Leonardo DiCaprio (middle name Wilhelm for a little bit of trivia – and who doesn’t love how fierce that is?!) has been in twenty five features, nominated for an astounding ten Golden Globe’s and four Oscars – coming away with no wins for the latter which has often raised questions as to why. Known for playing an array of now cult characters – from the obvious Jack in Titanic to con artist Frank in Catch Me If You Can and Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s daring adaption of the Bard’s classic story of forbidden love. Whatever the role – DiCaprio has pretty much always aced it, having worked with directors such as Spielberg, Nolan, Eastwood and Boyle. Ignoring the fact the Academy cant recognise this talent with that Best Actor trophy, the number of auteur’s who have happily worked alongside the actor and the sheer number of projects he’s taken part in that have received both critical and commercial acclaim validates that DiCaprio is at the top of his game. Here, I have selected three films (it was originally five but that spiraled out of control) that epitomize this talent, stand alone as movies of great worth, and exemplify DiCaprio’s love of taking on diverse roles.
1. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet – Baz Luhrmann, 1996
Luhrmann has now cemented himself as a director full of quirks and plenty of eccentricity. Romeo + Juliet was only his second feature (and part of his ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy along with Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge) and verified the guy as someone will plenty of vision (that MTV aesthetic is a winner every time) and an eye for talent. Casting Clare Danes and our man DiCaprio in the lead was a smart move and saw the pair quickly go on to roles in mainstream films that caught the eye of directors such as Martin Scorsese – who DiCaprio has now worked with on five features.
Luhrmann was the first to bring old-school Shakespeare to the contemporary, artistically swapping swords for guns and Verona for Venice Beach – keeping the classic dialect and bringing in an accompanying soundtrack of Radiohead and The Cardigans to match the woeful script. Dicaprio and Danes carry the whole feature but its the formers performance as the intense, boyish and naive Romeo that stands out. The brilliance of the actors performance is in his understanding of the Bard’s words; this coupled with the emotion poured into the role brings meaning to an era
of writing that seemed to get lost in school classrooms.
The chemistry between Danes and DiCaprio is electric and the pure realism of the pairs romance is palpable but Luhrmann is careful to never undermine the raging family war that is at the heart of this story. John Leguizamo provides support as Tybalt, and the poignant scene in which the two feuding families come to a head determines the strength of stylized cinema if supported by an ensemble cast capable of giving enough – and this is clearly seen here. Undeniably underrated but damn near perfect, Lurhmann’s feature exemplifies DiCaprio’s ability to transcend the feeling of traumatic love and deep emotion to a new generation of people who quickly became versed in the ways of Shakespeare.
2. The Basketball Diaries – Scott Kalvert, 1995
The Basketball Diaries is probably one of Leo’s least know roles. Daring, Provocative and heavy on real-life topics, Kalvert’s film plays with surreal dreams and hard-hitting reality to successfully convey the early life of drug-addict turned poet Jim Carroll. An indie flick and released in 1995, DiCaprio took a risk so early on in his adult career portraying Carroll who went to extreme lengths to attain drugs (some of which are acted out on screen and define the word gritty). Not necessarily praised by critiques upon release, this 90’s drug drama has achieved a kind of cult status which is certainly deserved.
The reason – out of so many performances to chose from – this is my number two for Mr DiCaprio is because of the sheer power of his brutal performance. Adolescence and rebellion is truly captured with Jim, as he navigates growing up, tailoring his skill as a writer, and urban life in New York city. Kalvert’s film and DiCaprio’s representation of a teenager destroyed by drug abuse pulls no punches and expects the same from those watching. This is no fairytale rendition of the highs and lows of coming of age but it is an intelligent retelling of a mans fight to overcome the temptation of drug use.
Leo was only 21 when he shot The Basketball Diaries and at such a young age managed to present himself as an actor unafraid to take a gamble. Heart-wrenching in it’s honesty and a great feature that shows us a young Dicaprio doing his time on the indie scene but about to take the rest of the world by storm.
3. The Departed – Martin Scorsese, 2006
Martin Scorsese won his first Best Director Oscar for this nostalgic gangster flick. Casting DiCaprio as troubled undercover cop Billy, the director recaptured the spirit of this beloved genre of film; successfully channeling classic features such as Goodfellas. In this role, DiCaprio shone as an actor now well into his career as an adult talent on the Hollywood scene – away from the romantic dramas of the 1990’s. Since The Departed, he has continued to involve himself in a number of violent films which challenge the minds and eyes of those watching.
Scorsese’s Oscar winning film reiterates the strength and power of the emotion constantly packed in to any given character Leo can get his hands on (apart from ‘Wall Street perhaps), and as a Southie resident who takes part in a number of violent endeavors, Billy is as loveable as a gangster can possibly be. As cliched as the genre can sometimes be, DiCaprio is sure to shy away from giving a formulaic performance and is able to give an underlying representation of a contemporary hyphenated male struggling with his masculinity in a socially divided America.
There are so many more incredible performances to pick from but these three represent pivotal moments in the actors career as he strove to obtain acting perfection.