Leonardo DiCaprio burst onto our screens back in the mid ‘90s with the charm of a thousand Tony Bennetts, hair as golden as the first rays of the sun and a face so handsome it must have had God working weekends. Yes, we hated him. The jealousy soon wore off, though, and our appreciation grew for an actor who keeps his stardom subordinate to whatever material he was working on. He’s shown an unerring eye both for challenging scripts and great directors – most recently, The Revenant, an Oscar-yielding collaboration with Alejandro G. Inarritu – and has even found time to raise awareness about global warming and be a friend to small animals. Unlike many actors, it’s hard to find a single turkey on his resume. Maybe we hate him after all.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Revolutionary Road (2008)
Like a proto-Mad Men, Revolutionary Road was set in a stifling world of baby boom-era ‘burbs and gruelling emotional repression, shot over one summer in Connecticut’s boondocks. Here, in short, was that tough material DiCaprio craves. With delicious irony, Sam Mendes reunited him with Titanic co-star Kate Winslet and invited them to swap icebergs for ice buckets and wide-eyed love for narrow-browed estrangement. Together, they form the most violently self-destructive on-screen couple since Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? DiCaprio’s old-too-soon bitterness and Winslet’s crushed aspirations coalesce into an almost unwatchable rancour; you can feel the poison coursing through this film’s veins. It’s a worthy take on Richard Yates’s seminal novel, which Kurt Vonnegut once described as “the Great Gatsby of my time”. Which, funnily enough, is also DiCaprio’s next film.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Aviator (2004)
Here’s the film that announced DiCaprio as the new Robert De Niro (coincidentally, the man who gave Leo his leg-up in Hollywood back in 1993), the actor who gets Martin Scorsese out of bed in the morning. His turn as the precociously-brilliant-if-mad-as-a-bag-of-racoons Howard Hughes is, for us, the finest of their four collaborations to date, with the hysteria of Shutter Island necessarily masking his subtlety and control, The Departed belonging to Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and the Oscar-nominated Mark Walhberg and Gangs Of New York being... well, not special. This, by contrast, is DiCaprio’s movie from start to finish. Even in Hughes’ moments of boyish simplicity, the actor loads him with enough complexity to make those subsequent meltdowns believable. Like one of his many plane crashes, unfolding in slow-mo, we can envisage the human whirligig from the set of Hell’s Angels morphing into a paranoid recluse with a beard long enough to have its own toll booths. All that, and he looked good in goggles.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Caper flicks are tricky devils to pull off. For one thing, all that effortlessness takes sweat and, for another, audiences tend to dive for cover as soon as the strain starts to show. (cough The Tourist). If anyone could master cinema’s equivalent of the foam dumbbell - a story that was simultaneously emotional and lighter than honeycomb – it was Steven Spielberg, a master of pacing and dramatic beats. But he still lent heavily on his star’s easy charisma and charm here. There weren’t many other actors out there who could have pulled of the part of the roguishly charming Frank Abagnale, Jr. – a man playing more than a few parts himself – and toe-to-toed with the likes of Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. DiCaprio could. At this point in his career, confidence was oozing from every pore; it looked like he could do anything. As it turned out, he could. It’s a terrific performance at the heart of a terrific film.
RECOMMENDED: What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
Cast in Lasse Hallström’s charming indie after an apparently breathtaking audition, DiCaprio turned in the kind of performance that might have inspired Tugg Speedman to star in Simple Jack – complete with Oscar nomination and a wealth of critical plaudits. This, along with his role in Robert De Niro’s This Boy’s Life earlier in 2003, marked his route out of unremarkable TV work (The New Lassie, anyone?) and into Hollywood. He shares the screen with Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis, each one-time teen heartthrobs themselves, as the childlike 17 year-old Arnie, younger brother to Depp’s Gilbert. DiCaprio keeps things the right side of mawkish and twee with an eyecatching but not overplayed performance. That’s down to the diligent prep he put into the role – a week spent with children with learning difficulties in a Texan home translated into a collection of authentic tics and traits – and an early glimpse of his audacity and confidence.
RECOMMENDED: Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann’s flashy, fabulously postmodern take on Shakespeare’s tragedy was Leo’s dress rehearsal for the global superstardom that awaited with Titanic. There were those who didn’t take to the cocksure screen persona he’d cultivated since The Quick And The Dead and weren’t enamoured by his MTV Romeo, but beneath the confidence was an artlessness that perfectly suited the character. The stars crossed him with the demurely talented Claire Danes, five years his senior, with whom he had an easy on-screen chemistry, even if one or of the Bard’s choicer lines went the way of the bullet-riddled Tybalt during the pair’s love scenes. Of course, the whole star-crossing business has not been kind to DiCaprio (see also: Shutter Island, Revolutionary Road, Blood Diamond, The Beach… well, all of them), but even at this tender age he had a preternatural gift for doomed love. Like a Robert Pattinson haircut , L-Cap could break teenage hearts just by showing up.
FOR THE FAN: The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Thanks to Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DiCaprio was already an Oscar nominee and on his way to becoming a household name by the time he tackled this hunks-and-heroin biopic. Only 21, but able to pass for a whole lot younger (like, 12), he took the sheen off those boyish good looks to play New York poet-musician-hipster Jim Carrol in an adaptation of his ‘60s biography. The Basketball Diaries – aka ‘The Man With The Golden Hair’ – was a mess, but a righteous mess, in which Leo shook off worries about miscasting to flaunt his dramatic chops as a man spiralling into junk addiction. When he wasn’t fending off Bruno Kirby’s advances, he was shooting up and self-abusing on the New York skyline. It’s tough stuff, but heck, when you’ve recently been shot by Gene Hackman (Quick And The Dead) and smooched David Thewlis (Total Eclipse), what’s a bit of rooftop wanking?
ONE TO AVOID: Gangs Of New York (2002)
While Leonardo DiCaprio is operating an almost blemish-free CV to date, there have been one or two missteps along the way. Ridley Scott’s Body Of Lies is limper than a dead kipper, while you’d have to travel a long way to find a devotee of The Beach. But it’s Scorsese’s gangland epic that’s our pick for the category. It’s by no means a bad film – some even championed it for a Best Picture nod – and it’s got more knives than Saturday kitchen, but, heck, we’re going to come out and say it: Leonardo prepped his Oirish accent by watching Far And Away on repeat. Besides, Daniel Day-Lewis overshadows the film, fellow cast members, city and pretty much the entire 19th century as streetfighter-with-a-temper Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio’s two-dimensional (ie: smooching, slicing) Amsterdam Vallon couldn’t flourish in that company.