In 1993 a 19-year old actor named Leonardo DiCaprio was on the radar of many filmmakers in Hollywood, and the world. He had a part in Michael Caton-Jones ‘This Boy’s life’ next to Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, and Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘What’s eating Gilbert Grape’ next to Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. Of all these excellent and consumed actors, he was the one nominated for an academy award for playing a teenager with a severe mental condition. Suddenly, he was the next best thing.
DiCaprio followed his promising breakout roles with his participation in Sam Raimi’s western ‘The Quick and the Dead’, Scott Kalvert’s ‘The Basketball Diaries’ and Agnieszka Holland’s daring ‘Total Eclipse’, but his talent, combined with his looks as a romantic figure led him to two of his most well known works in blockbuster films: Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo + Juliette’ and James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’.
‘Titanic’ may have been DiCaprio’s best and worst career move. Best because it turned him into an instant mega star, and worst because he has spent most of his later career shaking that image off of him. After all, he started out as a character actor and his choices are always subject to the quality of the character and film and not to the financial prospects. To prove this, the next starring role after tragically dying in freezing waters next to Kate Winslet was in Danny Boyle’s ‘The Beach’, not particularly a favorite for teenagers of the world.
DiCaprio was lucky to run into Martin Scorsese and form a lasting alliance. Here was a director he respected above all, who is not afraid of presenting characters in their true light, not always the pretty one. So, any list of DiCaprio’s best performances has to include more than a couple of collaborations with Marty, which balances his performances in Clint Eastwood’s ‘J. Edgar’, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’, Edward Zwich’s, ‘Blood Diamond’ (for which he was nominated to an Oscar) and Ridley Scott’s ‘Body of Lies’.
Nevertheless, DiCaprio is conscious of his star persona, the extreme charisma he exudes as a magnet to moviegoers, and he has used it in films like Woody Allen’s ‘Celebrity’, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and Baz Luhrman’s ‘The Great Gatsby’
What’s always surprising about DiCaprio is his professionalism and his eye for a good film. Here’s a list of some of his best performances.
The Wolf of Wall Street
(2013) Directed by Martin Scorsese
The film came out at the end of the year and the industry was anxiously waiting for its result. And as soon as it got out, it started earning awards and building an audience with word of mouth, not that a Scorsese film needs it. Based on the life of Jordan Belfort, a man who amassed a ridiculously impressive fortune on the grounds of scamming people like you and me through cold calls, DiCaprio’s acting is as frantic and neurotic as Scorsese’s style, explaining every single detail to the audience (breaking the fourth wall), completely owning the screen and making his excessive and amoral act something entertaining and even alluring. That is why the film has been attacked for allegedly romanticizing Belfort’s figure to a twisted Robin Hood status.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape
(1993) Directed by Lasse Halrstrom
Of the two films DiCaprio made in 1993, this one struck a nerve with American audiences and the critics. We had found a very young actor with an immense talent, who is not afraid to vanish into the full qualities of his character. As mentally challenged Arnie, DiCaprio stole all the scenes from Depp and Lewis with no effort at all.
(2004) Directed by Martin Scorsese
The mega star quality of DiCaprio is indispensable to embody another mega individual: Howard Hughes, the magnate who loved planes and movies in the same measure and lived his glamorous life immerse in adventure, danger, an obsessive compulsive behavior against physical contact and the memories of a childhood he lost. DiCaprio is able to convey the matinee-idol image of his youth with his later years in isolation, trapped by his many fears.
(2012) Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s casting is precise and usually against type. Here, DiCaprio plays a southern man named Candie, with a strange proclivity for slave-fights and hammers. As it is custom with Tarantino, the quality of the speech dresses every nuance of the character, and DiCaprio seems to enjoy every word and every stare.
(1995) Directed by Agnieszka Holland
In the beginning of his film career, DiCaprio made this film about poet Arthur Rimbaud, sharing screen time with David Thewlis, who plays his lover, the also poet Paul Verlaine. It was a daring career move for both actors because of the romantic and morbid depiction of their character’s relationship.
(2009) Directed by Sam Mendes
What if a person who is bound for greatness, ends up living a common forgettable life? The importance of DiCaprio’s choice of this film is that he is a talented actor and has touched greatness, so his Frank Wheeler is himself questioning what if nothing had developed as it has? Kate Winslet plays his wife and is also depressed by this fall into nothingness. The only way out for such contained characters is tragedy, and both actors deliver some of their best work to date.
The Great Gatsby
(2013) Directed by Baz Luhrman
Who is the best actor to fill in Jay Gatsby’s shoes (or shirts)? Well, after the 70’s version with Robert Redford, DiCaprio seems to be the perfect choice. First of all, this is his second collaboration with Luhrman. He’s playing a man imbued in an aura of greatness who hides his “Rosebud” in his heart. And tragedy is around the corner.
When the time comes in the film to be introduced to the great Gatsby, and DiCaprio turns around smiling and looking right into your eyes, surrounded by a decadent party, you know there was no other choice for this character.
Gangs of New York
(2002) Directed by Martin Scorsese
In 1997 DiCaprio personified a young immigrant of the lower classes Europe, moving to America and confronting the class struggle in a doomed ship that represented all that is old and decay in society. In 2002, his immigrant Amsterdam is already in America, fighting for his life and seeking revenge in the streets of New York, 1863. In his first film with Scorsese, DiCaprio had the chance to develop a character that got stuck in the ‘Titanic’ CGI, with much more character create, specially when you’re building the character of a city the director knows more than the palm of his hand.
The Basketball Diaries
(1995) Directed by Scott Kalvert
As Jim Carroll, a high school student who loves basketball and writing and ends up spiraling out of control when he becomes addicted to heroine. DiCaprio gives one of his most solid and uncompromised performances that pushes him over the edge in complicated scenes where his character has to leave behind his childhood and become a fierce thug.
(2010) Directed by Martin Scorsese
His most surreal performance to date, DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, investigating a disappearance in a hospital for the criminally insane. This is one of his most delicate characters, which needs to keep the real story under layers of actions and reactions for the film to work.