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DiCaprio, Leonardo

DiCAPRIO, Leonardo


Nationality: American. Born: Hollywood, California, 11 November 1974; son of comic-book artist George DiCaprio. Education: Attended Seeds University Elementary School at the University of California, Los Angeles; Center for Enriched Studies, Los Angeles; John Marshall High School, Los Feliz. Career: Began making commercials and first TV appearances, 1988; roles in TV series Santa Barbara and Parenthood, 1990; more recognition for TV series Growing Pains; critical acclaim for co-starring film roles in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993. Awards: National Board of Review, Best Supporting Actor, for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993; Berlin International Film Festival, Best Actor, for Romeo + Juliet, 1997. Agent: Artists Management Group, 9465 Wiltshire Ave., Suite 519, Beverly Hills, California, 90212, U.S.A.


Films as Actor:

1991

Critters 3 (Peterson) (as Josh)

1992

Poison Ivy (Shea) (as Guy)

1993

This Boy's Life (Caton-Jones) (as Toby); What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Hallstrom) (as Arnie)

1994

The Foot Shooting Party (Haywood-Carter) (short)

1995

Les Cent et une nuits (Varda) (cameo); The Quick and the Dead (Raimi) (as The Kid); The Basketball Diaries (Kalvert) (as Jim Carroll); Total Eclipse (Holland) (as Arthur Rimbaud); Don's Plum (Robb—unreleased in North America) (as Derek)

1996

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (Luhrmann) (as Romeo)

1997

Titanic (Cameron) (as Jack Dawson)

1998

The Man in the Iron Mask (Wallace) (as Louis XIV and Philippe); Celebrity (Allen) (as Brandon Darrow)

2000

The Beach (Boyle) (as Richard)

2001

The Gangs of New York (Scorsese) (as Amsterdam Vallon)



Publications


By DICAPRIO: articles—

Interview with Ingrid Sischy, in Interview (New York), 24 June 1994.

Interview with Chris Mundy, in Rolling Stone (New York), 2 March 2000.


On DICAPRIO: books—

Bego, Mark, Leonardo DiCaprio, Romantic Hero, Kansas City, 1998.

Krulik, Nancy, Leonardo DiCaprio: A Biography, New York, 1998.

Thompson, Douglas, Leonardo DiCaprio, New York, 1999.


On DICAPRIO: articles—

MacFarquhar, Larissa, "This Is How to Be a Young Actor," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), November 1995.

"DiCaprio, Leonardo," in Current Biography (New York), March 1997.

Weintraub, Bernard, "DiCaprio, Charismatic Star, Balks at the Idol Image," in New York Times, 16 March 1998.

Stein, Joel, "What's Eating Leonardo DiCaprio," in Time (New York), 21 February 2000.


* * *

Leonardo DiCaprio is in the curious—and not altogether enviable—situation of a young performer aspiring to do thorny, unconventional films but finding himself labeled a teen heartthrob with a $20 million-a-film price tag. Following his first critical successes in 1993 the responses to his work have often seemed to occupy no middle ground between the idolatry of teenage girls and the disdain of critics for whom the actor has, since 1995, simply played "a variation of the same character: an unformed, slightly androgynous, volatile youth who looks and acts more like 15 than 25." And every new choice of a part is now scrutinized by the media as a major indicator of the spirit of our times, rather than simply an actor's testing himself with a new challenge.

Rather suddenly, after good notices for television roles and a couple of minor film appearances, DiCaprio achieved major success in two films of 1993. As a teen rebel in This Boy's Life he held his own against Robert de Niro's creepy, brutal stepfather, and in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, as the impish but mentally impaired younger brother of the title character, he was the perfect foil to a brooding Johnny Depp. From the opening moments of This Boy's Life, where he seems to be around 14 (but was in fact nearly 18), DiCaprio has the right look for an all-American boy, with his slightly plump, slightly squished-in face and naughty good humor. As his character ages several years (with a bit of help from haircuts that range from 1950s hoodlum to 1950s military and back again) he reacts to his mother's ghastly boyfriend, later husband, in a variety of convincing ways, from grinning mockery, disgust, and sheer incredulity to several degrees of fury. Only in an anguished drunken speech to some delinquent friends does one feel that DiCaprio is being asked unfairly to do a James Dean scene that he can't quite bring off. In Gilbert Grape, however, there is never a break in character: with his mischievous look and ungainly walk, disturbing peals of laughter and slightly braying voice, DiCaprio creates a plausible and touching character—a sort of Peter Pan caged in a young man's body—rather than assembling a mere collection of gestures.

