Monday, November 24, 2008
Leo, oh Leo...
"Only the fearful mistake asceticism for misery."
After reading that cheeky slam-down of Leo diCaprio in the Guardian last week, I've been musing on the effect of having "grown up boys" as men in our movies. I was trying to watch Eyes Wide Shut the other night, and I was really in the mood for it, but that god-damned Tom Cruise, his cocky snotty poise and posin' - he's just the sort of self-satisfied, over-compensating for his height, alpha male I may want doing my taxes but not at my birthday party. So why would I want to "identify" with him as a man lost in a world of privilege and ritual, where all the girls are beautiful and giddy from apparently rohibinal-spiked champagne, and the men stand very still and leer? Well, I wouldn't. And as in Xan Brooks article in the Guardian put it, I would also not want to identify with Leo as the undercover op in Body of Lies, as he races madly around some Middle Eastern neighborhood with his gun and his wispy beard and sunglasses, a righteous scowl on his baby face as he goes sidestepping the inner bully, the inner torturer and all the other, natural antithetical choices that would make his character's sulky masochist Oscar-worthy instead of just yawn-worthy. Like Tom, he's stuck in the banal post-PC haze of white male guilt. Sulk too long and you forget there are "mysterious powers" that come once you are too old to give a shit, and the most important rule - audiences don't trust a man who shows the world a naive earnest face - a real man always acts tougher than he is, a scam artist only goes vice versa. Hollywood being so skin-deep, forgets there's many layers and even children know how to relate past the surface.
Leo in person at least knows how to have fun on a bender. I used to love to read about his drunken exploits in the Upper West Side, howling outside the swanky brownstone high rises and singing and otherwise venting his spleen upon the trying-to-sleep so they can wake up and enjoy their Sunday Times couples of privilege. Why does he have to be so fucking sober in his film roles, then?
One of the many beautiful things Mad Men does is wise you up to ways in which media manipulates and creates your tastes, the way it leads you astray from who you truly are until you're so deep in the woods you foolishly think you have no choice but to keep following their will-o-wisp cigarette tip. Take that concept and apply it to the pretty boy actors who hit paydirt around their early twenties because they can still pass for teenagers. They're adenoidal; they don't have deep voices. Maybe they had sinister stage moms who purposely stunted their growth with drugs and starvation to keep them child stars as long as possible? Or maybe that's just they way they are: eternally boyish. But as they approach their thirties, somethings got to give. Either our conception of a mature male has to change or they have to step down of the pedestal and let deep-voiced guys take over, guys like Vin Diesel. Naturally these boy actors don't want to be removed from the dining car of the gravy train! We can't blame them, so much as urge them to not rig the passenger list unfairly to the extent that they warp future generations of men whose circumstance demands they look in movies for their role models. These men are standing in the Leo car looking across The Departed at the Jack Nicholson car, and they're afraid to make the jump.
Meanwhile, bring us new Lee Marvins! New William Holdens and Robert Ryans, George C. Scotts and Robert De Niros, Gene Hackmans and so forth.
There are of course actors with great beauty who are also powerhouse actors, fearless explorers of their own freaked out souls, dudes able to method act the roof off and yet not fall into the pit of camp, never make the mistake of thinking they need to "send a message" rather than just digging so deep into the character that the message shines directly into people's unconscious minds where it gestates and shapes their conception of self long into the future, as in good literature.
What kind of roles should Leo be playing? Villains! Or "complex" characters. How about a CIA operative who is a sado-masochistic guy who giggles and burns his money? See, that's why Heath Ledger was where Leo wants to be. Leo's still looking for his lionizing. Ledger learned the golden rule of lionization: you gots to lionize your own damn self.
Jared Leto even tried it for Number 23. Brad Pitt had his Kalifornia. Johnny Depp has always had it but it strutted it most astutely in Ed Wood and Before Night Falls. Imagine our Leo trying to do something like that? Tom Cruise tried to be "bad" as a hitman (Collateral) or the deluded Bob Mackey (Magnolia), but each time could only do variations of his golden overachieving narcissist. Leo hasn't even gone that far, unless you think the stealth self-love of The Aviator counts, or his self-caricaturizing in Woody Allen's Celebrity.
Leo could access it when he was young playing young, as in the Basketball Diaries. Now we need the real Jim Carroll, the real Howard Hughes, even the real Leo would be good, but who is he? Why do all his heroes have to be so adverse to the violence they commit? Why can't he be like Gene Hackman in The French Connection, this tightly wound sadistic freak who loves to fuck up bad guys? What's wrong with that? You can see how it is when a real man like Russell Crowe enters the Leo-verse, he just makes fun of it. My favorite part of Body of Lies is the way Leo's two "adult" mentors, Crowe and the Syrian intelligence official (Mark Strong) both call Leo's character by pet names like "Buddy" and "Darling." They treat him like a little brother who they want to make cool. Maybe I read that in the films because I have that same disease? What is that disease called when you're the older brother? The perennially trying to make your little brother cooler or at least get him to stop following you around all the time and cramping your style disease? I got that disease, so maybe it warps my perceptions of Leo, as he is blonde and younger then me, like my little brother. Just warning you... it is thanksgiving.
I dig Leo, though. In that photo up there you can dig that he's not afraid to hold his drink and Kate Winslet and beam at the camera in drunken good humor. He and Kate are clearly great friends and he has a contented look on his face like a man should have when he's drinking good gin and Kate Winslet is in his arms (read that last sentence in a Hemingway voice). I know Leo can play something else other than these tortured insiders with the wispy beards, he's a helluva decent actor... how about playing some giggling hood ala Richard Widmark? Or a psychotic narcissistic Wall Street bully like Christian Bale? Look at how Matt Damon did a number on our expectations of Matt Damon in The Talented Mister Ripley? If Leo did that role he'd have his writers crank the "tortured soul" part up to eleven, edit out the Chet Baker and amp up the scenes of being alone in the bathroom, crying and changing clothes. Last I heard Leo was optioning the rights to the Ian Fleming biography and I guess the point is, I want Leo to let his love light shine and to do that right you got to go into the valley of death we all gotta cross! He needs to take a year off to wander the wilderness and work on his beard, to surrender to the dark side. He needs to let himself drown in a world of pain, travel not into his character's heart of darkness but his own heart of darkness. Until then his heart of darkness gonna be a little brother heart, a second-hand aping of a true heart kids' mannerisms. Of course I haven't seen Blood Diamond yet, and my therapist just told me I should see it before I go shooting my mouth off about Leo. Then again, who am I hurting? Leo? He'll never read this. He'll never even hear about it... anyway, even if you tell him he won't ever believe I don't love him.