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Does Leonardo DiCaprio Deserve An Oscar? An Interrogation.

Leonardo DiCaprio is probably going to win an Academy Award, his first, for his role as Hugh Glass in “The Revenant.” Our model tracking the race has him as an obscene favorite, every gambler this side of Dublin has him as the prohibitive leader, and nearly all the amateur modelers we’ve followed throughout awards season project him to be the winner. Barring a meteor strike, or some hostage-taking by Michael Fassbender, it’s gonna be Leo.

And were you to talk to a DiCaprio fan, it’s about time! The narrative being bandied about is that regardless of how you feel about his stint in “The Revenant,” DiCaprio “deserves” an Oscar. We’ve read about how he and the crew of “The Revenant” were very cold during filming and how perhaps this might be a good argument for an Oscar win. It has been mentioned that DiCaprio was nominated four — four! — times previously and was arguably snubbed each time (for your pleasure, I’ve sprinkled clips of DiCaprio’s snubs throughout this piece).

But here’s an exercise: Make a mental list of four films that you think DiCaprio could have earned an Oscar nomination for. Mine, for example, would be “Gangs of New York,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Departed” and “Inception.” But go ahead and compare those to the films he was actually nominated for: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “Blood Diamond,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” I remember nothing from “Blood Diamond.” Do you?

Still, the narrative is what it is, so it’s time to answer the immortal question: Does DiCaprio deserve an Academy Award?

Montage of Oscar candidates

Interactive: Our elections-style Oscar model looks at the predictive power of film awards over the past 25 years and tracks this year’s nominees and winners to try to gauge the race in the big six Academy Award categories. See the state of the Oscars race »

First, let’s check out his credentials. We want to know, essentially, how many good movies DiCaprio has made and how they stack up against the pre-Oscar résumés of those who have been honored with a top acting prize. We can do this by simply counting up films with high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, but we can also take it a step further and see how that figure translates to an annualized rate.

Last week, I analyzed who had the best and worst careers after winning a best actor or best actress award. For that analysis, I studied actors and actresses who have won best actor and actress Oscars since 1970, for a total data set of 45 actor wins and 45 actress wins. Although that analysis pertained to post-Oscar work, it was just as easy to pull the Rotten Tomatoes scores for each performer’s pre-Oscar films. For today’s analysis, I tallied how many rated films those performers were in before winning an Oscar, how many of those films received ratings of at least 50 percent, 75 percent or 90 percent on the Tomatometer, and how long the performers worked before their Oscar win. Where does DiCaprio land?

Well, he’s qualified, but it’s not like he’s the most qualified ever. DiCaprio has appeared in 37 films over 24 years, 21 of which were rated 50 percent or higher, 14 of those were rated 75 percent or higher, and two were rated 90 or higher. Not unimpressive by any means!

1 Emma Thompson 1992 0.8
2 Diane Keaton 1977 0.9
3 Meryl Streep 1982 1.0
3 Sean Penn 2008 1.0
3 Philip Seymour Hoffman 2005 1.0
3 Jean Dujardin 2011 1.0
3 Louise Fletcher 1975 1.0
8 Jack Nicholson 1975 1.1
8 Sean Penn 2003 1.1
10 Gene Hackman 1971 1.2
10 Robert Duvall 1983 1.2
32 Marlon Brando 1972 1.7
33 Robert De Niro 1980 1.7
33 Leonardo DiCaprio 1.7
35 Susan Sarandon 1995 1.8
36 Matthew McConaughey 2013 1.8
Best actor and best actress résumés before Oscar win

Through 2015, DiCaprio has made a movie rated 75 percent or higher about once every 20 months, the same rate as Robert De Niro when he won the 1980 best actor Oscar for “Raging Bull.” But DiCaprio rates only a hair better than Matthew McConaughey did when McConaughey won the 2013 best actor award. If DiCaprio wins this year, he’ll be tied for the 33rd-most-successful pre-Oscar career of the 90 winners we tracked (plus DiCaprio).

