Monday, February 15, 2010

The Career of Leonardo DiCaprio

In anticipation of this week's Shutter Island, I'm going to run through a few of my favorite performances from one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actors. Some people might look at Leonardo DiCaprio's three Oscar nominations and say that he's got his fair share, but I oppose any such theory. This is a guy who, at only 35 years old, has established himself as one of the prime acting talents of his generation. Martin Scorsese, one of the cinema's greatest directors, keeps coming back to him film after film, and that says a lot about just how good this guy is.

This is also an actor who is constantly looking for the most complex of roles. For those of you who have read the Dennis Lehane novel upon which Shutter Island is based (which I have), you know that Teddy Daniels represents one of the most complex character studies of any kind; the type of role that DiCaprio lives for.

With Shutter Island, DiCaprio has also continued his affinity for period pieces, having previously starred in films such as Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, and Revolutionary Road. Period pieces often suffer from slow pacing, but DiCaprio always manages to instill these films with a sense of vitality. And there is, of course, his upcoming leading role in Christopher Nolan's Inception, a film with ambition written all over it.

If you look back on this past decade, there have been few actors that can match the resume that DiCaprio has established, yet for some reason he is consistently overlooked by audiences and awards voters alike. Perhaps it was his Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic that convinced audiences to categorize him as a "pretty boy" type, but he has handfuls of intense, blistering roles to prove otherwise.

With all of this in mind, let me share what are my five favorite DiCaprio performances to date. Feel free to comment below on my selections and share your favorites as well.

5. The Departed (2006)

Leo's performance as Billy Costigan is a tough one to judge. For me, The Departed is a pure ensemble piece, and every single actor involved is in top form, and this is mostly why I'm not too upset at the Academy for snubbing DiCaprio here. It would be a risk to consider it a leading performance, and it's tough to make the argument that it stands out among the likes of Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg. I'm not sure why out of all of these people the Academy decided to nominated Wahlberg, but so be it. In this film, DiCaprio went face-to-face with one of the most iconic actors of all-time, and he matched him note-for-note. This is his most gritty collaboration with Scorsese to date, but that doesn't keep it from being one of the most satisfying as well.

4. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Steven Spielberg's most underrated film is also one of his best. DiCaprio convincingly portrays the teenage genius Frank Abagnale Jr., a young man who cons his way to millionaire status. This film is largely overlooked (as is the leading performance) because people simply viewed it as an entertaining chase flick, but it is much more than that. DiCaprio taps into a primal instinct here: the desire to run away. He plays an ignorant kid who doesn't understand how the world works, and once he realizes that his fugitive lifestyle won't last, he has nowhere to turn. Running away is never the answer, but DiCaprio's character is far from a coward. As the ruthless FBI agent Carl Hanratty, Tom Hanks delivers what could very well be his most underrated performance to date (perhaps a tad behind Road to Perdition).

3. What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

For his stunning turn as the mentally handicapped Arnie Grape, DiCaprio received his well-deserved first Oscar nomination. This is a heartbreaking individual performance, but it is his co-star Johnny Depp that makes it all the more memorable. This is one of the more challenging, rewarding brother relationships in recent memory, and Depp and DiCaprio play off of each other beautifully. Looking back on this performance can make you appreciate it even more because we might never see another film in which DiCaprio is a supporting player. As it stands, however, it is one of the most emotionally powerful supporting turns of the past twenty years.

2. The Aviator (2004)

As Howard Hughes, DiCaprio provides the centerpiece for one of the most complex biopic subjects of the decade. This is a character who shares a lot in common with Frank Abagnale Jr. They were both two of the greatest geniuses of their times, and were surrounded by insane amounts of money and women. On the surface, you might think that both of these people were living the high life, but there are demons present that prevent Hughes from ever achieving true happiness. It's a shame that Hughes didn't find the necessary companionship that Abagnale did because the extreme isolation led him to a ferocious death at which he weighed only 90 pounds. In one of the best performances I've seen in a biopic, this is a role that should have brought DiCaprio the Oscar gold.

1. Revolutionary Road (2008)

With Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet took their lovable, passionate chemistry from Titanic and flipped it on its head. In the opening scenes, they are blindly in love, but then Sam Mendes thrusts us into a future where their distance couldn't be greater. This is among the most intense screen couples of the new century. DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, a good-hearted husband and father. He works hard at a job he doesn't particularly like, and when his wife proposes a move to Paris, he doesn't quite have the guts to go through with it. This haunting portrait of suburbia owes everything and anything to its two lead performers, and it represents career-best work from both DiCaprio and Winslet.

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