Leonardo DiCaprio: Diamond geezer

Hollywood is short of leading men. This year they have found - or rather refound - their golden boy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may be an odd thing to say of an actor who has been gracing our screens, and grabbing his share of the limelight, for the past 15 years, but Leonardo DiCaprio has finally arrived. Right from the start of his career, he was recognised as a performer of prodigious natural talent. Right from the start, too, critics and fellow actors relished the prospect of him occupying the very highest firmament in the Hollywood pantheon. He was, after all, that rarity in cinema - a character actor of chameleonic abilities who also had the charisma and screen presence to take on leading roles.

But something, for a long time, remained missing. It wasn't his acting ability, as such, but rather his physical development. The baby face that caused half the teenage girls on the planet to swoon over him in Titanic and Romeo + Juliet obstinately refused to give way to something more mature, more unambiguously adult. He looked too clean to pull off the part of Amsterdam Vallon, the up-and-coming 19th-century street thug in Gangs of New York, no matter how much dirt he applied to his face. And he looked almost laughably green as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, despite the best efforts of Hollywood's make-up artists to age him more than 15 years over the course of the film.

Now, though, he has at last come of age, with two virtuoso performances that give him a very real claim to the title of Hollywood's leading man. The first, in Martin Scorsese's Irish mob thriller The Departed, has him playing an undercover police agent driven to prove his worth to his superiors, even as he lives in a perpetual state of fear that he will either be betrayed or give himself away. It's a piece of acting every bit as riveting, and as compulsively watchable, as Johnny Depp's undercover FBI agent in Donnie Brasco a decade ago - only with an added twist.

DiCaprio's character is presented as a perverse sort of blood brother or alter ego to the corrupt cop played by Matt Damon, who is secretly tipping off the very mobsters he has been sent to infiltrate. DiCaprio is not only filmed to look as much like Damon as possible, but he also spent many hours on set studying Damon's acting so he could respond to it directly in his own performance.

It would be wrong to say DiCaprio steals the show. The Departed is a film stuffed full of remarkable performances by outsize acting personalities, from Damon to Jack Nicholson to a delightfully unhinged Mark Wahlberg, and Scorsese doesn't allow any of them to dominate. But DiCaprio is never less than utterly convincing, not least because of the way he uses his callow good looks to his advantage - eliciting audience sympathy for what could otherwise have been a very dark character and helping to convince us that the gangsters he infiltrates never suspect who he really is.

The second noteworthy DiCaprio role is coming to British cinemas this week: his turn as an African gem smuggler in the political thriller Blood Diamond. This time, DiCaprio more unambiguously occupies centre stage, which might explain why this is the performance that just earned him an Oscar nomination. DiCaprio's character, Danny Archer, starts out almost boundlessly cynical about the venality and heartlessness of the world and what it takes to get ahead. What DiCaprio manages is to imbue the part with exactly the sort of hard edge that has eluded him in the past. But he also slowly reveals the more vulnerable sides of his character, making Danny's path to moral redemption believable and complex where, in other hands, it might have come across as just another Hollywood cop-out in pursuit of an upbeat ending.

It's not clear exactly what has changed. DiCaprio is a little bit older, of course, and looks just a touch heavier, which gives him some of the gravitas that previously eluded him. Whatever the reasons, though, DiCaprio's twin triumphs have earned him no end of attention during the Hollywood awards season. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated him twice, once for each role, for best actor in a drama. (He was beaten by Forest Whitaker.) The Screen Actors' Guild nominated him for best actor in Blood Diamond and best supporting actor in The Departed. And he will be making his third appearance as a nominee at the Academy Awards next month (where, once again, his stiffest competition will come from Whitaker).

Perhaps most significantly. DiCaprio has given the boss class at the studios more reasons to be cheerful than any actor in years. Hollywood is notoriously short of leading men who can "open" a film - actors, in other words, with the commercial clout as well as the chops to secure leading roles and, often, secure financing for the entire project. Will Smith can still do it. Tom Cruise can still do it, more or less. But the previous generation of stalwarts - Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks - has either grown too old, changed jobs or switched from lead roles to character parts.

Of the next generation, Brad Pitt and George Clooney have proven themselves more adept at getting on magazine covers than they have in guaranteeing the success of a $100m movie. In the age bracket from DiCaprio (who is 32) on down, there is pretty much nobody who can deliver the goods. Last year, the studios punted on Jake Gyllenhaal, with mixed results. This year, they have found - or rather refound - their golden boy.

Nobody can be more grateful than Scorsese, who has used DiCaprio's bankability as much as his acting ability to get his last three projects off the ground and now, with The Departed, stands to win his long-deferred first Oscar for directing.

