Leonardo DiCaprio turned 40 Nov. 11. Let that sink in for a second while we remember how old we were when we saw “Titanic” (it came out in 1997, if that helps). Here are 10 memorable Leonardo DiCaprio performances besides Jack Dawson, the character he played in “Titanic” — still a pretty cool movie.
Sources: imdb.com, suntimes.com
After his film debut at age 17 in “Critters 3” came Leonardo’s pivotal TV role as the adopted Luke Brower in “Growing Pains,” and then came a film that landed him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. An early, long-haired Johnny Depp played Gilbert Grape, the sullen, over-dedicated son of obese Bonnie Grape and older brother of the mentally challenged Arnie Grape. DiCaprio’s now-historic performance is brilliant because he manages to show how heartwarming and spirited Arnie is while also displaying how much of a burden he is to care for.
At 21, DiCaprio had to pull off playing the wild, innovative poet Arthur Rimbaud in a role originally meant for the more kinetically-wired actor River Phoenix. When Phoenix died, DiCaprio delved into the 19th century French poet’s obnoxious lifestyle, especially through his relationship with the older, more established poet Paul Verlaine (played by David Thewlis), who received (as the story goes) “a letter from the provinces containing eight extraordinary poems by one Arthur Rimbaud.” The nudity, the drinking, the brazen sexuality, the characters who are actually not that nice — it was an indie flick in the early days of indie flicks, when brave actors like DiCaprio took chances on art instead of commerce.
“Marvin’s Room” garnered an Oscar nomination for Diane Keaton as Bessie, who needs a bone-marrow transplant. Keaton played the conservative sister to wayward Lee (Meryl Streep) who comes to pick up her troubled son Hank (DiCaprio) from a mental institution to see if his bone marrow is a match with Bessie, who’s dying from leukemia. Family matters are the theme of this film, par for the course for most mid-’90s comedy/dramas. If you want to see a pyromaniacal DiCaprio next to a wheelchair-bound Keaton, and a whacky, cosmetologist Streep, dust off the old VHS of “Marvin’s Room.”
“Celebrity” is a Woody Allen flick that fell through the cracks, perhaps because its attitude is as cynical as one of its central characters, Brandon Darrow, played by diCaprio. He plays a stringy-haired, asinine version of a fill-in-the-blank petulant celebrity — perhaps the most spoiled, hard-partying, hotel room-destroying movie-star jerk in existence. It’s a short and fiery performance not to be missed.
Suddenly, Leo the cut-out tween heartthrob was a gentleman. “Catch me if you Can” (2002) and “Gangs of New York” (2002) were both great leading roles, but Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, ambitious Howard Hughes biopic demanded an extraordinary leap by DiCaprio. There’s not a false note: the brilliant ravings, the visions of futuristic air travel, the paranoia, the womanizing, the agoraphobia and, finally, the way a semi-lunatic can make a mark on civilization. Katharine Hepburn, played by Cate Blanchett, said, “There’s too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes,” and indeed, DiCaprio’s performance is impossible to calculate, which is the way it should be when you’re a talent playing a genius.
He received his third Oscar nomination in 2006 for playing gruff in “Blood Diamond,” but the complexity of his performance in his third and arguably most-successful venture with Martin Scorsese was perhaps a greater feat. The Irish ex-prisoner Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is hired by the FBI to go undercover and help weaken the network of Frank Costigan’s (a delightfully sinister Jack Nicholson) vicious South Boston Irish mafia. The audience is wrung thin over two hours of cat-and-mouse between DiCaprio and Matt Damon’s not-so-golden-boy state policeman, and by Leo’s innards being figuratively torn apart from guilt, deceit, and fear. A great film!
This film is not so easy to watch, and mysteriously escaped Oscar voters’ short-term memories. Kate Winslet won that year for “The Reader.” Frank and April Wheeler’s nuclear family falls apart within the walls of their magazine feature-worthy suburban Connecticut house. The two great “Titanic” actors are reunited to take us through quite an exercise. As they scream, break plates, and hurt each other while their dreams are being shattered, we cannot help but marvel how brilliantly they do it.
Round four of five for Leo and Martin Scorcese. This one is creepy-crawly, and DiCaprio has proven by now that he can do anything. He plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who takes a choppy boat ride to the ghostly Shutter Island off the coast of Boston in 1954. He is investigating the disappearance of a child murderess from the lone building on the rock-craggy island, an old prison for the criminally insane. As we dive down into the horror-film rabbit hole, we start to see a trend in DiCaprio’s incarnations: a man more like a caged animal, intelligent but haunted with the demons of his past, brilliant and on a mission, but violent with his own tortured soul.
What’s in a dream? Secrets, that’s what. Cobb steals secrets of important people who can make billions for the greedy villains of the world. When Cobb’s skills as a dream thief turn him into a fugitive, the chase is on. Christopher Nolan’s film is visionary, mind bending, an orchestra of feelings and images which bend into each other, a depiction of our world turned upside down. And DiCaprio is intense and vulnerable, giving us breakneck action and intimacy simultaneously. The scenes with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are especially dark.
The critics did not like this version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and frankly, it’s only worth watching for DiCaprio. He can make everything happen while also remaining quite stolid. Leo is our generation’s Jay Gatsby. Amidst the eye-rolling liberties director Baz Luhrmann takes with this movie, at its center is the heartbroken Gatsby, run down by the love of that damned Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Get the girl, DiCaprio. Oh, and in case you didn’t, you should have seen the drug-addled masterwork of his performance in this year’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s a must.