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
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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.