Charmed life of Leonardo DiCaprio - will he finally be accepted as a serious actor?
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
If, as seems likely, Leonardo DiCaprio is awarded an Oscar for his work on The Revenant, he'll be an exceedingly popular winner. People like the man, and feel he's been hard done by awards-wise in recent years. Nominated three times for the Best Actor Oscar, and once for Best Supporting Actor, he's been pipped at the post every time, and the suspicion remains that some critics and industry insiders have never quite accepted him as a serious actor.
This is no doubt due to the fact that DiCaprio is a former child actor who became a teen pin-up after starring in Titanic. That whiff of bubblegum celebrity has never quite left him, fuelled to some extent by his amorous adventures with the world's top models. But Leo has always detested the glare of publicity, and once even went so far as to throw horse manure at the Italian paparazzi. Fame has never interested him, and he tolerates it solely so he can continue doing the thing he really loves - film acting.
Over the last decade or so, he's developed into an accomplished and compelling screen performer, and while films like The Departed, Inception and Wolf of Wall Street have caught the headlines, he's often been as good or better in less successful projects, like Sam Mendes' underrated 2008 drama Revolutionary Road. He's a canny chooser of scripts, and hardly ever appears in a bad film.
His latest, Alejandro G Inarritu's epic western survival story, The Revenant, has pushed DiCaprio in ways he's never been pushed before (see below, but as usual, he's risen brilliantly to the task. So just how good is he?
His friend and mentor Martin Scorsese reckons Leo is among the very best there've been. "He reminds me of that excitement when De Niro and I stumbled upon a way of working together," he has said. "Leo will give me the emotion where I least expect it and could only hope for in about three or four scenes. And he can do it take after take."
Scorsese has been crucial to his success, and provided DiCaprio with a string of juicy roles that have helped transform him from a callow juvenile into a versatile character actor who's often compared to the great De Niro in his prime. And it's hard to begrudge him his glittering career given his far from ideal start in life.
Success was not handed to Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio on a plate. His parents split up within a year of his birth in 1974, and he was raised by his German-born mother in some of Los Angeles' dingier neighbourhoods. She worked two jobs to keep them afloat, and by the time he was four, the cherub-faced Leo was contributing financially by acting in TV commercials and educational films. I love the story about him getting thrown off the set of a kids' TV series called Romper Room for being disruptive, but by his early teens, he was a seasoned campaigner, and went from Matchbox car ads to acting roles in TV shows like Parenthood and Roseanne.
He had something, it was obvious, but his film début almost ended his career before it had begun. In Critters 3, he played the stepson of an evil landlord, but the film was so bad it went straight to video. Things looked up a little when he was given a recurring role as a homeless boy in the ABC sitcom Growing Pains, and then came the slice of luck that really got him started.
In 1992, he was one of 400 young actors who auditioned for a part in Michael Caton-Jone's drama This Boy's Life. Robert De Niro was starring in the film as a sinister stepfather, and chose DiCaprio to play his stepson because he saw something unusual in him. Critics acclaimed what they described as his "breakout performance", and after that, there was no looking back.
He earned his first Oscar nomination playing Johnny Depp's troubled younger brother in Lasse Hallstrom's 1993 drama What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and when River Phoenix died just before filming on Sam Raimi's western The Quick and the Dead (1995) began, DiCaprio was cast instead. He was good in that, excellent in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Shakespearan action film Romeo + Juliet. Then came Titanic.
DiCaprio was not initially all that keen when James Cameron considered him for the starring role of Jack Dawson, a roving pauper who falls in love with Kate Winslet's society heiress. Young Leo baulked at the script's overweening sentiment, and when he arrived on set to read through a romantic scene, his attitude was not impressive.
"He read it once," Cameron remembered later, "then started goofing around, and I could never get him to focus on it again. But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest…"
The director knew DiCaprio would be brilliant if he could be persuaded to cooperate, and eventually, he did.
