In 1997 I was 12 years old. I was the target audience for the cinematic phenomenon that would be Titanic. I was also a punchline for people who like to reduce the passions of teenage girls to whimsical folly. I cut pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio out of magazines and posted them on my wall and vowed to love him forever.
Over the years, I’ve followed his career very closely. I’ve written about The Aviator in this series already so I won’t say more except: watch it, witness its genius, and thank me later. Of the Leo/Marty collabs, The Aviator is definitely tops, and The Departed gets all the glory, but I’ll confess I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street more.
Leo spent the better part of a decade trying to rough himself up and step away from the boyish roles that made him famous in the 90s. He sunk his teeth into more and more disparate characters of questionable moral integrity. This descent culminated in the form of Jordan Belfort, a greedy and selfish monster who made a fortune by conning innocent working people into foolish investments. Leo harnessed all available charm in those piercing blue eyes and devilish grin to make us like this guy enough to watch three hours of his crimes against humanity. His confidence is so magnetic you understand immediately why he was successful. Leo also displayed a gift for physical comedy we hadn’t seen from him before. If you’ve seen it, you know all I need to say is “ludes scene” and leave it at that. That should have been his Oscar reel. (It might have been; I don’t remember.)
Naturally, this wasn’t Leo’s first brush with a life of crime. In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, he played Dom Cobb, a man wanted for the murder of his wife (even though she actually killed herself and might not actually be dead because this whole movie might have been a dream or an extended metaphor about film making, I have no idea actually) who wants to be allowed back in the US so he can be with his children (why can’t they just move to Paris? Are they a metaphor too?) and clear his name so he can forgive himself for what he did to his wife. Say what you want about the logic of this movie, but it’s a brilliant twisted mess and Leo is superb. His Dom is a fascinating study of loss and guilt. He is a man so consumed by grief that he’s afraid of his own dreams, or rather, of his memories permeating his dreams. And also that his ghost wife will somehow sabotage his mind-thief business… Look, movies don’t have to make sense to be good.
In December 2002, Leo had two movies in theaters. One was Gangs of New York, and the beginning of his long history with Martin Scorsese. The other was Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, which is based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr, a troubled teen who ran away when his parents got divorced. Faced with the reality of being broke and completely unknown he decides to create identities for himself that would garner an income and a sense of belonging. Leo is exceptional in this film. He perfectly balances the anguish of losing his family with the mischievousness of getting away with something you know is wrong. There are two moments that resonate with me. The first, when Frank Jr sees his father for the first time after running away and tries to give him a car. Frank Sr (Christopher Walken, amazing) isn’t as pleased about the gift as Frank Jr was hoping and you can see the disappointment in his face. He just wants the rest of the world to respect his father as much as he does and the crushing weight of circumstance hits him hard. Later in the film, he tries to visit his mother, but even more time has passed between them and she has completely moved on to a new husband and child. Frank is still only 19 at this point and this is the first time he realizes he doesn’t have a home to go back to. The entirely wordless sequence is heartbreaking. Of course, breaking hearts with just a look and a forehead wrinkle is something Leo has perfected.
All signs point to this being his year at the Oscars, not that I believe he’s been unfairly overlooked. He still has more nominations than a lot of actors but it would bring a certain level of legitimacy to his career and perhaps allow him to branch out from the aggressive Oscar-bait movies he’s been making for literally ever. I just want him to be happy, is all. I also may have an idea for a con-men rom-com starring Leo and Melissa McCarthy if Paul Feig is interested.