There are few actors as culturally pertinent as Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who has long claimed his place at the top of the Hollywood ladder since his role as Jack Dawson in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. Although DiCaprio had appeared in Romeo + Juliet and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape long before his role in James Cameron’s romantic epic, it wasn’t until the mammoth success of Titanic that the actor would truly see popular success.
Finding his feet in the industry thanks to his role on the ABC sitcom Growing Pains, DiCaprio quickly made the switch to the big screen, finding industry success early on in his career. Based on the novel of the same name from Peter Hedges, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, directed by Lasse Hallström, would catapult the actor to stardom, receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in the film.
Nominated at the mere age of 19, DiCaprio recalls his surprising relief at losing out on the award to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, telling Time Out in 2016: “I had absolutely nothing prepared…I didn’t think there was a shot in hell I’d get it. It would have been an absolute catastrophe if I had”.
Though, in the very same year as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was released, DiCaprio also starred in the biographical film This Boy’s Life alongside Robert De Niro, in a movie that the young actor would later describe as one of his most life-changing. “I was 15 years old, and I remember every single detail…Everything was so new to me,” he told Time Out. Working with the veteran actor Robert DeNiro was also an important experience for DiCaprio, noting, “Watching Robert De Niro on set, seeing his dedication, was one of the most influential experiences of my life”.
Forever changing his perspective on the industry, DiCaprio would go on to work with some of cinema’s finest filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, following his popularity in Titanic. As reported to ABC News, the actor stated: “I used [my fame] as a blessing, to make R-rated, different kinds of movies, to throw the dice a little bit on things I wanted to act in.” Continuing, DiCaprio explained, “People would want to finance those movies now. I’d never had that, before Titanic”.
Despite three further Oscar nominations to add to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, including for The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street, it wouldn’t be until the release of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant in 2015 that the actor would finally see Oscar success. 22 years after the film that changed Leonardo DiCaprio’s life forever, and earned him his first taste of industry recognition, DiCaprio would reach the peak of his career.
Take a look at the trailer for the film that started it all below.