By now, all the Leo/Matthew memes have made several rounds on the web and people have divided themselves a la Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. And while I find myself solidly on Team Leo, I have to admit that both of these actors are important. Not only because of their ability to bring characters to life, but because they are shaping the American narrative. While all the actors nominated at the Oscars this year gave wonderful performances, particularly Chiwete Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, it is DiCaprio and McConaughey who have used their star power not only to find movies that will allow them lots of screen time, but roles that explore a particular aspect of American masculinity.
DiCaprio and McConaughey have one big thing in common: they have used the fame they garnered through their heartthrob roles to wield decision-making power and start making films, and in the case of McConaughey, even television that whets their creative appetite. Where they differ is in what kind of story they want to tell.
DiCaprio has become the face of American capitalism -- he is the definition of the self-made man. Beginning with Catch Me if You Can, DiCaprio has delivered playing the man who has to pretend like he belongs in order to reach success (fake it 'til you make it!). DiCaprio has played this man in almost every decade of the 20th century -- The Great Gatsby takes place in the 20s, The Aviator takes place from the 30s to the 40s, and Catch Me if You Can in the 70s. What makes DiCaprio's role as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street so epic is that he is tackling the present. It's like the last chapter of a long thesis.
McConaughey's entrance to the world of actor as auteur has been fairly recent. The first film that began to reveal the direction he was taking was Bernie, a great film directed by Richard Linklater, in which he plays a sheriff. The movie is a fake documentary about actual events that happened in Carthage, Texas. The film features real people from Carthage giving interviews about the happenings. Most of the fun and intrigue in the film comes from all the rumors and tales told by the community.
It is interesting because McConaughey has continued to choose projects that contribute to a new or revised Southern folklore. Mud is also set in the South, in Mississippi to be exact, and blurs the line between the real and the fake. True Detective, the show on HBO, has painted a grim view of Louisiana that has a religious and mythical element. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey plays a kind of "new saint." I would even go as far to say that his role in Magic Mike has a religious element -- he is a washed out stripper and the scene where he returns to the stage has a very Jesus resurrected feel.
The south and the cowboy have always been important to American cinema. I have been pleased to see them revisited and re-worked (a cowboy with AIDS is definitely a new and refreshing view). But McConaughey is more interested in creating myths or rewriting the past, than chomping into the present. It takes a lot of courage to make a statement about current society, especially when the criticism could be equated to biting the hand that feeds you.
DiCaprio has said in interviews that when he first began to encounter fame, he felt like an outsider because he was hanging out with Beverly Hills kids and he was from Silver Lake. The wolf in sheep's clothing is the darkest incarnation of the outsider. He is intrigued by the limits of power and deception. DiCaprio has benefited from people believing he is great, perhaps in recognizing him as such people will confirm that they have been duped -- it's a catch 22.
What McConaughey has to offer, the narrative he is telling, is much more palatable. He plays mythic and heroic characters that one is supposed to like. In general, the Oscars is not a place where challenging films thrive. While 12 Years a Slave was a beautiful film, there is no one, or very few, who would argue today that slavery was not tragic or dehumanizing. However, Fruitvale Station, an incredible film that was able to paint a portrait of what racism is today simply by showing a day in the life of Oscar Grant III, was not recognized.
Perhaps the most important difference between DiCaprio and McConaughey's works has been that McConaughey's characters seems to be emulating a hero or God while DiCaprio's characters are at the mercy of one -- material wealth. McConaughey's characters believe and confirm self-determinism while DiCaprio's never stood a chance.
It was made pretty clear from McConaughey's speech that he believes he deserves and has worked for the recognition he has received. Perhaps DiCaprio's loss has only strengthened this notion that one cannot control his or her own fate. Regardless, I look forward to both of these actor's future endeavors... But seriously, give Leo an Oscar!