Janet Maslin, in reviewing James Cameron's 1997 box office thresher “Titanic” at the time of its release for The New York Times, wrote of Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as wayfaring artist Jack Dawson: “Mr. DiCaprio has made an inspired career move in so successfully meeting the biggest challenge for an actor of his generation: a traditional role.” The “traditional role” to which she refers is the Movie Star. The Movie Star was once created within the factories of Old Hollywood, the ones chronicled so fancifully in The Coen Brothers’ recent “Hail, Caesar!”, but when those factories closed down and the Method Actor took hold, Movie Stars became a rarer breed. Now Movie Stars are secondary to the product, to the brand, to Marvel and DC and old warhorses resurrected to make money. Still, they are out there, glimpsed in the space of a Jolie smile, a Clooney head bob, or ScarJo rendering Morgan Freeman speechless. In 1997 you could see it in Leo too.
Maslin called “Titanic” “gloriously retrograde”, and she was right, because Cameron’s cinematic conqueror harked back to the time of the Star Machine, and watching 23 year old Leo in the First Class Dinner scene, where he effortlessly charms a table of snobbish elitists, was vintage Hollywood Hokum. He enthralls that table the way he can enthrall an entire audience, a whole theater, a massive moment of repeat customer teenage girls. And what’s most incredible to consider about this is how he famously fought against Cameron’s admittedly simplistic portrait of this steerage dreamboat, and how Cameron, to his eternal credit, stood his ground. People can bash not-so-gentlemanly Jim for his bombast and clunky dialogue, but Cameron still coaxed DiCaprio’s purest performance to date, wherein an actor whose strain to be good is often spectacularly evident doesn’t even seem to be trying.
Jack Dawson easily could have become Leo’s “persona”, but a “persona” has never been of particular interest to DiCaprio. No, he has always viewed himself more as an heir to peak DeNiro, committed to the part, with whom Leo acted in “This Boy’s Life”, several years prior to the “Titanic” phenomenon. And that’s crucial, because Leo didn’t simply react to “Titanic” by becoming “serious”; no, he was always serious, whether playing a heroin addict in “The Basketball Diaries” or earning an Academy Award nomination for his quite serious turn in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” He earned an Academy Award nomination for the latter, and not for “Titanic”, which perhaps gave him an early inkling for what his peers preferred and correlates directly to his penchant for “Acting!” and his inevitable win this Sunday for Best Actor for “The Revenant.”
Still, even amidst so much Master Thespianism he could not help, here and there, when his star intrinsically lit up the silver screen, like in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (which suggests an alternate reality where Spielberg, not Scorsese, was Leo’s directorial muse and allowed for more whimsy) where he played real life con man Frank Abagnale, whose whole ruse necessitated charm, even if you could easily imagine DiCaprio more intrigued by the character's psychological dimensions than his simple charisma. Leo’s two halves, however, never met more majestically than “Blood Diamond” (2006), still, to my eye, his best overall performance, where he played a time-honored soldier of fortune with a mixture of intellectualism and allure.
The movie itself, however, in trying to wrestle with genuinely vital issues worth exploring, bit off far more than it could chew, and I kept imagining a different movie. I imagined a movie more akin to the first scene Leo and Jennifer Connelly, as an American journalist, share at a Freetown bar, a movie shot not on location but on the backlot, an old world romance.
But real world issues, as documented in Stephen Rodrick’s recent Rolling Stone profile of the actor, have become Leo’s métier as much as the movies, notably his admirable dedication to environmental issues. He’s currently in the midst of making a documentary with Fisher Stevens about climate change and Rodrick writes of how “Stevens has occasionally had to remind DiCaprio not to wallow too much in hopelessness. ‘I’m more the light and he’s the dark,’ says Stevens with a grin. ‘I’m always saying, Don’t be so fucking pessimistic, man.’” I admire DiCaprio’s dedication to these very real concerns that many in America turn a blind eye to, and it's not a stretch to wonder that he wants to ensure he's seen taking acting seriously so that people will take his politicking seriously, but I desperately wish that more often on screen Leo would project the light rather than the dark
My friend Jaime likes to say that Tom Hardy is wasting his prime years of beauty and natural magnetism on incessant Method-ness. This is not to suggest that Mr. Hardy isn’t giving fine performances, mind you, but that too often he is choosing to bury all that beauty and magnetism beneath the tics of the trade. And I can’t help but think of DiCaprio in the same way, squandering so many chances to simply be a Movie Star in a vain attempt to win awards. In considering “The Revenant”, and a whole host of the other things in his typically glorious Thomsonian fashion, for The Guardian, film critic David Thomson wrote “At that primitive level, Tom Hardy gives the real performance. I believed he was a stinking, half-scalped beast driven mad and dangerous by the wilderness. I always felt DiCaprio was a movie star.” In other words, despite all of Leo’s crawling and growling and bleeding, Leo still can’t tamp down his innate Movie Star.
James Cameron once told the story of Leo’s “Titanic” audition. “He read it once, then started goofing around, and I could never get him to focus on it again. But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest.” You wish someone could get him to focus on it again, so that the light could be let through, and so that his innate Movie Star could once again go full frontal.