Indulging in Leo-mania: Exploring Leonardo DiCaprio’s remarkable Hollywood domination
“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully people will watch my movies.” – Leonardo DiCaprio
Enigmatic and charming, Leonardo DiCaprio’s presence on-screen is iconic and sublime. One might easily run out of words to describe this stellar performer. DiCaprio was born in Los Angeles, California, on November 11, 1974, to Irmelin and George DiCaprio. Enjoying what can be labelled as a “counterculture childhood” as his parents were “bohemian in every sense of word”, DiCaprio often described himself as Nick Carraway (the character that Toby Maguire played alongside him in The Great Gatsby), because as a child, he was “living so close to the entertainment industry yet feeling so far from it at the same time”.
DiCaprio attended Seeds Elementary School and then John Marshall High School before attending the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies for four years, of which he dropped out in his third year due to his disdain for schooling and growing love for acting. He has also admitted having chosen acting as he wanted to earn money as quickly as possible. “I was always wondering how we were going to afford this and that,” he once commented. “Acting seemed to be a shortcut out of the mess…I’m completely indebted to them in every single way.” He credits his love for movies as well as his burgeoning career to his parents who fulfilled his every request and took him to various auditions without hesitation. “I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for her, both my parents. She supported this little kid who said, ‘I want to be an actor,’ at 12-years-old, which is ridiculous, and she drove me to all these auditions. She’s the only reason I’m able to do what I do.” His father had pointed out Robert DeNiro to young Leo, urging him to watch closely because “this is what great acting looks like”. A few years later, DiCaprio would find himself starring opposite DeNiro in The Boys’ Life. DeNiro allegedly, on seeing Leo’s audition tapes, went on to say, “I like the blonde kid. He’s quite good”.
Thankfully for Hollywood, Leo decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor; this interest was fuelled by the applause he received as a performer on stage. That said, in 1979, he was removed from the set of Romper Room for “being too disruptive”. However, not deterred by the minor setback, he began appearing in several commercials by the time he turned 14, some of which included ‘Matchbox cars by Mattel’, ‘Kraft Foods’, ‘Bubble Yum’, ‘Apple Jacks’ and more. Later, he played the role of Glen in The New Lassie for two episodes.
While having difficulty finding an agent and getting rejected at more than 100 auditions, Leo grew increasingly disillusioned and, at one point, considered giving up his passion as the road to the big screen seemed a frustratingly long one. The agents wanted him to change his name to something slightly trendier, but Leo would not have it that way. His father encouraged him relentlessly by saying, “Go out there, son, and whatever you do, I don’t care if you’re successful or not, just have an interesting life”, a message which stayed with him.
DiCaprio became a regular on television by the early 1990s, starring in an episode or two of The Outsiders, Santa Barbara and others. His breakthrough role, however, was the role of Gary Buckman, a troubled teen, in The Parenthood. The actor, who was quite observant from an early age, reportedly paid close attention to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the film the series had been adapted from. This role earned him nominations at the 12th Youth Awards.
Despite some promise, 1991 was a tough year for young DiCaprio and he was heavily criticised for his role as the stepson of a vile landlord in a low-budget horror film Critters 3. He was described as “your average, no-depth, standard kid with blond hair”. Legend has it that this film taught DiCaprio a valuable lifelong lesson and, even now, he does not accept scripts that do not resonate with him. He has been quoted saying “[Critters 3 is] possibly one of the worst films of all time. I guess it was a good example to look back and make sure it doesn’t happen again”.
DiCaprio had been hand-picked by Robert DeNiro out of 400 boys. In The Boy’s Life, the veteran actor played Leo’s stepfather and acted as his mentor on sets as well. Young and mischievous, Leo did not know how to behave on a major production and had to be strictly monitored. However, with a stringent scheduled, DiCaprio’s role as the stepson earned him praise for his character growth; “a wide-eyed son to a rebellious greaser to an independent, sensitive young man”. Following his effort in This Boy’s Life, he received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as a mentally impaired boy and Johnny Depp’s brother in the brilliant 1993 film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Leo’s portrayal of Arnie Grape was phenomenal; he made “Arnie’s many tics so startling and vivid that at first, he is difficult to watch”. His sharp and intense performance “made the raw, emotional neediness of those boys completely natural and powerful”. As Arnie Grape, Leo’s innocence and emotional sensitivity to the character helped deliver a tear-jerking performance.
Before earning his big break, however, he starred alongside well-known actors such as Sharon Stone and David Thewlis in films like The Quick and the Dead, Total Eclipse and others. Furthermore, the actor received an honorary mention for his role as Hank in Marvin’s Room, alongside Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton; Leo being “deeply-gifted”, managed to shine through even beside such extraordinary performers.
By 1997 the foundations of Leonardo DiCaprio’s burgeoning career had been firmly established. However, James Cameron and his blockbuster film Titanic arrived to catapult DiCaprio to superstardom and he has not had to look back ever since. The actor, who was initially doubtful about playing the role of Jack Dawson, a self-sacrificing, young, impoverished artist, believed there were no complexities in Jack’s character. It took a lot of convincing on his producer, Rae Sanchini, and co-star Kate Winslet’s part to make him take up the role. Kate Winslet has said, “I was thinking, I’m going to persuade him to do this, because I’m not doing this without him, and that’s all there is to it. I will have him.’ Because he is fucking brilliant. He’s a fucking genius, and that’s absolutely why.” Thus began a beautiful relationship between the duo who continue to be close friends even today.
