Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Wuss in the Willows

Back in November 08, I lamented how our cinema's once-golden child, Leo Di Caprio--he who wowed us in WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and the BASKETBALL DIARIES--had fallen into the Hollywood aging child actor bear trap, wherein the same baby face that made him a heartthrob as a youngster becomes a liability when he's just too old to 'pass.' Where other actors in his same pretty boy straits veered off from the shallows into ambiguous depths--playing villains, cross-dressers and amoral pirates; getting all their pretty punched away in brawls--Leonardo hath locked onto a rigidness of moral fibre that would make even the Lone Ranger wince. Since he became a huge star with TITANIC, Leo's roles have grown more and more inflexible. Nowadays he makes sure every character he plays is:

A) The good guy
B) Straight (even in BASKETBALL DIARIES, he's only repulsed when pulling tricks in the Men's room - and is only seen receiving, never giving, if you know what I mean)
C) Seriously under-appreciated or unloved and always grieving dead parents, dead wife, dead kids, and/or dead-end job. This explains his narrow range, why he don't laugh. See, he's traumatized.
D) Tough (symbolized by tattoos, crewcuts, muscles and the fiercest facial hair he can muster)
E) Morally upright and sober (though this is often ridiculously played both ways, as in THE DEPARTED wherein he risks being ostracized by ordering straight cranberry juice at a gang-run bar, but is a supposed to be a Xanax-addict. He wants to pass as a thug but won't even have a gin and tonic?)
D) a compassionate, non-objectifying lover --whether there's any room or use for it in the script or not, he must have a (straight) love interest, preferably played by a total hottie. She may be dead and haunting him in flashbacks or ghostly visitations, but she must be model-level hawt, bro.
E) Ideally he'll get to have a cool accent, either Irish-Boston or South Ah-friggin.

As I noted above, many of Leo's fellow under-grown adult child actors have since purged themselves of the "aww pretty boy / can't you show me nothing but surrender" syndrome*. Tom Cruise, for example, recently absolved himself for all wrongdoing with his balls-out-on-the-floor shoutaholic in TROPIC THUNDER (not to mention his similar role in MAGNOLIA a mere decade earlier).

Meanwhile, guys who started out kind of doe-eyed pretty-- Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon come to mind--have actually dared to toy with their Tiger Beat origins. Can you imagine Di Caprio mincing like Keith and Mick's love child in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy? Or playing THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY? Or getting pummeled out of recognition in real life ala Mickey "Motorcycle Boy" Rourke? Nope? Why not? Can't you see what RIPLEY would have looked like if Leo starred in it? He'd have probably had it rewritten to make Ripley a (straight) innocent victim of circumstance. His lovers would die of natural causes so he could cradle their heads in his arms and scream "Damn yoooou!" in pitch-shifted low yowls.

Leo's characters can never make fun of themselves; they have no outside perspective on their wearyingly glum sanctimony. Meanwhile, if he could prance around, or snivel, or laugh, or punch out a woman while wearing a bear suit, or just play an ambiguous opportunist, he'd re-establish his Oscar worth. Instead he stands alone, holding onto his dimestore glower (right), his wispy 'stache fluttering.

To his credit, Leo doesn't fall back on Christian Bale-style deep throat talking, and he did send up his bratty crystal-drinking modelizer image in Woody Allen's CELEBRITY, back in 1998, when he was still young enough that he was supposed to seem adenoidal, plus... that was the same year as... TITANIC. Has the star of Leo fallen since then? Well, not quite. It's more like it's been affixed to Scorsese's, and sometimes two very big rights make a little bit of a wrong. I did enjoy THE AVIATOR, GANGS OF NEW YORK and INFERNAL AFFAIRS' BOSTON VACATION, but Leo was, frankly, the worst part of all three of them. Now he's starring in another Scorsese film opening this weekend, a thriller called SHUTTER ISLAND. Oh man, I can just tell by the trailer he's still in this holding pattern of little boy in big man clothesism.

