One of the first things you notice about Leonardo DiCaprio while watching Blood Diamond besides that nasal accent is his familiar, youthful face. Where the hell is it? As Danny Archer, a greedy Zimbabwean diamond smuggler with a murky military history, the 32-year-old actor is all filled out, ruddy, and feral. When rural fisherman Solomon Vandy (fellow nominee Djimon Hounsou) stumbles upon a hefty pink jewel worth untold millions, Archer schemes to finagle the prize away from him. Archer does help Vandy find his kidnapped son, but only in the course of his own selfish pursuits.
The character is both personally damaged and unapologetically corrupt. And, as such, DiCaprio's portrayal is pitch-perfect flinty, virile, and unfazed by even his own emotions. ''There's a great tradition of actors taking on parts of much less obvious sympathy,'' notes Blood Diamond director Edward Zwick. ''The antihero. Someone whose motivations are not pure and who is not altruistic. When Paul Newman played the son of a bitch in Fort Apache, the Bronx. Or Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. They bring with them that innate vulnerability that lets one see inside the character even while the things that the character is doing may not be so admirable.''
DiCaprio, who earned two previous Oscar nominations, also garnered Golden Globe nods for both The Departed and Blood Diamond. Given his track record, he's certainly a decent bet to take home a statuette on Feb. 25. Playing a reprehensible baddie may just help his odds. ''The one actor to whom I would most analogize him is Denzel Washington,'' says Zwick, a reference to Washington's only Best Actor win: for playing a reprobate cop in 2001's Training Day. It's good to be bad if you're good at it.