ARTS : A hard actor to follow

FILM : Can Leonardo Di Caprio really be 'the new James Dean?' Quentin Curtis isn't sure we should even ask the question

SEEK AND you will find the similarities. Leonardo di Caprio's new film, The Basketball Diaries, will give the hype-merchants - who view the present as a re-run of the past - ample opportunity to compare his achievement with the legend of James Dean. Already hailed for his portrayals of teenage delinquency, Di Caprio now steps on to ground - the shiny parquet of the basketball court - resonant in the life and death of Dean. When Di Caprio boasts to his team-mates of a cousin in New Jersey who "plays chicken", fans' minds will go back to the chicken- run in Rebel Without a Cause. Just by posing in his basketball kit, Di Caprio will remind some of Dean's famous school-yearbook photograph, in the Quaker team colours, bespectacled and alert, holding the ball in his hand. When Dean died, 40 years ago, his pall-bearers were his basketball team in Fairmount, Indiana.

But we should stop the game there. Not just because it is unfair to compare a novice with a master, but because we blur both by likening actors who are in many ways dissimilar. Make no mistake: Di Caprio is good. According to the director James Toback, who, in a journal, rhapsodised about Leo, he is "the best sheer actor of his generation". In just two roles, he established himself as an instinctive performer of rare talent. As De Niro's stepson in This Boy's Life (1993), he matched the master, braving his bullying, eyes aslant with horror at such a paradigm of uncool, and showing all the preening mimicry and wit of a burgeoning intellect. In the same year's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, he was still more astonishing, tapping into the simplicity of a mentally impaired character - open-mouthed, splay- fingered, mind easily distracted - and making him joyous rather than mawkish.

They were outstanding achievements for an actor who had yet to turn 18. And yet Di Caprio's very youthfulness is one key aspect in which he differs from Dean. The Basketball Diaries, in which he plays the drug-addict- turned-poet Jim Carroll from schooldays to maturity, is the first film in which Di Caprio is called upon to put away childish things. And the older he gets the less convincing he becomes. At 20, though sprouting up to six foot, Di Caprio is still a slip of a boy, his reedy voice as thin as his rake-like body. Look, by contrast, at Dean in his first major film, East of Eden. His stocky body and serious mien give him the look of a 40-year-old playing a teenager. In the re-released James Dean: The First American Teenager, an acquaintance recalls that he "died, physically, a middle-aged man".

Of course, Dean was about five years older than Di Caprio when he rose to stardom. But the difference is not in years but in temperament. Every film Di Caprio makes, every interview he gives, and each photo shoot he models for, adds to a picture of a talented young blade high on his success. Di Caprio exudes ease. His talent was nurtured by his hippyish parents (his father sold comic books, and his best friend as a child was Abbie Hoffman's son, America). Dean too had a supportive upbringing (from his mother, before she died), but there is a ceaseless sense of striving in his work. If he died looking old, it may be because he tried so hard while alive. Reading, training, studying, inquiring - he believed an actor should know everything, and set about omniscience with lacerating discipline. There isn't a picture of him that isn't as deep and mysterious as a dark pool. Contrary to the Rebel myth, as David Thomson has pointed out, "he never suggested youthfulness or callowness".

Two casts of mind; two styles of acting. Di Caprio's work is mainly intuition ("Acting is the only time I truly maintain the spontaneity that I want to be present at all times," he says). In the finale of Gilbert Grape, when Di Caprio's handicapped Arnie yells "wake up" to his dead mother, he launches into a piercing arpeggio on the word "up" - a brilliant piece of improvisation. Dean improvised too. In The First American Teenager, Dennis Hopper argues that the famous laugh - as dry and fragile as a parched leaf - which Dean delivers while being helped into his coat at the police station in Rebel Without a Cause, was a result of being free enough to ride with his instincts. Nor should the purely animalistic side of Dean's acting be underestimated (Cal's bestiality is a motif of East of Eden). But there is another aspect to his acting, where he displays its genius. Here, Dean is counter-intuitive. He surprises by the strange choices he makes, and is more real because of them. At East of Eden's climax, when he reveals his prostitute mother to his brother, the emotions flicker across his face in the opposite order to the one we expect. As Francois Truffaut wrote: "He killed psychology the day he appeared on the set."

Di Caprio stands on the brink of manhood. He has the talent to become an important actor, if his neophyte looks can coarsen into maturity (though his next film, Total Eclipse, has already been slated at previews). By all accounts, Di Caprio has charm, energy and humour, and is a prodigious party-goer. He is not an equal of James Dean, but a descendant - as with so many of his contemporaries (Winona Ryder, the Phoenixes) his parents were Sixties radicals who owed their liberation in part to Dean. Di Caprio's facility is Dean's legacy. He is the gregarious leader of a talented generation. But Dean reckoned: "Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You're all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that's all you've got." It was the solitariness of his genius that made him unique.

! 'The Basketball Diaries' opens 24 Nov. 'James Dean: The First American Teenager' (Academy Video, pounds 12.99) is released 20 Nov.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral