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Someone to Trust, Something to Prove: The Films of Leonardo DiCaprio

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a bit of a stutter. You’ll never hear it on TV, but you’ll hear him trying to repress it in person. It’s in the studied slowness of his words and stiffness of his jaw in meetings with agents. Back in his heyday on “Bounty Law,” he didn’t have to hide it — he was a big enough star and a confident enough actor that he didn’t even seem that self-conscious about the slight stoppage and repetition in his speech; he still carried himself with a star’s dynamism. In 1969, however, his body chokes up, he becomes flush, his eyes cast downward, and his hesitations are more pronounced when he’s flustered. An unmistakable recognition crosses his eyes: I have to prove to them I’m still a star, that they can trust me in their movie. And I’m blowing it.

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Rick Dalton is DiCaprio’s first role in the four years since his Oscar-winning performance in “The Revenant.” One of the protagonists of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he’s the most overtly meta character of DiCaprio’s career, and another in a long line of men with great ambitions that they’re not sure they can fulfill. Where Rick is a once-popular performer attempting to hang on to what he has and show that his time as an actor hasn’t passed, DiCaprio became one of the most recognizable faces on the planet before he turned 25 and spent the next 20 odd years trying to prove that he deserves not just the fame and trust that he’ll entertain you, but the recognition as a Capital-G Great Actor. That’s something that’s manifested itself not just in the accents, theatrics and physicality he’s attempted, but in the texts of the films he’s taken on. Whether he’s Frank Abagnale trying to rebuild his family as a success story, Howard Hughes taking on Pan Am and the United States government, or Jordan Belfort persuading another sucker to give him their money, the message is clear: trust me, I can do this. If “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” features one of his best performances and an explicit deconstruction of his career, it’s only possible because of how his best work, like the following five performances, play with his image as a man with something to prove.

1997: “Titanic

Like many young actors, Leonardo DiCaprio got his start in commercials and TV shows (he was even taken off the set of “Romper Room” at age five for being disruptive) before he earned acclaim for stints on the TV version of “Parenthood” (in the role Joaquin Phoenix played in the film) and on “Growing Pains” as a homeless boy adopted by the obscenely wholesome Seaver family. He was eventually noticed by Robert De Niro and cast in the 1993 film “This Boy’s Life,” in which he impressed as a boy who goes toe-to-toe with his domineering stepfather (De Niro). He earned his first Oscar nomination that same year as Arnie, the developmentally disabled younger brother of Johnny Depp in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” What’s most striking about DiCaprio’s work, more than his commitment to Arnie’s tics, is how he exhibits Arnie’s joy at climbing a tree and hiding from his big brother with full-bodied enthusiasm (bobbing up and down and emitting chest-deep laughs), or how his face processes pain after Gilbert loses his temper with him. DiCaprio also won praise as Meryl Streep’s troubled son in the 1996 drama “Marvin’s Room” and even became a bonafide romantic idol after “Romeo + Juliet.”

But while it’s up for debate which is the best of DiCaprio’s early performances, his work in James Cameron’s epic melodrama “Titanic” is undeniably the most important. While the actor was initially reluctant to portray the film’s earnest hero Jack Dawson (and had to be persuaded by Cameron not to play him as a brooder), he’s immediately captivating, leaping and whooping with such infectious energy and joie de vivre that it feels almost impossible not to fall in love with him and want him to show you the world. It must be said, also, that Cameron shoots DiCaprio in close ups that accentuate the actor’s boyish beauty: the piercing, baby-blue eyes, flowing blonde hair and lean body. If DiCaprio has actively shied away from repeating romantic hero roles (often obfuscating his good looks and natural charm with scraggly facial hair or neurotic tics), it may be for the best, as there’s no way he could possibly top being the star of the then-biggest movie of all time.

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“Titanic” is also important in that it establishes what, exactly, makes a DiCaprio character: the dual need for someone to trust him and to prove that he’s worth something. Jack is a gifted artist and born charmer; he’s also a penniless kid who gets the ultimately not so lucky ticket on the doomed RMS Titanic in a stroke of luck, only to be constantly reminded that he does not belong in the same world as Kate Winslet’s put-upon rich girl Rose. His first encounter with her, saving her from an attempted jump off the ship, is remarkable for how reassuring he is, gently mocking the “indoor girl” while promising her that he will have to jump in after her if she insists on going overboard. His every scene with Rose builds her up, his gaze and megawatt smile always conveying his genuine care, his every touch meant to tell her she matters. At the same time, he’s putting on a show for Rose’s rich mother and fiance, both of whom openly disdain and distrust him; he brushes off their blunt condescension with a teasing but still polite offhandedness (shooting a devilish look at Rose while informing them the commoners’ quarters have “hardly any rats”). By the time the two share their iconic first kiss, he’s proven he’s more than worthy of her love and respect, and the answer to that other central question (spoken aloud: “do you trust me?”) is unambiguously “yes.”

2002: “Catch Me if You Can”

DiCaprio benefited from the fame (and went a bit overboard, if the stories about his friend group, the “Pussy Posse,” are to be believed) but struggled to find the right follow-up role. “The Man in the Iron Mask,” shot before “Titanic” was released, sees two bad performances from him as the spoiled, one-note pouter of a king and as his dully heroic twin; he seems completely unsure of who he’s playing in Danny Boyle’s “The Beach,” mostly coming off as the pretty blank his detractors accused him of being. His best role in "Titanic’s” immediate aftermath was in Woody Allen’s otherwise lousy “Celebrity” in a welcome bit of self-parody as a spoiled teen idol who beats up his girlfriend and trashes his hotel room just because he can, offering hints of the kind of work DiCaprio would excel at in the early 2010s.

The right role, and the best performance of DiCaprio’s young career, came with Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can.” As Frank Abagnale Jr., he’s one of Spielberg’s classic lost boys, beaming adoringly at his father (Christopher Walken) when he’s on top of the world and staring up at his parents as a confused, sad kid when they split up. But he’s also a wunderkind of sorts with a preternatural ability to adapt to any situation as soon as he sees what angle he can play. An early scene sees him sizing up a classroom that’s waiting for a substitute teacher and immediately adjusting his walk from shy to confident, his voice from soft to high and reedy, as he takes over the class. He’s just as good at playing an overeager boy reporter trying to get secrets out of airline officials, then switching right back to a mock-deep voice and slower, more self-assured gait when he cons his way into a job. DiCaprio’s eyes are so bold, his gestures so defined that he can convince anyone to believe in him and give him a shot at a bonafide new career. When Tom Hanks’ FBI agent first meets him, he strolls out so calmly, running through the facts of his crimes so casually that of course Hanks believes that he’s a fellow lawman; you’re so busy looking at the smile and the showmanship that you want to believe, only to find out far too late that you shouldn’t have trusted him after all.

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It makes Frank Abagnale the ideal role for the actor, showing a kid trying like hell to prove that he can become the success his father couldn’t be and give his family everything they deserved through sheer power of persuasion...and a star trying like hell to prove that he’s a real actor. Just as important as DiCaprio’s charm is the sensitivity he displays whenever Frank is forced to confront the reality of his choices, whether he’s meeting his father one last time or he’s on a Christmas call with Hanks. On the latter, he takes a softer, sadder tone when speaking and flashes a look of shaken confidence as he hangs up. One sees a kid who recognizes, if only briefly, that he’s out of his depth and he can’t do it after all. “Catch Me if You Can” is the right film for DiCaprio’s career at this point because it’s as much about him trying on different roles as it is about Frank doing the same, with both wondering whether or not they can keep things moving fast enough before people decide they don’t believe in them.

2004: “The Aviator

It’s strange that “Catch Me if You Can” didn’t lead to a longer artistic partnership with DiCaprio and Spielberg (though they’re attached to a film about Ulysses S. Grant), and that the actor instead paired with the other New Hollywood legend who directed him in 2002. “Gangs of New York” is many things — a showcase for one of Daniel Day-Lewis' most transfixingly florid performances, a staggering recreation of 1860s New York City, and a fascinating epic that never quite finds its shape. What it isn’t, however, is an auspicious beginning for the DiCaprio/Scorsese partnership; despite his numerous similarities to the character DiCaprio would later play in “The Departed” (the need to prove something about his disgraced family, the ability to gain the trust of a man who’d have him dead if he knew the truth), Amsterdam never makes much of an impression. The character seems too reserved, not like someone who’d gain Bill “The Butcher” Cutting’s trust, and the actor seems too intimidated to show the roiling emotions that would soon define his work in the mid-to-late 2000s.

That reticence is gone and that torment on full display in “The Aviator,” the pair’s second collaboration. Nominally the kind of turgid Oscar bait that only actors love, the film is the best and most deceptively personal of Scorsese’s films from the 2000s, a paean to Classic Hollywood that’s also a portrait of the artist consumed by fears of failure and his own demons. It’s also a film that successfully splits the difference between the boy wonder roles of DiCaprio’s 20s and the more tortured work of his 30s. Introduced strutting across an airfield and barking orders on the set of “Hell’s Angels” (“don’t tell me I can’t do it, don’t tell me it can’t be done”), he’s very much the kind of confident playboy artist seen in “Titanic” and “Catch Me if You Can,” with the same ability to schmooze people until they believe in him. This time, however, he has the vast fortune and resources to get whatever he wants. The key to the performance in the first half of the movie is the mix of a rich man’s impatience — seen in his grand gesticulations whenever he’s ordering people to find the right wheel for an airplane or some goddamn clouds for his movie shoot — and, conversely, a perfectionist artist’s extraordinary patience to get that steering wheel or those clouds; whenever he’s told he’ll have to wait for the right weather or spend every last penny to get it right, DiCaprio’s Hughes pauses for what feels like an eternity, only to come to the exact conclusion his employees don’t want to hear. He’s Howard Hughes, you will get him whatever he wants, and he will wait until it’s exactly how he wants it, his money and everyone else’s sanity be damned.

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Rather than sticking to the usual cut-and-dry biopic binary of the genius with flaws, Scorsese and DiCaprio posit that Hughes’ flaws were inextricable, even directly tied to what made him brilliant, if inevitably what contributed to his pain. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive tendencies and his megalomania undoubtedly contributed to his drive to prove that he could accomplish anything; they also saw him spiral deeper into isolation, paranoia and poor treatment of those close to him. DiCaprio gets Hughes’ tics down (the constant throat-clearing, obsessive hand-washing), but more important is how he registers Hughes’ reactions to his own breakdowns. The “show me all the blueprints” scene, in which Hughes compulsively repeats the line over and over again, sees DiCaprio’s stare going from steely and determined to empathetic and caring when he’s in control, then into a thousand-yard stare at the start of the breakdown before darting inward, with Hughes realizing in real-time that he's lost control of his speech and his constantly roving mind.

Similarly, his furious battles with Pan Am and the U.S. Senate, and his failed romances with Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, are just as notable for how he recognizes and tests his own limitations as they are for the political and showbiz drama. In his early scenes with Cate Blanchett’s Hepburn, DiCaprio’s work is tender and exploratory, with Hughes eyeing things he believes can make him sick and deciding to go ahead anyway; in the later scenes, it’s heartbreaking to watch his defeated posture and pained expression as he realizes he can’t push himself anymore. Hughes pulls himself together for a marathon Senate hearing, in which DiCaprio does some of the most rousing work of his career as he nimbly pokes holes through his opponent’s case. It’s the kind of scene that reminds the world of Hughes’ incredible confidence and the audience of DiCaprio’s one-in-a-million charisma. And for Hughes, at least, it’s all for naught, as he breaks into yet another uncontrollable bout of self-repetition, and a final close-up sees micro changes in his expression from fearful to rueful to close to unreadable, a grand figure accepting that there’s a limit to what he can control. For the man, it’s proof that no triumph will last; for the actor and director, it’s an acknowledgement that all the skill and charm in the world can’t save them. They, too, could come crashing down at any moment.

2010: “Shutter Island

“The Aviator” was DiCaprio’s declaration of purpose as an actor: he was as interested in depicting psychological and physical torment as he was in showing off that movie star charm. The latter half of the 2000s capitalized on that, with the actor taking on roles that called for him to put himself through the wringer, whether it was fighting terrorism (Ridley Scott’s unmemorable “Body of Lies”) and exploitation (the hokey “Blood Diamond,” which saddles him with too many noble speeches and a distracting accent) or marital implosion (Sam Mendes’ overheated adaptation of “Revolutionary Road”). He did his best work of the period with Scorsese, however, first as Billy Costigan in the Oscar-winning “The Departed.” The film openly plays with both central ideas in DiCaprio’s career: that of a man with something to prove about himself (in this case, that he’s not a crook like much of his family and that his father’s name was worth something) and the idea of trust, with the latter growing complicated as he sees the limits of how much he can convince murderers that he’s on their side while keeping his identity. He’s superb in the film, but he’s better still in their next collaboration, 2010’s “Shutter Island,” which sees DiCaprio further playing with the idea that young, idealistic charmer we saw in “Titanic” was a fantasy and that ostensibly heroic figures harbor dark secrets (which will have to be discussed here, so the spoiler-phobic should move on).

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DiCaprio’s U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is introduced as a contradictory figure: a smart, skilled investigator who’s also testy and hot-tempered; an idealist with a clear sense of right and wrong about governments’ power over people and a man with no empathy for the very human individuals who have committed their own acts of violence (he sneers with a cruel dismissiveness: “screw their sense of calm”). His voice and posture seem determined and upright when he’s interrogating people, haunted and broken when talking about himself. One sees him speaking to women at Shutter Island with understanding and sympathy, but when he encounters an unrepentantly violent man, his cold stare shows him trying very hard not to reach out and strangle him (he opts for psychological torture(. And yet, he sounds pained when discussing witnessing the liberation of Dachau, the idea that it can happen here, and that, with his participation in the murder of death camp guards, he has his own demons that he has to make up for.

He does, though in more personal ways than he can admit Those familiar with these kinds of psychological horror films will likely pick up on mentions of his past alcoholism and suggestions of a deeper violent side that he tries and frequently fails to tamp down. Many voiced frustration about “Shutter Island’s” ending, in which we learn that DiCaprio’s character, actually named Andrew Laeddis (a patient “Teddy” mentioned earlier), is himself a patient who’s being put through an elaborate experiment to come to terms with his murder of his mentally ill wife (Michelle WIlliams) after she drowned their children. However, the plot mechanics seem less important on subsequent viewings, at which point DiCaprio and Scorsese’s story of man trying to outrun his guilt clicks into place. DiCaprio’s tough guy act initially seems a bit more forced here than in “The Departed”; it gradually feels like a character convincing himself that he’s the heroic man he wanted so badly to be. His nervy, increasingly paranoid expression (those darting eyes and jerking head movements in the revelation especially) are those of a man working up a sweat to convince us, and himself, that his version of things can be trusted. The character he’s created for himself is his way of proving to himself that he’s not a monster; the flashback to the murder lays bare how a man’s full-bodied grief can give way to a pleading, desperate rage and realization of what he’s actually capable of when faced with total loss. “Shutter Island” shows both a character and an actor coming to terms with their limitations, with the idea that they can only convince themselves and others up to a certain point that they are what they present themselves as. It’s all the more tragic that the former decides it’s better to go to oblivion with the lie than live with the hard truth.

2013: “The Wolf of Wall Street

After a similar, solid performance in the same year’s “Inception,” DiCaprio’s focus shifted a bit in the early 2010s toward portraying how plainly untrustworthy, even abhorrent people gain and wield trust, influence and power. Though he's hindered a bit by some truly heinous old-age makeup in Clint Eastwood’s flawed but fascinating “J. Edgar,” DiCaprio portrays the FBI director as a man building up myths about himself as a someone whose violations of civil liberties were part of a dogged pursuit of justice and defense of America, only for the film to gradually present him as an ambitious man who abused power to prove that he was “a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats,” as he says to himself in a revealing tongue-twister. He’s equally good in Baz Luhrmann’s otherwise gaudy and misguided adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” using his inexhaustable charm to cover up both Gatsby’s duplicity and his pathetic need to control and relive the past. In “Django Unchained,” meanwhile, DiCaprio’s by turns courtly and domineering performance shows a man whose most elegant moments bely his brutality, with his bravura monologue on phrenology showing his total commitment to proving that he’s part of a dominant race. With this turn toward showing how charisma can mask malignance, it’s frustrating to see his Oscar win for “The Revenant,” in which his physical commitment can’t overcome how few of his tools are put to use, or fact that the film, and performance, are mostly about themselves and the great effort required for them (with an irritating subtext, confirmed by the pleading final shot, of “what else do I have to do for an Oscar already?”).

