' ' Cinema Romantico: Leonardo DiCaprio May or May Not Have Been Famous Before Titanic but He Was Definitely a Movie Star

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Leonardo DiCaprio May or May Not Have Been Famous Before Titanic but He Was Definitely a Movie Star

I was desperate to see Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even before her interview at Vox where she compared her film to “Titanic”, which this blog was stanning for before stanning was a word and before, in fact, there were even blogs, you hear that, kids. What really shook the social media world, though, wasn’t so much the comparison itself as how she made it – that is, by saying this: “(Leonardo) DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were both not known—not stars—so there was no power dynamic between them.” Wait, the Internet seemed to say as one, was that true? Was Leo was not a star before “Titanic”? Many People had thoughts, including a whole legion of Slate scribes as Dan Kois demonstrated in reposting a Slack chat he deemed “the biggest argument in recent Slate history” about whether “DiCaprio was not yet a star in 1997, the year ‘Titanic’ was released.”

I don’t know if any of these Slate staffers have read Jeanine Basinger’s “The Star Machine”, which this blog has stumped for a thousand times and will stump for again right now, and which essentially says you know a star when you see one, which Slate’s Tom Scocca does say, to Kois’s semi-comic irritation, before she spends over 500 pages working that basic idea through to its dreamy end. Problem is, while the Slate Slack argument eventually devolves into “different wattages of stardom”, it never establishes the criteria for what this group thinks constitutes a Movie Star in the first place.

The chat begins, in fact, with Faith Smith saying “I’m sorry but Leo was famous well before Titanic” and that, in following the thread the whole way through, seems to be the predominant yardstick for what makes a Movie Star – fame. He was on the cover of Time (in the days when that meant something); he was nominated for an Oscar in 1994; “Romeo + Juliet” was No. 1 at the box office. But, as I’ve lamented so many times before, if magazine covers, Oscar nominations and, God help us all, box office receipts, are how you define a Movie Star then it’s no wonder the term has been devalued. Box office! What could be more boring?!

This sort of practical analysis in terms of something as ineffable as Leo’s Movie Stardom is not limited to Slate. In The Hollywood Reporter’s quasi-opus last year about Leo being “the last movie star”, it equated his Movie Stardom with nothing, really, much more than bankability. Allen Barra essentially agreed in his piece at Salon, in which he cited “Titanic” for hurtling the young actor to “superstardom.” Barra, though, never really defines Movie Stardom either, just sort of equating it with bold choices of roles, seeming to make an argument more akin to career savvy as Movie Stardom which sounds more like something you’d put on a resume. Like, imagine Jean Harlow billing herself as “Platinum Blonde” on ZipRecruiter®.

Scocca, despite being the one who notes the box office of “Romeo + Juliet”, gets closest to the more metaphysical reading of a movie star, saying “a Movie Star is not actually traceable to being in big successful movies”, though in saying it he links to his own piece about Angelina Jolie which essentially seems to be saying that she’s a Movie Star not because of anything she does on screen but because she’s famous. To each their own, of course. But I see (the spiritually mononymous) Angie as a Movie Star, and have said so repeatedly, not because she’s famous but because she knows how to harness the camera’s power, whether physically moving with an ultra-at ease rhythmic power in “Salt” or almost eating the screen alive in “Alexander”, remixing Anne Baxter in “The Ten Commandments” for a whole new generation, demonstrating that being a Movie Star is — should be — simply about your ineffable screen presence. That’s what no one addresses in this Slack chat.

Leonardo DiCaprio was born on November 11, 1974, marking him as Generation X, meaning, by birthright, he officially Doesn’t Care. He does care, of course, frequently, at least about acting, as I have written previously, which is why he finally won his Oscar for “The Revenant” by going full Method. But, true to his Gen X birthright, he only truly accesses his inner-Movie Star when he’s pointedly indifferent or tamping down his try-hard. He was never a bigger Movie Star than the first-class dinner scene in “Titanic”, where his entire mien was akin to the way he had his character bite into a dinner roll mid-monologue, winning them and us over by indifferently rolling with it, lighting up the screen by hitting the attitude dimmer. Even in “Blood Diamond”, where he’s speaking in that impeccably honed Rhodesian accent, when he’s with Jennifer Connelly at the open-air bar, charmingly cynical, suddenly, just for a second, a la Ray Stantz’s thought of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just popping in there, DiCaprio’s innate Movie Star just pops out, Freetown ineffably becoming Hollywood. (This is what makes his performance in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” quite possibly his best – it’s an actor’s commentary on stardom or fading stardom.)

 And that, as Rachel Syme noted via Twitter, is just what happened one year before “Titanic” in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”, when, at the costume ball, meeting his Capulet rose, he looks through that fish tank and, as if the refracted light is slowing down Luhrmann’s patented ludicrous speed aesthetic, time, Verona Beach bells and whistles and so much passionate iambic pentameter stop, and in that vague yet precise way that defines the You Know It When You See It certitude of Movie Stardom, Romeo falls away and all you see is Leo.

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