Hollywood star.

On the other hand, DiCaprio has the surprise factor with “Wolf.” In the past decade, Colin Firth  and Jamie Foxx gave terrific performances that seemed extra-special but audiences didn’t realize they were capable of this.

DiCaprio is the subject of this week’s Variety cover story, and he’s making himself accessible to the media and to voters like never before. The film was one of his passion projects, and he has been speaking eloquently about the creative and financial risks involved and the artistic contributions of his collaborators. And, crucially, he has persuasively and with humor addressed criticisms of the film head-on.

From Jack Nicholson to Denzel Washington, the Academy has rewarded some of its favorite actors over the last 20 years. Perhaps it wasn’t their best performance but it was their time. Whether DiCaprio’s time is finally here remains to be seen. One thing, however, is undeniable: the “Wolf” is knocking at Oscar’s door.

Here’s a rundown of this year’s other best actor nominees:

Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”:

Advantage: He physically transformed himself, and the character changes 180 degrees during the film. As a bonus, McConaughey has had a great year, winning a slew of awards for this performance, and showing up in  HBO’s well-received “True Detective” and two other movie roles — including “Wolf of Wall Street.”

Disadvantage: His trademark phrase “All right, all right, all riiigggght!” and his folksy-spacey acceptance speeches sometimes make him seem more like an insider at Hollywood’s private club than a Serious Actor. Plus: He’ll have more opportunities.

Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”:

Advantage: It’s not a starry turn, but a real film-actor performance: minimal, nuanced and devastating, and he makes it look simple. It’s not. As a bonus, Dern is a well-liked actor who’s shown a big range since his 1960 film debut. Industry vets love him, but if he wins, this wouldn’t be a sentimental reward: The performance is both a culmination of, and a contrast to, 50-plus years of vivid characters.

Disadvantage: His character, Woody, doesn’t have a “big scene,” in which he laughs/cries, breaks furniture and sets his hair on fire; those are cheap tricks, but voters often love that stuff. It’s a tribute to the integrity of the film that Woody doesn’t do that, but will voters go for subtlety?

Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”:

Advantage: He’s in every scene, in a surprisingly complex role. Director Steve McQueen gives Ejiofor several long takes, in which the camera holds on his face. His range of thoughts and emotions are like a Shakespeare monolog, but without words. And though the film never gives a timeline, Ejiofor conveys the passage of the years just with his face and body language, as his character constantly fights to maintain dignity.

Disadvantage: The competition.

Christian Bale, “American Hustle”:

Advantage: It’s a total transformation, physically and vocally. And he’s unrecognizable after many years of varied appearances and characters.

Disadvantage: There is a vague sense that, as good as he is, this just isn’t his year.

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