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"Don't think for a moment that I'm really like any of the characters I've played," Leonardo DiCaprio says. "I'm not. That's why it's called 'acting.'"


For the members of the mainstream moviegoing public who first discovered him as the heartthrob hero of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, he may have been easy to dismiss as a pretty face tailor-made for posters decorating the walls in teenage girls's bedrooms. But he was a serious actor before that film made him a household name, and he has remained a serious actor since, starring in no less than four films for Martin Scorsese, the latest of which, Shutter Island, reaches theaters this fall.


He was born in Los Angeles, California on November 11, 1974. His father was an underground comic book artist and his mother a legal secretary who is said to have named him after Leonardo DaVinci because she first felt him kick while she admired one of the artist's paintings at a gallery in Italy. His parents divorced only one year later, and he lived with his mother who worked several jobs to support them. He still maintained a healthy relationship with his father, though, and he credits him with providing the inspiration he needed when he began to pursue acting in his teens, and found the door being slammed on his dreams.


"I became really disillusioned with the business and said, 'Well, this is what it's all about. I haven't even got in to read a line.'" His father told him, "'Don't worry, some day we're going to get you back into this and it's going to happen for you.' So I kind of took that to heart."


He landed some roles in television commercials before being cast in Parenthood, a TV series spin-off of the Ron Howard directed feature film. The series debuted in 1990, but didn't make it through a full season, and the young actor briefly joined the cast of the daytime drama, Santa Barbara before landing a role in the final season of a more successful sitcom, Growing Pains.


His feature debut came in Critters 3, but as luck would have it, the horror flick went straight to video, making 1993's This Boy's Life his introduction to the big screen. It was an auspicious debut. Based on Tobias Woolf's memoir of life with an abusive stepfather, DiCaprio shared the screen with none other than Robert DeNiro. As the boy in the title, DiCaprio earned glowing notices. "Centerscreen almost throughout," Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, "Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent...Role demands tremendous range, and 18-year-old thesp delivers the gamut of emotions." 


Working with De Niro proved inspiring. "It was the first time I saw somebody taking acting so seriously. I couldn't work out what was going on. He was a role model for me."


DeNiro would prove inspirational in other ways. De Niro praised his young co-star to his frequent director, Martin Scorsese, and lead to some collaborations almost as memorable as  Scorsese/De Niro classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.


Later in 1993, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? was released. A quirky little film directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it starred Johnny Depp as a grocery store clerk who must care for both his 500 pound mother and his mentally challenged brother who likes to climb things - trees, watertowers - whenever his watchful brother blinks. DiCaprio excelled in the latter role, earning raves from Janet Maslin in The New York Times who praised his "show-stopping turn...the performance has a sharp, desperate intensity from beginning to end." In addition to being cited for his performance by the National Board of Review, DiCaprio was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best supporting actor.


In 1995, he had three films in release. The first, The Quick and the Dead, was a heavily stylized and gimmicky western with Sharon Stone as a female Clint Eastwood gunning for revenge against the evil mayor (Gene Hackman) who was responsible for her brother's death. DiCaprio was appealing as the mayor's cocksure son with eyes for Stone and a score of his own to settle with Daddy, but the film's title pretty much described its stay in theaters. It quickly died at the box-office, and was outgunned by such critics as Todd McCarthy who summed things up only too well in Variety, calling it "silly, cynical and derivative," while noting that DiCaprio "has fun as the young upstart who flirts with Stone."


The Basketball Diaries was more ambitious, and it gave DiCaprio the lead, that of Jim Carroll whose memoir detailing his descent into drug addiction and prostitution provided the basis for the screenplay. Like most such memoirs, however, it emphasized the horrors more than the happiness that awaits once the hero finds his all-too predictable "redemption." The film's own redemption came through DiCaprio. "Can an acting tour de force redeem a muddled movie?" Peter Travers asked in Rolling Stone. "Check out Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries for a lesson in how it's done." 


