From golden boy to Wolf, Ed Power reflects on DiCaprio's career thus far... On a role: Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfont and inset, in 1997
The beautiful boy is all grown up. Those famously feminine cheekbones long since subsumed into his meaty slab of a face, the delicate fringe dispatched to the graveyard of iconic hair-cuts, Leonardo DiCaprio today inhabits a singular role in Hollywood: the heartthrob who chose to be something else. A pouting poster-child no more, he has matured into one of the industry's most fascinating -- and, in his own demure fashion, unpredictable -- talents.
As his hard-charging, profanity-studded turn in Martin Scorsese's Wolf Of Wall Street demonstrates, the dreamiest of dreamboats -- now a well built 39-year-old with a hint of jowliness -- continues to purposefully stride away from the mainstream. Turning his back on blockbuster roles (he said 'no' to Spiderman, Alexander, The Matrix and Star Wars: Attack of The Clones), DiCaprio has instead embraced a seemingly endless series of idiosyncratic parts. In the process he's carried off an unlikely reinvention, forcing the world to take him seriously as a screen presence.
DiCaprio, freshly minted with a Golden Globe for Wolf of Wall Street, isn't the only actor of his calibre to chose such a route, of course. It is, in fact, increasingly commonplace. The occasional zombie romp aside, Brad Pitt exists entirely outside the realm of commercial cinema as does George Clooney who, you suspect, would merrily live out his days never hearing the words 'Ocean's' and 'Eleven' again. The difference is that those stars have a second calling as gossip magazine fixtures: Pitt is the wearier half of Brangelina, Clooney appears to have devoted the past decade-and-a-half to dating a variation on the same big-eyed, half-his-age glamour-puss.
DiCaprio, in contrast, has cultivated a very old-fashioned air of enigma -- the sort Clark Gable and Jack Nicholson emanated back when we liked our movie stars with a dash of mystery. We understand, in the abstract, that he has a reasonably busy love-life and, judging by the images a swift Google search spews up, a fondness for leggy hayseeds. But he doesn't come fully alive as an object of tabloid fascination. It isn't that we do not believe Leo dates gorgeous ladies or likes to party; it's that we are more interested in watching him work than play -- and how many a-listers can you say that for?
In Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio lights up the screen with a ceaseless fusillade of f-bombs and random other expletives. He plays Jordan Belfort a real-life sleaze who, by trading in essentially worthless stock, hoodwinked thousands out of their savings, proceeds he merrily blew on cocaine, hookers, private jets and sundry depravities (this is one of those movies where people literally and non-ironically snort coke off bare-chested women).
The role requires a degree of scenery chewing -- Belfort lives to party, even as his ill-gotten empire starts to crumble -- and, in the hands of another actor, you imagine the film descending into eye-rolling overkill. DiCaprio, however, charms his way through Scorsese's mine-field of decadence, nailing Belfort's slippery irascibility by leaning away from the part. He doesn't sweat his way through the performance, character actor style, and Wolf of Wall Street is all the richer for it.
This, it is fair to state, is quite the turnaround. When Romeo + Juliet and Titanic conspired to make him an uber-star circa 1997, it was reasonable to wonder whether DiCaprio truly had what was required to stay at the top. His looks were a distraction, seeming to get in the way of his acting, (he had a smile that suggested "he'd go down on you for a tenner" quipped UK critic Matthew Sweet, reviewing Titanic). You imagined a swift rise, followed by a long inglorious fall (descent which had appeared to happen almost straight away with baroque folly The Man In The Iron Mask).
Nor did he appreciate the global teen following swooning at his feet: famous people are always grumbling about celebrity but, by all accounts, DiCaprio genuinely found it a burden. That isn't to say that DiCaprio hasn't appreciated the perks of mega-celebrity. Through the late 90s, he and his entourage of friends and admirers were, in fact, rather notorious. A New York magazine piece from 1998 dubbed Leo's crew "the pussy posse"; accounts suggest DiCaprio, a red-blooded 23-year-old with the world at his beckoning, was determined to enjoy the upside of mega super-fame -- albeit on his own, lime light adverse, terms.
With bros such as Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas in tow -- like DiCaprio former child actors raised inside the Hollywood bubble -- it was reported that he'd routinely hit up half a dozen nightclubs in an evening. There were girls -- of course there were girls -- but what DiCaprio really seemed to enjoy was the true bromance of it all. He and his entourage ran close -- maybe, surrounded by so many other young thesps, he was able to briefly convince himself he was just like everyone else. No matter how rigorously he partied, however, he always kept his gaze locked on the future. In trying to extract himself from the shackles of stardom, DiCaprio demonstrated tremendous judgment: following the craziness of Titanic, and having completed Iron Mask, he consciously stepped away from the movies for a several years. He wanted to be an actor, not a star.
"I took some time off after Titanic because I needed to let the dust settle, and recharge my battery," he said, promoting Body of Lies in 2009. "I felt, 'OK, you've been given a tremendous opportunity, what are you going to do with it? Now your name can finance movies that you do want to do.' That wasn't something that I wanted to squander. I wanted to wait until I felt I could... contribute something."
If DiCaprio is hoping for Wolf Of Wall Street to clean up at the Oscars, he may be disappointed. As the Golden Globes win attests, the movie has its fans but critics are generally turned off by its perceived gaucheness. Set aside the free-wheeling, the f-bombs, the popping champagne corks and it seems an open question if it really has anything worthwhile to say. Then, DiCaprio probably isn't getting his Academy Award hopes up anyway. He's been overlooked a number of times already and appears at peace with that. He doesn't wish to be like other movie stars and that apparently extends to not coveting a trove of mantel piece adornments.
"I am not feverishly hunting one down," he said in 2009. "I am trying to do the best work I possibly can and making movies that will have resonance for years to come. I think if you try for an Oscar or a goal like that, the more people are going to see it as transparent. It's not on my radar. If it happens, great, but I'm happy to continue working as I am."
- Wolf of Wall Street is released today.