 There, see him up op in the middle? Compared to that "normal" looking cop on the left, and even the smartly dressed detective on the right, doesn't Leo seem strangely.... "off"? Like his clothes are too big? Like he has to put them back in dad's closet before dad comes home at five? Like that tacky green and white tie had to fight past three stages of re-writes? Like he's trying too hard to seem like a big, beefy working class copper? Beefy working class coppers don't try, Leo! They just is.

Now imagine Johnny Depp (left, from BEFORE NIGHT FALLS) wearing a dress in Leo's place above,  See how it doesn't even matter? See how he's still more of a man as a woman than Leo in a trench coat and fedora? And I'm not saying you can't be wussy and manly, or baby-faced and manly. Look at Baby Face Nelson! Why doesn't Leo play him? (though his agent's army of image coordinators would maybe excise all the cold-blooded kills and tack on a dead wife to explain his moral degradation).

I suggested in my earlier post that Leo abandon his mission of saintliness by trying his hand at a giggling psycho ala the great Richard Widmark's characters in ROAD HOUSE and KISS OF DEATH. I'll suggest it again. Leo! Follow Widmark! What's up next, Leo? Teddy Roosevelt??? How, I wonder, will your writers sidestep Roosevelt's infamous 1909 safari wherein he "killed.... 512 big game animals, including six rare white rhinos." Leo, my star, my golden child, if your version of Teddy kills even one animal, I'll eat my hat. Come on, Leo. Shoot a white rhino and prove me wrong!
PS - I feel allowed to give Leo image advice since he looks like and reminds me so much of, my kid brother Fred.

PS. 5/23/16 - I had forgotten the vehemence with which I railed on Leo's choices here. As some know, I completely took it all back and fell on my face for years ago in awe of his courageous ballsy performance as the evil plantation owner in DJANGO. (see here)

In other words, ladies and gentlemen: shoot a white rhino he did
PS - 12/19/19 - I can't help but think that both Leo and Quentin read this post and it inspired Leo's great work in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, where we get not just a ballsy all-in lead-eyed villain in a movie his character--a loose mix of himself and various Hollywood leading men like Clint, Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef, et--but the villain he's acting on set. In other words, Leo sends up his own image-- he has a great trailer smashing freak-out, struggles to drink moderately, cries when realizing the book he's reading could be about himself, laughs, kills a woman in a swimming pool, and generally does everything right, everything this article suggests he do. Thanks, Leo and Quentin - whether you heard this post 10 years ago via direct contact or just the ephemeral butterfly wing tsunami cross country psychic hotline, I thank you for 'listening.' And of course, for another amazing movie.


* Patti Smith, ("Land," Horses)


  1. While I mostly agree with you, it's worth mentioning that the second D does not necessarily apply to Gangs Of New York, a film I adore. I could see quite a few feminists getting riled up over the scene in which DiCaprio comes very close to raping Diaz, before, like Susan George, she gives in (it's a great scene). Overall, though, very good points. Only Bogart could really pull this kind of stuff off.

  2. I like GANGS too, and that scene is all right, but then you have the scene before that when he drops the loot to save his pal in the burning house... and we even see the loot left behind, to show you that for this little hoodlum, friends are more important than money, and his roughstuff with Diaz is meant kind of that she "deserves it" for robbing him, etc.

    For my money, the film would be a classic if it just got rid of Leo altogether and followed Jim Broadbent and Daniel Day Lewis as Tamany Hall connivers

  3. EK:
    Another great critique; spot on!

    And lemme tell ya: personally, I think Di Craprio (yes, I'm that juvenile) has ruined every Scorsese flick he's been part of. I have zero desire to see Shutter Island--specifically because of babyface.

  4. I haven't seen most of DiCaprio's films, but The Man in the Iron Mask is one where he actually doesn't play a good guy, but then again he does. That film breaks all the rules you've set for Leo in this post - he's a wussy, prissy, effeminate dickwad without friends, morals, or an accent. But I guess the fact that he also gets to play the good, nice, sweetheart twin is enough of an excuse for him to also play the asshole. Just look at him. His face really has that "I'm a dickwad" quality to it, no?