On the other hand, DiCaprio would be one of the worst in the set if we were focusing on how often actors appeared in truly great films, the ones rated 90 percent or higher. With two films rated 90 or higher over a 24-year career, he’d be in 63rd place, tied with the careers of Kathy Bates before her 1990 win and Julia Roberts before her 2000 win.

Still, based on the data, DiCaprio’s career certainly looks like the careers of other Oscar winners.

So let’s concede that DiCaprio deserves an Oscar based on his career thus far. That raises the question: Who else deserves one?

A crapload of people is who. A big part of Camp DiCaprio’s argument is that he’s been nominated multiple times before this year and lost each time, so it seems that his supporters believe multiple unfulfilled nominations constitute a debt that can only be settled with a future victory.

In Oscar history there are 51 performers, DiCaprio included, who have been nominated three times or more for an Academy Award in the acting categories yet have never won.1 Of those 51 performers, 28 are still alive.

I pulled the data on these 28 performers from Rotten Tomatoes to find out how often they acted in2 movies rated 75 percent and up and 90 percent and up.

Thirteen of the 28 performers have matched or beaten DiCaprio’s 14 films rated 75 percent or higher. And 23 of them have bested DiCaprio in the 90 percent category, having made three or more such highly-regarded films.

Let’s not be reckless, though: Leo is a young man. Some of these performers have been at it for decades. Let’s normalize things to a rate of films per year.

By my reckoning, 22 living actors at minimum can claim they deserve an Oscar more than DiCaprio, by one methodology or another. Twenty-two performers who were nominated three times or more have acted in films rated 90 percent or higher more often than Leo. Eight of those performers have also acted in films rated 75 percent or higher more often than Leo. Those actors are bolded in the table.

Matt Damon 3 1.0 2.3
Amy Adams 5 1.3 2.5
Laura Linney 3 1.6 2.6
Mark Ruffalo 3 1.6 3.2
Ed Harris 4 1.4 3.4
Sigourney Weaver 3 1.9 4.2
Tom Cruise 3 1.9 4.3
Kirk Douglas 3 2.6 4.6
Bradley Cooper 3 2.0 4.7
Glenn Close 6 1.7 4.7
Johnny Depp 3 1.3 5.2
Albert Finney 5 2.3 5.2
Annette Bening 4 2.1 5.4
Joan Allen 3 2.1 6.0
Edward Norton 3 1.7 6.3
Brad Pitt 3 1.4 6.5
Michelle Williams 3 1.8 7.0
Nick Nolte 3 1.7 7.6
Michelle Pfeiffer 3 3.0 8.3
Warren Beatty 4 3.9 8.5
Angela Lansbury 3 3.7 8.9
Joaquin Phoenix 3 2.9 9.7
Leonardo DiCaprio 5 1.7 12.0
Who deserves an Oscar more than Leo?


And that’s a partial list! You could make a lot of arguments about actors outside of this set who probably deserve Oscars based on their past work. For example, Ian McKellen — who lost the 1998 best actor award to Roberto Benigni and the 2001 best supporting actor award to Jim Broadbent — has had a legendary career, but nobody’s talking about a snub for him in “Mr. Holmes.”

But here’s what’s absolutely crazy about this year and the narrative that’s built up around the best actor race. Let’s say DiCaprio deserves an Oscar. You know who deserves one more? Matt Damon, a guy who’s also nominated for best actor this year!

Not only is DiCaprio not the actor most overdue for an Oscar, he’s not even the most overdue among this year’s nominees.

Sure, DiCaprio is essentially a lock to win. But when the statues are allocated and the afterparty is over, DiCaprio better send his press people a mighty gift basket for making this narrative happen. And Damon should probably make some phone calls inquiring about how to get a convincing bear on Mars for the sequel, “The Martian II: When Science Went Too Far.”


  1. Some of these folks picked up that third nomination this year.

  2. I ignored producing and directing credits.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.