DiCaprio's early success led him to starring roles in 1995 that were daring choices but in some respects beyond his scope, or at least vocal skills. His continued boyish appearance allowed him at 20 to play two real-life teenage writers, Arthur Rimbaud, and a would-be American counterpart, the heroin-addicted diarist Jim Carroll. But his California intonations (and perhaps lack of professional training) keep him from seeming to be a New York street kid in The Basketball Diaries. He does throw himself with impressive abandon into the heroin-withdrawal scenes, but in less intense moments has a tendency to rely upon an all-purpose scowl. In Total Eclipse he calls to mind a famous photo of the historical Rimbaud, but the flatness of many of his line readings (as when the poet-prodigy breezily remarks, "I decided to originate the future") make him an unlikely revolutionary. Moreover, his facial expressions and body language identify him as altogether American, and thus incongruous with both the largely French supporting cast and the very British (and dazzlingly complex) performance of David Thewlis as a repellent, fascinating Verlaine.

DiCaprio's lack of professional training may have been even more a liability when he later played another historical Frenchman, Louis XIV, in The Man in the Iron Mask. The dual role of the villainous king and his victimized twin calls for a bravura performance in a classic Hollywood style, but Louis' aristocratic arrogance seems far beyond DiCaprio's range: when required to speak lines like "It is good that you watch me, D'Artagnan, but I fear that you watch me too closely," or (to a woman who has rejected his advances), "You would choose a soldier—a soldier who has not yet proposed—to a king?" he sounds precisely like an American boy in a high school theatrical. At least, as the good Philippe, he looks truly dazed and shaken when the fearsome mask is removed, and his Philippe masquerading as the King does seem like someone nervously, unconvincingly pretending to be haughty.

One might have thought DiCaprio not ready for Shakespeare either, but in fact he is ideally cast in Baz Luhrmann's extravagant postmodern take on Romeo and Juliet. The camera seems as much in love with DiCaprio's face as with that of Juliet, Claire Danes; his tousled hair and gangly body, perfectly suited to his loose-hanging costumes, seem all of a piece with the youthful intensity of his performance. First seeing Juliet at the ball, this Romeo is not so much enraptured as purely delighted and astonished, while managing to send teasing glances toward the Capulet girl. Later, his hysterical rage at Tybalt and shock at the latter's death by his hand are powerfully registered; to be sure, his subsequent outburst to Father Lawrence may sound like teenage whining ("Banished! Be merciful, say death!"), but it is wholly consistent with the film's vision of contemporary youth. (Lawrence's rejoinder—"I thought thy disposition better-tempered!"—would have been welcome at more than one moment in those precocious-artist films.)

As for the role that made him much more a Hollywood star than he was already, his working-class artist Jack Dawson in Titanic is again exactly what the part calls for: appropriately tough and gleeful in the poker scene; plain-talking with a slight overtone of humor (a little in the style of the young Henry Fonda) when he convinces Rose not to commit suicide; amusingly out of his element in white tie and tails but plenty confident talking to the swells at the dinner table; ardent yet never out of control in his romantic scenes. Overall he is dashing but not campily so, in a role that is a pure throwback to the 1930s and 1940s: the down-to-earth American up against the snooty aristocrats.

After a sort of guest appearance in Woody Allen's Celebrity, where he was suitably obnoxious as a jaded movie idol, DiCaprio chose for his first major role following Titanic superfame the part of a young American traveler searching for the perfect beach in Thailand, finding it, and then not so much descending into madness as wallowing in his own shallowness. It is difficult to draw a simple conclusion about DiCaprio's performance in The Beach: the role calls for copious displays of youthful irrationality, narcissism, and disillusionment similar to those of Ewan McGregor in the same director's Trainspotting, but without heroin addiction as a motivation for the displays, and against a backdrop not of gritty realism but of movie fantasy, a realm halfway between Lost Horizon and Apocalypse Now. DiCaprio unquestionably has charisma enough to hold the screen, and is at first convincing as a full-of-himself but dreamy young man right out of MTV's The Real World. But in later scenes, when a few days alone at a jungle lookout turn his character with utter implausibility into Captain Willard about to dispatch Kurtz, followed by several more histrionic shifts, DiCaprio cannot find any coherence in the part—he just manages to be intense in whatever way the script requires for the moment.

It is of course impossible to predict what course DiCaprio's career might take once he can no longer play impetuous or bratty youths, but one can certainly hope for a risk-taking character actor rather than a conventional leading man.

—Joseph Milicia

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