    1. Your post has a dick word quality to it. This post was so dumb it was laughable. If anyone even saw the film the reason Leo is dressed and looks so different would make perfect sense. The auther clearly has no idea why he played the character the way he did. AS FOR TOUGH, EVER SEE BLOOD DIAMOND. He can play any character he wants. Attacking him for playing characters who are trying to be hard and then are shown to be vunrability beneath the shell because you think it's Leo who is failing in his performance when in fact the character is meant to be revelled as weak simply shows your own short sightedness.

    2. Thanks David, I didn't notice this above post earlier, or I would have never allowed it. I've since changed my opinion on Leo 100% since DJANGO... so am glad you stepped up here. Vehemence in any form is good for cinema!

  5. Erich, I only bring this up because I've been working on a piece on the film for my best of decade series, but DiCaprio's character is essential in that Scorsese is re-establishing a Fordian mythology in American film; that is, the more cowardly, wimpy, weak character (in Ford's film played by Jimmy Stewart or Jeffrey Hunter) supplants the more heroic, masculine, cool character (played by John Wayne, or Day-Lewis here) in the name of history and (especially) progress.

  6. Altho, in THE AVIATOR isn't he playing a terminally obsessed to the point of creepy billionaire inventor who gradually loses his mind? Alas, Scorsese didn't push it and extend the film to show Leo playing Hughes at the end of his life where he REALLY went off the rails.

  7. Thanks Meghan I must see MASKS, and Ivan, thanks for backing me up on saying what needs to be said... we've got to split Marty and Leo up. Who knows what they can achieve without each other to serve as a corrupting influence?

    As far as that goes, dear Doniphon, thank you for your post, and you're right for pointing out the Fordian Stewartesqueness of it, but don't you also think that, for Leo at least, that's kind of an excuse to play it safe, to not risk alienating his perceived fan base? Take James Stewart in THE NAKED SPUR or VERTIGO; both classic films in which he bravely plumbs the psychotic. What makes Stewart work in other words is maturity and versatility and his willingness to use his familiarity to mess with audience expectations. He's got gravitas even in that skinny frame, his choice of roles proves it. But Leo could bulk up like the Wu Tang and still be wussy, cuz as Howard Hawks says, being "good" has nothing to do with physical strength, and especially nothing to do with dour humorless conviction and rigidity, all of which Leo brings and we keep getting led down this doorway by Scorsese where he's the exact same character over and over, But Marty promises that Leo will shucker loose from his hangups by the end of the film, but meanwhile for the bulk of the film his characterizations perfectly reflect his problem with acting. He's like a kid looking really hard, but in the wrong direction, not finding anything, and so just playing a kid... looking really hard... in the wrong direction, for all eternity. It's certainly narcissism and in its own way fascinating... but is it art? Why can't Leo risk it all, like De Niro did with TAXI and BULL? He used to, Gilbert!

    Leo's a great actor, I revere him, I even love TITANIC, even with Bill Pullman and that horrific dialogue and Celine Dion, and that's why I care enough to throw this blog, as an equivalent of a well-aimed vaudeville cabbage, at what I perceive to be a skipping LP... named Leo diCaprio.

  8. He played gay in Total Eclipse. Why doesn't anyone remember this movie?

  9. I meant it only in relation to Gangs Of New York. I didn't like DiCaprio in The Departed. Or Blood Diamond or Body Of Lies for that matter (I haven't seen Revolutionary Road, I'm generally allergic to Sam Mendes movies). And I'm all for an immediate divorce between Scorsese and DiCaprio, so he can do his Vertigo and Naked Spur, as you aptly put it. But within the context of Gangs Of New York, as an update of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (and Scorsese is, in his heart, a Fordian), I do think DiCaprio plays his part well, and within that context he does have to be a bit of a wuss and a pansy, just as Stewart was in Ford's film (he practically falls over whenever Lee Marvin looks at him!).