Titanic's record-breaking success changed everything for the actor, who became a global superstar and teen heartthrob overnight. But the experience was not a uniformly positive one.
When I interviewed him a couple of years back, DiCaprio shook his head as he recalled the madness of that time.
"It was a bizarre experience," he said. "I mean, anyone who has a microscope put on them at a young age like that, whose every move is put in a newspaper and who has no private life, it is completely disconcerting and surreal. If you want to be 23 years old and have fun with your friends, you're judged for that.
"But there's a tremendous amount of real human suffering going on in the world that makes me feel so incredibly narcissistic and shallow even talking about that. Do I like to be recognised everywhere I go? No, it's not the most fun thing," he admitted with a smile. "But, ultimately, I am getting to do what I love."
But in the aftermath of Titanic, DiCaprio struggled to prove there was more to him than a very pretty face. His performances as a foppish Louis XIV in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and a thrill-seeking American tourist in The Beach (2000) were derided as stiff and one dimensional, and prompted some critics to dismiss him as a lightweight. But in Steven Spielberg's 2002 crime drama Catch Me If You Can, we were given a tantalising glimpse of the actor Leo would soon become. He was note perfect playing Frank Abagnale Jr, a daring teenage confidence trickster who leads FBI man Tom Hanks on a merry chase.
More importantly, however, 2002 was also the year when DiCaprio first worked with Martin Scorsese. Leo's solid work on the period drama Gangs of New York was overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis's eye-catching portrayal of a 19th century sociopath, but it was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.
In 2005, DiCaprio earned his second Oscar nomination playing reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in Scorsese's lavish biopic The Aviator. Naysayers were surprised by the depth and complexity of that performance, but still better was to follow in The Departed.
Scorsese's 2006 remake of the Hong Kong classic Internal Affairs was set in Boston and starred DiCaprio as a young undercover cop who infiltrates the vicious gang of Irish mobster Frank Costello. Jack Nicholson played that colourful villain, and has blown many a fine actor off the screen over the years with his high-voltage histrionics. But the maturing Leo had filled out into an intimidating screen presence, and could hold his own against anyone.
His most recent Oscar nomination was in 2013, in Martin Scorsese's baroque financial biopic Wolf of Wall Street, though I thought he was better in Shutter Island, Scorsese's 2010 psychological noir thriller starring Leo as a Boston cop with serious mental health issues.
There've been other fine performances for other directors of course: his memorable portrayal of J Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's otherwise dull biopic; his work with Edward Zwick on Blood Diamond; and his superb turn as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann's exuberant adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel. But it's his films with Scorsese that has defined DiCaprio as a mature actor, and the good news is they're about to work together again in Devil in the White City, a film based on the exploits of a late 19th century Chicago serial killer.
When I talked to DiCaprio he called Scorsese "the consummate film-maker of our time", and explained that "there is a kind of shorthand between us at this stage - it's really just a trust, and a shared taste. We really do share the same feeling about what type of movies we want to make. I'm a lucky guy."
Trials of a mountain man
Alejandro G Inarritu's western epic The Revenant has been warmly reviewed and seems certain to figure strongly in the awards season, but making it, apparently, was not a lot of fun. It's inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass, a legendary frontier trapper who was attacked by a bear in South Dakota. Left to die by two associates, he somehow survived and crawled out of the wilds to hunt them down. Development was long and troubled, and Christian Bale and director John Hillcoat were due to make it before Inarritu and Leo DiCaprio took over.
Inarritu, who used natural light wherever possible, filmed his epic in 12 different locations across Canada, the US and Argentina in the depths of winter. His gruelling shoot has been described by some as a "living hell", with actors regularly subjected to freezing temperatures, and many crew members either quitting or being fired. DiCaprio himself has said that "I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were among the most difficult things I've ever had to do. Whether it's going in and out of frozen rivers, sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set". He also talked of "enduring freezing cold and possibly hypothermia constantly". Let's hope it was all worth it.