By now, the director and the actor are as inseparable as Scorsese was from Robert DeNiro in the 1970s and early 1980s. Their next project, based on the early life of Teddy Roosevelt, is already in the works, with DiCaprio set to produce as well as star. DiCaprio has been a Scorsese fan for as long as he has been watching films, and first dreamed of working with him when, at the age of 19, he acted opposite DeNiro in This Boy's Life (1993), based on the upbringing of the American writer Tobias Wolff.

Scorsese, meanwhile, has not only the security of a solid box-office draw to underwrite his films. He has also had the pleasure of watching a talented actor develop and bloom before his eyes.

Until now, the easiest way to understand DiCaprio's career was to divide it into before and after categories - the seminal event in the middle being, of course, the global superstardom touched off by the record-breaking success of Titanic.

Before that, he was essentially a child actor, or at least a teenage one. He had worked his way up from a modest childhood in the less fashionable parts of Los Angeles, supporting his mother with his appearances in commercials and television series, starting at a remarkably young age. Unlike many child actors, who fizzle and burn once they reach puberty, DiCaprio was never less than wholly impressive, only growing in stature as he got older.

This Boy's Life won him immediate attention and critical accolades, as did the film he made immediately afterwards, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, when his brilliantly uncomfortable portrayal of an autistic boy made more than a few cinema-goers wonder if he wasn't autistic himself. The Basketball Diaries (1995) made him seem dangerous for the first time, while Baz Luhrmann's drastic updating of Shakespeare, Romeo + Juliet, made him a phenomenon and a heart-throb.

Nothing, though, could have prepared him for the unleashing of Leomania in the wake of Titanic. Sure, the sinking of the ship was breathtaking in its cinematic ambition, but the reason teenage girls went back to see the film again and again was because they were in love with the beautiful 22-year-old actor who sweeps Kate Winslet off her feet just hours before perishing, selflessly, in the icy North Atlantic.

For DiCaprio, the experience was so disorientating that, as he disclosed recently, he felt like just "another piece of cute meat" and thought seriously about giving up acting, at least for a while. "It was pretty disheartening to be objectified like that," he told Newsweek. "It changed my life in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I can't say that it didn't give me opportunities. It made me, for the first time, in control of my career."

It take a person of considerable character to handle that kind of sudden exposure to fame, and it is clear, by now, that DiCaprio did as well as anyone reasonably could have. Sure, he made some questionable career choices - giving a lacklustre performance, for example, in a lacklustre adaptation of Alex Garland's cult novel The Beach - and sure, he probably tried to grow up faster on screen than his chubby cheeks and smooth skin would suggest was wise.

But he didn't develop grandiose ideas about himself, didn't trash any hotel penthouse suites, didn't wig out on drugs, alcohol or casual sex. DiCaprio is not a guy who says a whole lot or projects a strong off-screen persona. But he knows what his passions are, and he follows them with admirable single-mindedness.

Acting has to be top of the list. But DiCaprio is also a committed environmentalist and political activist. He not only drives a low-emission, fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle, but also has helped to start up a "limo" service ferrying stars to awards ceremonies in similar green-friendly cars. He refuses to fly on private jets, preferring the less wasteful commercial airline option.

He has produced documentary shorts on the challenges of global warming and scarce water resources. And he is close to finishing a full-length documentary called The 11th Hour, which takes a comprehensive look at the world's environmental problems with an array of on-screen talking heads including Stephen Hawking and Mikhail Gorbachev.

As he once said: "You can either be a vain movie star, or you can try to shed some light on different aspects of the human condition." That comment may have a touch of Hollywood pomposity about it. But the fact is, DiCaprio is getting remarkably good at illuminating the human condition - on screen as well as off.

A Life in Brief

BORN Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio, Los Angeles, 11 November 1974.

EDUCATION Centre for Enriched Studies and John Marshall High School, LA.

CAREER At five appeared in the TV show Romper Room. First film role as Josh in Critters 3 (1991). Played Toby in This Boy's Life (1993), co-starring with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. His first Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations came forWhat's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). Starred in Romeo + Juliet (1996),Titanic (1997), The Beach (2000),Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Aviator (2004), right, and new releases The Departed and Blood Diamond (2006).

HE SAYS "The best thing about acting is that I get to lose myself in another character and actually get paid for it. It's a great outlet. As for myself, I'm not sure who I am. It seems that I change every day."

THEY SAY "There's an inner story going on with DiCaprio that somehow I was able to tap into, which is similar to what I feel." Martin Scorsese