He's still a young actor, but DiCaprio has racked up a boatload of great performances.
In the new psychological thriller "Inception," Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man whose identity is problematic. Who he is depends on when and where you meet him. It's the kind of subtle, shape-shifting role he has played repeatedly and well as he climbed from the TV sitcom ghetto to become a great actor who is also a movie star.
Twenty years into his film acting career, he's already earned three Academy Award nominations, and more than $1.5 billion in domestic box-office grosses. Though he has, we hope, many decades of work ahead of him, the 35-year-old actor is ripe for a midcareer retrospective. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of his finest performances.
1"Revolutionary Road" -- One key to DiCaprio's rise is his superb taste in collaborators and material. Richard Yates' devastating 1961 portrait of domestic malaise defeated a procession of top Hollywood filmmakers. DiCaprio's participation in this version, alongside his "Titanic" co-star Kate Winslet and her then-husband, director Sam Mendes, finally made it happen. DiCaprio's Frank Wheeler is a man trapped by conformity, hypocrisy and frustration, suffering an identity crisis as his youthful ambitions shrivel and die.
What makes his heartfelt performance sing is the unspoken implication that Frank willingly chose his suburban prison, because he lacked the courage to be his best self. The role has operatic high notes of rage and agony, but the undertone of self-disgust that this defeated man struggles to hide is the most electrifying effect of all. DiCaprio tackles the role with brutal honesty, revealing Frank's ugly side but never losing emotional contact with the audience.
2 "Catch Me If You Can" -- DiCaprio relishes playing real-life high fliers. As legendary impostor Frank Abagnale Jr., the youngest man to ever make the FBI's most-wanted list, DiCaprio gives the crook a breezy, boyish charm. He plays many roles here as the con man impersonates an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a professor and more, forging millions of dollars in bad checks. DiCaprio's résumé is light on comedies, but here you can sense the actor taking pleasure in Abagnale's sublime acts of deception, one professional to another.
3 "Titanic" -- Jack Dawson, free-spirited artist, is a romantic stereotype; nevertheless, DiCaprio plays him flawlessly. His doomed love story with Kate Winslet gives the film an immense emotional power equal to the scale of the disaster scenes. DiCaprio never panders in a stock role that teeters on the brink of hokiness. His earnest, straightforward approach made him a worldwide superstar. Amazingly, he did not lose his head, following up with a self-mocking cameo in Woody Allen's caustic parody of the fame industry, "Celebrity."
4 "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" -- DiCaprio played mentally handicapped Arnie Grape with such conviction that many viewers believed director Lasse Hallstrom hired a real disabled teenager for the part. DiCaprio made the boy poignant, likable and frustrating, and gave him a genuinely fraternal chemistry with co-star Johnny Depp. For this, his third movie, DiCaprio picked up his first Oscar nomination, and rightly so.
5 "The Basketball Diaries" -- As teenage prep-school junkie Jimmy Carroll, DiCaprio shows a raw vulnerability almost too painful to view straight-on. Lying semiconscious on a snowbank, aware that he'll die if he doesn't move, yet mesmerized by the falling flakes, his shiny eyes seem to contain all the pain and bliss of end-stage addiction. The film was too stark and intense to win large audiences, but DiCaprio recognized it as a challenging platform for his talents, and delivered a definitive portrait of scary, self-destructive drug abuse.
6 "Blood Diamond" -- Even when he's in a film that doesn't work, the blame never lies with Leo. The story was a synthetic mishmash of African adventure and sermons against the contraband diamond trade, elevated by the leading man's authoritative performance. As smuggler Danny Archer, he transforms himself into a two-fisted Bogart/Hemingway hero, while pulling off a flawless Rhodesian accent. His death scene is a moment of macho transcendence.
7 "Marvin's Room" -- Just try stealing a movie from Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. DiCaprio does just that as Hank, a troubled teenager institutionalized after burning down his family home. The actor filled out every dimension of the role, from his unpredictable mood swings to his truculent relationship with his control freak mother (Streep) to his giddy exhilaration joyriding with his aunt (Keaton) through the surf on a Florida beach.
8 "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" -- It's intimidating to tackle an iconic role, doubly so to make it your own. Yet that's just the feat DiCaprio achieves, breathing an utterly contemporary variety of teen angst into Romeo. Director Baz Luhrmann's spectacular punk update on the tale jarred some viewers, but DiCaprio and Claire Danes didn't miss a beat, completely at home in a world of chaos and conflict. He acted like a tender young lover, not a performer in a juicy role.
9 "The Aviator" -- Charting the mental meltdown of enigmatic billionaire Howard Hughes from promising youth to crabbed old age is a big task for any young actor, yet DiCaprio enters into the role as if by osmosis. The onset of Hughes' paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder begins in almost invisible tics and tremors, builds, recedes, returns and finally overwhelms the man. DiCaprio is also winningly romantic in his scenes with Cate Blanchett in the role of Katharine Hepburn. Their bantering relationship of equals grounds him in the world of human connections for a time. When she slips away, we feel Hughes' regret as sharply as he does. DiCaprio brings us deep inside an impenetrable man.
10 "The Departed" -- The role of the conflicted undercover cop has been played so many times that it has been strip-mined of interest. DiCaprio rescues it from banality by infusing his Billy Costigan with a passionate intensity few actors could equal. His performance shows the soul-destroying collateral damage of going so deep into an assumed identity that you can't find your way out. His Southie Boston accent is note-perfect, and his scenes with Jack Nicholson are like watching a veteran heavyweight champ sparring with a brilliant new contender.
Colin Covert • 612-673-71861 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10