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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own