    But with the exception of that film, I agree. It certainly is narcissism, and in many ways a reversal of Nic Cage narcissism, because Cage constantly calls attention to the fact that he is the most preposterous movie and action star, he wants you to laugh with him, but DiCaprio wants to be taken seriously, for you to look around as dourly as he does, which is ultimately a lot less interesting (though equally ridiculous).

  10. Good point about his role as Rimbaud in TOTAL ECLIPSE, Simon, I haven't seen it, and it seems kind of peripheral to the diCaprio mythos, as well as it came out before TITANIC, when he was still taking risks, was still an "Actor" instead of a "Star". I'd even count him in ROMEO AND JULIET as a good risk-taking actor, but starting with THE BEACH, it's all downhill.

    And Doniphon, I hear you about Sam Mendes, who should really be a cinematographer instead of a director. AMERICAN BEAUTY was clearly a fluke. And as far as the LIBERTY VALENCE parallel goes, let's not forget Leo's character is supposed to a thief and gangland avenger, not a dishwasher/teacher with a suitcase full of books. His role in the DEPARTED really was a good mirror of his overarching role choices-- a guy who wants to hang out with the bad guys and be mean and macho, without being a bad role model, so he needs deus ex machinas falling from the sky every time he's put in a situation that may require him to appear in an unflattering light, like when he's given a gun and told to shoot someone in cold blood to prove he's not a narc, some narrative device lets him off the hook

  11. P.S. - And thanks, J.D., you're damned right - THE AVIATOR was hero worship with a dash of OCD, right from the opening scene of Hughes' mom bathing him in a shaft of pretentious holy light, there's this smug feeling that no one will catch on how a complex and very eccentric man has been streamlined into a Hollywood rebel/aviation maverick too cool for anyone to understand, i.e. typical Hollywood "One man... in a world..." bulls**t.

  12. To be fair, Mr Rourke's taken a helluva long time to scrabble back up to the top of the sh*theap. Give Leo a few more years. We all know that boys are generally late-developers, bless them.

  13. Bless you for your patient love of those little bastards, Iconista. As a late-developer myself (some would say I aint there yet!) I'm certainly a lot less tolerant... especially since Leo reminds me more than a little of my little brother Fred, who used to follow me around and copy everything I did and even beating up on him did nothing to change it. Now he's a gun and car nut in Arizona, so go figure.

  14. I don't mind DiCaprio, though I'm not much of a fan. But I really, really don't get this whole Marty-Leo bromance; in what way is DiCaprio a successor to De Niro? I thought Day-Lewis was going to adopt that role, and I would have been happy with that!

    It's kind of like the smart old guy, married to the same woman for 40 years, and then after she dies he runs off with some bimbo gold digger and everyone wonders if he's lost his mind. Not that Leo's bad in the Marty movies, he's generally fine, but the repetive ways in which Scorsese uses him, and his lavish praise of the actor, suggest he's seeing something more than meets the eye - at least the rest of our eyes.

  15. thanks for your post, MM and good insight as always. I see them as a pair of sympbiotic parasites - each thinks the other is giving him something they lack - for Marty it's A List box office clout and for Leo it's artistic cred. It's classic co-dependence as they then use each other as crutches. Leo doesn't need to branch out as an actor cuz Marty sez it's okay not to, and Marty doesn't have to stretch because Leo is fine with doing the same thing over and over, and the result is neither pushes any envelopes. We never see anything new, our jaws don't hit the floor like they did with Goodfellas.

  16. Now that Shutter Island is out,I'd like to hear your take of the film.I thought it was excellent and I'll probably enjoy it even more upon subsequent viewing.It played along with all the characteristics you listed about Leo while simultaneously pushing and twisting them. I've heard some critical comments about the film, (Goodfellas it is not, but it isn't trying to be either) but being a fan of the genre and seeing Scorsese's take on it was just too good for me to criticize. Also, it just seems like the type of film that gains more popularity over time, (i.e. The Shinning, which I think is a natural comparison if only due to the fact that its two masters working within similar genre)


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