DiCaprio closed out the year with Total Eclipse, an art house attraction about the tormented relationship of poets Arthur Rimbaud (DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). Their boorish exploits were rather lovingly presented, but the film was short on insight into their work. It was, Roger Ebert wrote, "under the delusion that its subjects are interesting because they are great poets."


Classical literature also provided the inspiration for 1996's Romeo and Juliet. DiCaprio played Romeo, of course, opposite Claire Danes as Juliet. "It takes a special kind of idiot to screw up a Romeo and Juliet starring two of the most perfectly cast leads in the history of the movies," Stephanie Zacharek wrote at, and director Baz Luhrmann's head was on more than one critic's chopping block when this MTV-styled adaptation of the play reached the screen.


"I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of Romeo and Juliet makes of Shakespeare's tragedy," wrote Roger Ebert, while Zacharek lavished praise on the two stars: "Danes and DiCaprio together are so vivid that they seem to be trapped in the wrong movie."


Marvin's Room was much better. An unashamed tear-jerker that could have easily been dismissed as a big-screen incarnation of the "disease of the week" TV movie once so prominent on the tube, its illustrious cast, including Robert De Niro in a small role as a doctor, made it difficult to dismiss so easily. Diane Keaton starred as a middle-aged woman who has sacrificed twenty years of her life to care for her father (Hume Cronyn) after he suffers a debilitating stroke, and must call on her self-centered sister (Meryl Streep) when she falls ill herself. DiCaprio played Streep's son, a disturbed boy who burns down the family's house. Despite such melodramatic trappings, the film's pro-family stance was praised by Cheryl Sneeringer at Christian Spotlight on the Movies who said it "kindles within you the desire to go home and hug your sisters, brothers, mother, and father." Tucson Weekly'sStacey Richter felt no such reaction, but hailed DiCaprio "who gives a flawless, natural rendition of a bad boy with a heart that could hold a candle to any performance by James Dean."


Now that it rests high atop the list of Hollywood's all-time biggest grossing films, it's easy to forget that James Cameron's Titanic was a risky venture. With a record $200,000,000 budget, and a pair of stars, DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who were not considered box-office draws, the film seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, especially when production problems delayed its release by six months. When it finally opened on December 19, 1997, there were naysayers like Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times who lambasted the film as "a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances," and Stephanie Zacharek at who found it "big and dumb and hulking." But most critics were swept away by Cameron's epic, and especially the love story that made it memorable beyond the impressive recreation of the ship's doomed voyage. In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman hailed the film as "the first disaster movie that can truly be called a work of art." In The New York Times, Janet Maslin went Gleiberman one better, calling Titanic "the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to Gone With the Wind."


Titanic enjoyed a strong opening weekend, but nothing to suggest it was heading for the history books. In the months ahead, however, it had powerful legs, leading the box-office for a record fifteen weeks. It didn't break records at the Academy Awards, but it tied tie two of them. Like All About Eve, it received 14 nominations, and like Ben-Hur, it won in 11 categories, including Best Picture.


Surprisingly, DiCaprio's performance was not recognized by his peers with a nomination, but he was, arguably, the one most responsible for the film's success. Not since John Travolta's star making turn in Saturday Night Fever two decades earlier, had a film star created such a frenzy among the public, especially teenage girls. For a time, the film's most famous line, "I'm king of the world," seemed to describe its star.


"I'll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don't expect to," he told Time three years later. "It's not something I'm going to try to achieve either."


There were some unpleasant side-effects to his popularity. Like Johnny Depp, DiCaprio was a critic's favorite before the public turned him into a superstar. Following Titanic, he was a teen idol hounded by the paparazzi wherever he went. His pretty face was plastered on the cover of every magazine aimed at young girls, as well as some aimed at a more mature demographic. Nude photos, actually stills from Total Eclipse, were published in Playgirl magazine despite his attempts to stop them. He was also being criticized by his director. When DiCaprio refused to appear at the Academy Awards, James Cameron called him a "spoiled punk," but the actor quite sensibly saw no reason to attend the glitzy festivities when he had not been nominated himself.