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While awards are hardly the mark of greatness, if there’s a performance that DiCaprio should have won for, it’s undoubtedly as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” his fifth and best collaboration with Scorsese and the best performance of his career. Belfort has the classic DiCaprio charm, charisma and ability to persuade, but he uses it to purely selfish ends to build himself up and cheat others. Scenes of a young Belfort show him deferent and uncertain of himself but clearly in love with the excessive, rapacious environment of Wall Street. He takes the lessons from his brief time in the big leagues to create an even more fraudulent firm, his pitch lesson to his colleagues defined by the exaggerated mocking gestures (the miming of blabbing with a dopey face, a thrust of his hips to figuratively fuck his client) showing the utter contempt he and his ilk have for ordinary people. He’s as magnetic here as he was in “Titanic,” but this time we get to see exactly why we shouldn’t trust him even as he holds our attention and pulls us in with self-flattering, bragging narration and addresses to the camera.

DiCaprio earned raves for his newly demonstrated deftness at physical comedy for the scene in which Belfort, stoned out of his mind on Lemmon 714 Quaaludes, turns into a Jerry Lewis creation, his motor functions failing him as he attempts to crawl (and drive) his way back home to prevent his right-hand man (Jonah Hill) from giving away their illegal activities on an FBI-tapped phone. It’s hilariously detailed work, with a beautifully boyish actor turning himself into a crawling, drooling baby whose every facial twitch and muscle movement shows someone fighting to barely function. It’s also Exhibit Z of why Belfort and his pals, as much as they might try to argue that they’re hard-working masters of the universe, are a bunch of dumbasses with zero sense of responsibility for anyone around them and can’t be trusted (further underlined by how Scorsese shows Belfort driving home safe while high, only to jump back and show that he actually caused havoc). DiCaprio and Scorsese give Belfort the floor to present himself exactly as he was and wants to be viewed, trusting that we’ll think he’s a douchebag and a creep.

DiCaprio’s best scene in the film, however, is a going-away speech after a so-called wake-up call, in which a finally humbled Belfort appears ready to crawl away with his tail between his legs. The normally dynamic Belfort gives the worst performance of his life, his body slumped, head bowed and gestures less certain. He’s only able to drum up some energy when using an employee’s sob story to paint a flattering portrait of himself, an insincere play at pathos that shows how he plays on the desperation of others to feed his own desires, then uses their success story to justify himself. As he’s sluggishly wrapping up his speech, you can see the switch go off in his head (licking his lips, wagging his jaw) as he decides he can’t accept “defeat” (read: walking away rich with no charges) and decides, “I’m not fucking leaving.” His body and speech immediately returns to the dynamism he’s known for, complete with an animalistic chant. DiCaprio’s performance exemplifies the black heart of American capitalism: insatiable, self-justifying, grotesque, and interested in gaining your trust only to prove that it could, that it’s better than you and that you can’t do anything to stop it. That it’s with a familiar face, one we’ve learned to trust, only makes it more convincing and more painful when the house comes tumbling down and he’s still left standing.

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“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” sees DiCaprio returning to comedy, though a more mournful one. The actor’s four-year absence from the screen (outside of his participation in climate change documentaries) makes the film’s look at a star worrying his time has passed more palpable; while DiCaprio remains a huge star and respected actor, he once looked eternally youthful, while now one sees signs of age creeping in with crow’s feet and a wearier disposition. His key scene in the film sees him taking on the role of a heavy on an episode of “Lancer” and finding new shades as an actor, albeit with difficulty. Watch as DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton shifts back and forth between ease at portraying laid-back menace and a wooden, sputtering mess before threatening to kill himself if he doesn’t stop DUH-DUH-DUHing, an actor’s neuroses laid bare. When Dalton does nail the scene, going full James Cagney evil and impressing everyone on set, his precocious scene partner tells him it was the best acting she’s ever seen. He tears up. It’s a funny moment, but it’s also a lovely one that’s truthful about how praise keeps many actors going. DiCaprio has been luckier than Rick Dalton, but his time at the top, like any other star’s, is limited. The film suggests that he knows it, but if you trust him, he’ll keep trying to prove it as long as he can. 

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