Perspective 2: Leonardo DiCaprio

As I wrote recently here on RhettMedia (, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film J. Edgar arrived in the UK and was perhaps one of those poignant reflections of an actor who has risen to a pinnacle above others in Hollywood in that it was heralded with an incredible amount of hype and furore behind it yet ultimately was somewhat of a letdown. This pattern seems to run through DiCaprio’s career, and is the topic for this second edition of Perspective, where I’ll examine the dichotomy of Leo’s runaway hits and his unmitigated misses along his rise to superstardom.

1. Young heartthrob (Romeo and Juliet and Titanic)

Ignoring minor roles as a child and teenage actor, Leo’s big break came through the stylisation of the young man as a romantic and starry-eyed Casanova, becoming a heartthrob for millions of girls with turns as Romeo in the screen modernisation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s megabucks epic Titanic.

Within the context of both films, DiCaprio’s good looks and appeal to the young female demographic act as the driving force behind the success of the film, with the ability evident in the performance of an impressive cast being impervious background noise to an easy-to-digest romance story of the handsome young beau. This establishes the beginning of DiCaprio’s career, where his performance (though competent and decent enough) is essentially unimportant.

Starring in one of the most financially successful films of all time made Leo a household name, yet his performance was often derided and reimagined in numerous parodies. DiCaprio had made it, but was to be seen as a teen icon before a credible actor.


2. Minor Blips (The Beach and Gangs of New York)

Moving into the second stage of DiCaprio’s career, it is clear that having established his name as a leading actor, Leo now needed some credible performances to enhance his standing and maintain his position as a Hollywood star. However, having graduated from teen heartthrob college, DiCaprio took a minor detour by selecting scripts that for all rights and purposes should’ve been hits, but did significant damage to the actor’s growing reputation as a leading man.

The year 2000 saw DiCaprio star in The Beach, a film pretty much universally panned amid an extensive hype campaign surrounding it. Moreover, DiCaprio’s decision to star in the movie ultimately led to a nomination for worst actor at the infamous Razzie award ceremony only to be beaten by an aging John Travolta for his part in a movie widely regarded as one of the worst ever produced. With this, it was clear that DiCaprio’s appeal as a heartthrob was waning, as this facet of his stardom was being outweighed by his subpar performance and his advancing age.

Recognising this, Leo decided to accept a part in Gangs of New York alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in a bid to usher in his maturation as an actor. Amid a cavalcade of media coverage and an avalanche of press excitement, the movie was an acceptable piece of work, nothing more and nothing less. At this time of 2002, a pattern was emerging in DiCaprio’s career; despite all the attention and hype, his films were falling far short of expectations, and if the pattern continued, his star would diminish substantially.


3. Breaking Through (The Aviator and Blood Diamond)

It’s at this stage that it turns around for DiCaprio though, as the amount of success he had achieved and the money he had accrued meant that Leo was his own boss, and he could more carefully select the roles he would play. With a reputation for starring in box office smashes despite critical reviews and being referred to as a bonafide future star for over a decade, Leo was able to take his career to the base level and accept roles that interested and challenged him.

Possibly the most underrated and underappreciated examples of this comes in the form of 2006’s Blood Diamond. Having already received plaudits for his performance in The Aviator a few years prior, DiCaprio’s performance in this movie consolidated his arrival as a big time player in Hollywood. Though The Aviator will probably be looked at as the exact film that saw Leo break through, Blood Diamond showed in no uncertain terms his growth in versatility and self-confidence in his abilities. Adopting a South African accent for the duration of the film, DiCaprio delivers a heart-rending performance that is expertly constructed with a meaningful cadence and depth. At this point of his career in 2006, the death scene of his character in this movie is by far the most powerful and impressive performance Leo had turned out. The fact that this film is so often overlooked is testament to the idea that DiCaprio’s more engaging performances often appears in movies with less spotlight cast upon them.


4. Master of his Craft (Shutter Island and Inception)

Taking this into account into 2010, there’s a shift in DiCaprio’s fortunes. Whereas previously a success would soon be followed by a dud in his career either critically or financially, after Blood Diamond, everything DiCaprio has touched has turned to gold, as can be seen by the phenomenal year he had with the release of both Shutter Island and Inception. Breaking the curse that had followed his career up to this point, both films received an extensive ad campaign but, in contrast to a number of the films mentioned previously in this column, were also substantial critical and financial successes.

Shutter Island is often considered the weaker of the two films, but has such an alluring pace and darkness that is emphasised by the absorbing and fascinating performance of the leading man that it gives its companion a distinct run for its money. With rich, shadowy imagery, a gripping plot line and an actor at the top of his game, Shutter Island is one of those films that despite its reliance on mystery from the audience can be watched repeatedly and still remains utterly engaging.

Add to this the release of smash hit Inception in the same year no less, and it’s very clear that Leonardo has been taking his time to accept the mantle of future star that was bestowed on him so long ago. The summer of 2010 was dominated by this movie and was the only piece of cinema that anyone was talking about for weeks. The complex storyline with a perfect cliff-hanger ending matched up with an astoundingly heartfelt performance by its lead actor meant acclaim, awards and perhaps most importantly money rolled in by the barrelful. 2010 was truly DiCaprio’s year and no-one else’s.


5. What the Future Holds (J. Edgar and Django Unchained)

So, what this little trip down memory lane that me, Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page succinctly incepted from your mind has taught us is that Leo’s career has seen its ups as well as its downs, but more pressingly that the most important part of an actor’s career is sometimes more reliant on script selection than anything else. Imagine if DiCaprio had turned down Inception and then combine that with the thought of Keanu Reeves with his permanently confused face on taking the role instead and think about how different that summer of 2010 would’ve been.

This is important when considering this year, as the recent release of J. Edgar has seen Leo slip back into accepting roles that while challenging, are nowhere near the dizzy heights he reached in 2010. Following the poor performance of the film, it just goes to show that no film is ever a sure-fire hit, and that DiCaprio’s career may be haunted by that curse of overhype that damages so many careers. Let’s hope a collaboration with super-director Quentin Tarantino and a turn as a villainous slave-owner at the end of the year beats the pattern that has followed DiCaprio, as the hype machine is sure to be hitting overdrive by the time the trailer reaches our screens.



~ by jrhett on February 6, 2012.

3 Responses to “Perspective 2: Leonardo DiCaprio”

  1. I absolutely loved Di Caprio’s performance in Blood Diamond and agree with you wholeheartedly. That and Clive Owen’s performance in Children of Men are easily two of the most under-appreciated roles of the past decade. The way Di Caprio portrays that struggle to do the right thing, questioning his morale compass whilst remaining a complete badass at the same time is exceptional. The ending is so damn emotional!

    • Absolutely, given the major films he’s been in, it’s astonishing how overlooked Blood Diamond really is. It’s this film that Leo learnt how to portray a character that knows how flawed he is, a role that brought him critical acclaim years later in Inception. Thanks for reading.

  2. […] takes helm of troubled ‘blood diamond’ monitor ( 2: Leonardo DiCaprio ( Hounsou: Shirtless in St. Bart’s ( […]

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