"Titanic was a period of rebellion for me," he admitted to Parade magazine. "I was very much portrayed in the press as a heartthrob. It wasn't what I wanted to be. It was like a runaway train. This thing just took off. I didn't understand what was happening to me. My instinctive reaction was to want to run away."
More than a decade later, he said, "I think the experience of being thrust into the limelight like that was disconcerting for a 20-year-old." He recognizes that it also had advantages. "Because of (Titanic), I can get movies financed by my name alone. It's given me incredible opportunities as an actor."
While Titanic was still packing them in at the multiplex, The Man in the Iron Mask opened to mostly tepid reviews, some of which took unfair swipes at his popularity. Even though the film was in production before  Titanic made DiCaprio a teen idol, Barbara Shulgasser in The San Francisco Examiner wonders if "the directors he works with are so awed by the promise of DiCaprio's appeal to ticket-buying pubescent girls that they are unwilling to ask him to change a thing about himself." She was not alone, however, in finding fault with his dual roles as the evil king Louis XVI and the good twin brother plotting his overthrow. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin agrees he's miscast, but notes that "he rivets attention in practically every scene."
The first film he actually made following Titanic was The Beach,released early in the year 2000. Originally conceived by director Danny Boyle as a small film with Ewan McGregor in the lead, the budget ballooned to $50,000,000 once DiCaprio came aboard.
"I think if I weren't in the position that I'm in, the budget certainly wouldn't be the same," DiCaprio said. "The good thing about it is that it only benefits the film in the end."
Based on Alex Garland's 1996 cult novel about a young pop culture obsessed narcissist traveling in Bangkok where he finds map to a hidden island, the film, described by Roger Ebert as "a pothead's version of Lord of the Flies," included a strong performance by its star, but failed to impress either critics or audiences.
In some ways, 2002 was DiCaprio's biggest year yet. The combined grosses for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can may have been a mere ripple compared to the box-office haul of Titanic, but the films gave him the opportunity to work with the most critically respected director on one hand, and the most popular on the other.
The films opened almost simultaneously at Christmas. For Scorsese, Gangs of New York was a dream project he had first envisioned in the '70s. Set in New York City in 1863, the film was an ambitious look at the clash between the city's Irish immigrants and the Natives, led by the psychotic Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day Lewis. DiCaprio played Amsterdam Vallon whom Bill befriends, unaware the young man is determined to kill him for murdering his father.
Big and often unwieldy, Gangs of New York was almost unanimously praised as a flawed masterpiece. "It's something better than perfect," Peter Travers observed in Rolling Stone. "It's thrillingly alive." Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian agreed. "It's a movie with a thousand times more energy and life and sheer virility than anything else Hollywood has to offer." The film's strengths earned it 10 Academy Award nominations, but its flaws, and the obnoxious campaigning for awards undertaken by studio head Harvey Weinstein, meant it went home empty-handed. DiCaprio acquitted himself well, but was overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis's flamboyant villain.
DiCaprio was better served by the role of Frank Abagnale, Jr., the young con artist who poses as a teacher, airline pilot, doctor, and adapts various other guises in Spielberg's richly entertaining Catch Me If You Can. Once again, DiCaprio shared the screen with another major star, this time Tom Hanks as the dogged F.B.I. agent on his trail. It was DiCaprio's finest performance to date, and worthy of the Oscar nomination that failed to materialize.
DiCaprio is philosophical about Oscars and awards in general. "The bottom line is: when it comes to an actor and his performance, whether nominated or not, it simply has to do with whether that character had enough resonance with the audience. You know, to the filmgoers. And that's something that you can't control."
Two years later, DiCaprio reteamed with Scorsese for The Aviator, a project borne out of the star's fascination with the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
"Hughes was the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or happiness," DiCaprio explained. "It's that great see-saw act in the movie that goes on. On one side, he's having all the successes in the world. And on the other side the tiny microbes and germs are the things that are taking him downwards, because of his OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and being a germophobe."