Titanic emerged as the highest-grossing film, solidifying its presence as a Hollywood box office smash and turned DiCaprio into a superstar and teenage heartthrob overnight. What followed was the crazy ‘Leo-mania’, and Leonardo amassed millions of fans worldwide with his moving portrayal of the lovesick Jack Dawson. Unfortunately, he did not win the Oscar for his performance and thus began the saga of Leo’s hard luck at the Academy Awards. However, he was floored by all the attention and love that was showered on him. “I have no connection with me during that whole Titanic phenomenon and what my face became around the world […] I’ll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don’t expect to. It’s not something I’m going to try to achieve either.”
Following a few unsuccessful commercial stints, in 2002, he finally landed two hit features in Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York; the latter marked the beginning of his association with Martin Scorsese. Leo later went on to become Scorsese’s blue-eyed boy (literally) and starred in many successful feature films. He was praised for his “breezy and charming nature” which could be “delightfully persuasive, deceptive, flirtatious and sometimes tragic”.
Hollywood’s humble and down-to-earth ‘it’ boy has been Scorsese’s “perfect muse”. Recommended to him by DeNiro as “impressive”, the director cast him in his films and has been thanked by DiCaprio numerous times for teaching him “about the cinematic art form”. Marty gushed over Leo’s brilliance by saying, “A key thing about Leo — and I always tell him this — is he’s a natural screen actor. He could have been in silent films. It’s the look on his face, the look in his eyes. He doesn’t have to say anything. It just reads, and you can connect with him. Not everybody is like that.” He further said that Leo was responsible for restoring his “movie mojo”.
DiCaprio has enjoyed a wonderful career to date, one which has seen him collaborate with legendary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and more, delivering incredible performances with every passing movie. While he keeps getting bigger and better and cannot be pigeonholed into a particular genre, his emotionally complex and explosive roles are scattered all over the spectrum; starting from playing a scallywag to a notorious gangster, from a vicious plantation owner to a lovesick billionaire, from a fraudster stockbroker to a dream-thief, to a mentally impaired adorable young brother to a fading Hollywood star; Leo has done it all (although, I would say that he definitely has a knack for playing fraudulent billionaires).
Leonardo DiCaprio is not a classic American method-actor; he does not use anecdotes from a character’s personal life. He has certain groundbreaking ideas and mysterious tricks up his sleeve which often leaves the director spellbound. The actor has ruled the hearts of the audience for decades with his boyish charm and exquisite mastery over his craft. However, as compensation, Leo has had to give up his ‘award-winning luck’. 2016 proved to be a curse-breaker for him, as he finally won the Academy Award for his brilliance and resilience in the film The Revenant, after being nominated for the sixth time. Cheered on by the audience, Leo’s win was the most desirable. It would have been a shame had he not won the much-coveted Oscar for, like Hugh Glass, he showed unwavering courage and determination while preparing for the film; despite being a vegetarian, he went to the extent of consuming an actual raw liver to add realism to the film. Leo’s gut-wrenching portrayal of a helpless man surviving by virtue of his will to live made him stand out from the rest. “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do”, he was quoted saying, “whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. I was enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.”
As an environmentalist and philanthropist, his acceptance speech included his growing concerns about climate change, and he concluded his speech by saying, “Let us not take this planet for granted, I do not take tonight for granted”, which received thunderous applause from the audience and offered the greatest insight into his desire that grows much further than cinematic achievement.
In his initial years, DiCaprio has been vehemently criticised for being “a Hollywood everyman”. However, within the last two decades of his career, by dint of merit and perseverance, he has curated a brand “of excellence”. Tarantino, who is always praising his long-time friend, compared Leo’s limited presence in multiplexes to that of Dwayne Johnson and the like, by saying, “One of the things I like about Leo is he just doesn’t plug himself into two movies a year…he kind of stands alone today, like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro was in the ’70s, where they weren’t trying to do two movies a year — they could do anything they wanted, and they wanted to do this. So that means this must be pretty good.” Its praise from Tarantino, of course, which may go to explain why Leo played the role of Rick Dalton, a Hollywood star with his career and beauty fading, in Tarantino’s acclaimed film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Fans are waiting eagerly for Leonardo DiCaprio’s next film, Killers of the Flower Moon at Paramount, which is yet another Scorsese-DiCaprio combo. The film is supposedly about the FBI investigations regarding the Oklahoma murders in the 1920s which allegedly had underlying ties to oil deposits. In tandem, he will be starring in Adam McKay’s Netflix comedy Don’t Look Up featuring an ensemble cast including Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Kid Cudi, Matthew Perry and Ariana Grande; however, the production of the film has been delayed due to the ongoing pandemic.
Loved and adored by all, Leo has found his tribe at Hollywood which includes A-listers Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, Jonah Hill, Luka Haas, Kevin Connolly, Tobey Maguire, Armie Hammer, Bradley Cooper, Cameron Diaz, Tom Hardy to name but a few. Kate Winslet, who has been alongside the actor from the very start, even teared up during his Academy Award acceptance speech, having predicted, “I feel very strongly that it may possibly be Leo’s year.” Winslet even gushed about his acting prowess: “He’s a stronger actor at this moment than he’s ever been…I think he’s more handsome than he’s ever been”.
Named Leonardo because his pregnant mother, who worked at Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was looking at a portrait of Leonardo DaVinci one day when he kicked, the actor was established in the arts from the very beginning. His father “being the man that picks up on cosmic messages, said that ‘His name must be Leonardo'”, a sentiment and belief that is typified from DiCaprio’s very early attempts to crack Hollywood.
“If you can do what you do best and be happy, you’re further among in life than most people.”