Despite a running time of 166 minutes, the film whizzes by, touching on the many sides of the Texas born Hughes: the rich kid film producer; the ladies man whose obsession with breasts leads him to personally design the bra that busty Jane Russell wears in The Outlaw; the corporate visionary who battles Pan Am and the government when they attempt to run his own TWA out of business; his airborne heroics; romances with Hollywood stars Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner; and his descent into the paranoia that would ultimately make him the world's most famous hermit.
It was a role that DiCaprio might have seemed too youthful looking to play convincingly, but he overcame whatever hurdles his physical appearance represented and delivered a magnificent performance. 
"DiCaprio is astonishing - wily, impulsive, paranoid, lurching from manic highs to crippling lows," wrote David Ansen in Newsweek. "I couldn't imagine him in this part but after seeing the movie, I couldn't imagine anyone else."
The press was not alone in calling DiCaprio the "next De Niro." Scorsese, who directed De Niro in seven films, and with The Aviator directed DiCaprio twice, believes it's a valid comparison. "He reminds me of that excitement when De Niro and I stumbled upon a way of working together - a similar kind of energy to the actors in the 1970s," Scorsese said. "It's very rare for me to find that kind of connection again."
Once again, a Scorsese film dominated the Oscar nominations, and DiCaprio was nominated, as well, but the big prizes went to a smaller film (Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby), and Jamie Foxx took home the best actor prize for Ray. On the other hand, DiCaprio did win the Golden Globe as best dramatic actor for his performance.
The next time he appeared on screen it was once more as the headliner in a Scorsese film, this time playing an Irish cop in The Departed, an engrossing tale of police corruption in Beantown. With Jack Nicholson as a mob boss, Matt Damon as a cop on both the police and mob's payroll, and a supporting cast that included Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin, the film became Scorsese's biggest hit to date, and the one that would win him a long overdue Oscar and become his first film to be named best picture.
"Was it fun working with all these guys? No, it wasn't fun," DiCaprio told Time in a group interview with Nicholson, Damon, and Scorsese. "You have the occasional joke to break the tension, but there's this intense energy every moment, people trying to pull their hair out trying to make the thing authentic."
DiCaprio was also in the Oscar race that year, but for Blood Diamond, a well-intentioned action thriller with political overtones that cast him as a former South African mercenary in pursuit of a rare diamond also sought by a fisherman played by Djimon Hounsou.
DiCaprio was drawn to the script because of its relevance. "To me, it was very representative of a huge sort of issue in the world today of corporate responsibility and what these corporations do. And certainly Africa has been a prime target for it."

In 2008, he was once again seen in two very different roles. In Body of Lies, he was a CIA agent spying on terrorist cells in the Middle East, taking orders from a beefy Russell Crowe in the states. In Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road, he re-teamed with Titanic co-star Kate Winslet in the 1950's based drama focusing on an unraveling marriage.


"I was struck by the ultra realism of these characters," he said of the latter film. "It was voyeuristic in a way. It felt uncomfortable in a lot of ways. That, to me, said that this is really truthful stuff."
Off-screen, DiCaprio is a committed environmentalist who was the chairperson for Earth Day 2000 and interviewed then President Bill Clinton for an ABC News special that year. In 2008, he wrote, produced, and narrated a documentary, The Eleventh Hour, about global warming. Whatever one thinks about that and other environmental issues, it's hard not to admire DiCaprio's diplomatic approach to them.
"It's not telling people how to live," he says. "It's not saying you should be judged because you don't drive a certain car or have the right light bulbs or don't buy this. To me it's about cultural awareness - that's the whole point of the issue."
Spirited public citizen though he may be, he has not let his activism overwhelm his career. "A long term career has a lot to do with people not understanding who you are," he said. "I don't want to let everyone know who I am and what I'm thinking."

--by Brian W. Fairbanks

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