Toast of the Town
Back in 1979, he was ejected from "Romper Room" for causing a ruckus. Not an auspicious start for a child performer who would grow up to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Here, as Leonardo DiCaprio turns 44, is a look back at 20 of his most remarkable roles.
"The Great Gatsby" (2013)
The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel has never translated to screen well, though Alan Ladd and Robert Redford gave the title role in earlier adaptations of "The Great Gatsby" their best shot. Then Leonardo DiCaprio stepped in to play Jay Gatsby in director Baz Luhrmann's glitzy 2013 version. And while Luhrmann's take on this 1920s tale of excess and doomed love is undeniably over the top, DiCaprio shines with full movie star wattage.
"The Revenant" (2015)
After five nominations, DiCaprio won his first Oscar for his gritty portrayal of 19th-century frontiersman Hugh Glass, left for dead in the uncharted wilderness by his hunting partners and then pitted against every harsh and elemental force of nature known to humankind. Rolling Stone called DiCaprio's bear-brawling performance "thrilling in its brute force and silent eloquence."
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993)
After appearing in the late-'80s sitcom "Growing Pains," DiCaprio received widespread acclaim—and an Oscar nomination—for his performance as Gilbert's mentally challenged brother in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Holding his own against star Johnny Depp (in the title role), the 19-year-old DiCaprio brings to the part an innocence and spontaneity that immediately pegged him as an actor to watch.
"Romeo + Juliet" (1996)
DiCaprio didn't cement his heartthrob status until the following year's "Titanic," but his charismatic star-crossed Romeo in Baz Luhrmann's update of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" displayed his movie-star X factor full-on. At the end, when Romeo believes Juliet (Claire Danes) is dead, DiCaprio's mournful speech caused the actress to shed tears, nearly ruining the scene. As soon as Luhrmann yelled "cut," Danes smacked DiCaprio on the arm and said, "Don't make me cry. I'm supposed to be comatose here!"
DiCaprio has since gone on to more nuanced portrayals, but his cocky and adventurous Jack Dawson—a steerage passenger on the ill-fated Titanic who wins the heart of Kate Winslet's upper-crust Rose—caused hearts to flutter in cinemas everywhere. Only 23 at the time, DiCaprio instantly catapulted himself into Hollywood's pantheon of great romantic heroes.
For his first post-"Titanic" appearance, DiCaprio chose a cameo as a preening party-boy movie star in Woody Allen's "Celebrity," sending up his teen-heartthrob image with a vengeance. "Apart from being good-looking, he's a tremendous actor," Allen said of DiCaprio. "He's right up there with the best of them—De Niro, Pacino—a great natural. He's real and full of intensity and a great improviser."
"Gangs of New York" (2002)
Though Daniel Day-Lewis received most of the praise for his outside-the-lines intensity as gang leader Billy the Butcher, DiCaprio's less flashy role as Billy's younger rival is certainly easier to relate to. Granted, Day-Lewis is unforgettable in this period piece set in 1860s New York City, but it's DiCaprio—in his first film directed by Martin Scorsese—who holds it all together amidst the villainy that surrounds him.
"The Aviator" (2004)
DiCaprio's second film with Scorsese is a screen biography of the tormented business magnate, film director and aviator Howard Hughes. Set in the 1930s and '40s, "The Aviator" takes Hughes from his early success as a swaggering young playboy billionaire through his decline as the result of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. DiCaprio, whose performance is a tour-de-force, reportedly dedicated hundreds of hours to researching Hughes and meeting with people suffering from OCD.
"This Boy's Life" (1993)
You could see the future coming in this movie adaptation of author Tobias Wolff's memoir, which tells the story of an adolescent (DiCaprio) and his abusive stepfather (Robert De Niro). With only a few TV credits to his name, the teenage DiCaprio already possessed a rare combination of vulnerability, likability and ferocity—and the acting chops to sell them all.
"Catch Me if You Can" (2002)
In this Steven Spielberg hit, DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a real-life con man who lived the high life as he impersonated pilots, lawyers and doctors. Clearly enjoying himself, DiCaprio tap-dances through his performance, never taking himself too seriously while still giving the role an emotional heft. "I was an actor getting to play a great actor," said DiCaprio. "But Frank's stage was the real world."
"Django Unchained" (2012)
As an evil, sadistic plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," DiCaprio plays against type, warping his natural charisma into something wholly detestable.. It's impressive how he throws himself into this role. At one point during the filming, DiCaprio slammed his hand into a glass, causing a cut that later required stitches. Still, though his hand was bleeding visibly, DiCaprio finished the take, which turned out to be the one Tarantino used in the movie.
"The Departed" (2006)
Up against such serious scenery-chewers as Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, DiCaprio reins his acting in with a slow-boil performance as Boston undercover cop Billy Costigan. Another collaboration with Martin Scorsese, it's one of DiCaprio's best roles, his pretty-boy past fully behind him. "There's a great deal emotionally going on inside of him," Scorsese said of the actor. "It reminds me very much of De Niro."
"J. Edgar" (2011)
Under globs of prosthetic makeup, DiCaprio is barely recognizable in the role of the pugnacious and powerful F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. And unlike Scorsese or Spielberg, director Clint Eastwood proves not to be Leo's ideal collaborator. Still, despite tepid reviews for the movie as a whole, DiCaprio delivers a performance that critic Roger Ebert described as "fully realized, subtle and pervasive, hinting at more than Hoover ever revealed, perhaps even to himself."
"Marvin's Room" (1996)
A pre-"Titanic" DiCaprio steals this weeper out from under acting giants (and Oscar winners) Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro. Though "Marvin's Room" is hindered by its theatrical stage-bound origins, DiCaprio—who plays the arsonist teenage son of a woman coping with a dying father and a sister who has bone cancer—sets the things on fire every time he's on the screen.
"Shutter Island" (2010)
If Alfred Hitchcock had been around to direct DiCaprio in a movie, this is the role he would have given him. Instead, it's Martin Scorsese who provides Leo with the opportunity to cross over to the dark side as U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels, on the hunt for a missing inmate on an island for the criminally insane. Of course, there's a big twist at the end that makes DiCaprio's acting even more impressive.
"Revolutionary Road" (2008)
Reunited with his "Titanic" co-star Kate Winslet a decade later, DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, a 1950s husband disillusioned with his beautiful wife and suburban storybook life. The role shows the still boyish-looking actor ready and able to move beyond the heroic leading man star track followed by some of his peers. Instead, DiCaprio relished playing a character he viewed as "unheroic and slightly cowardly." Said Roger Ebert of the DiCaprio-Winslet reunion, "They are so good, they stop being actors."
"The Quick and the Dead" (1995)
It's a western-genre throwaway starring a post-"Basic Instinct" Sharon Stone as a female gunslinger. But DiCaprio's brash "Kid," complete with cowboy hat and six-shooter, allowed the actor to strut his stuff in a role different from the troubled teens he'd played previously. Stone, also a producer on the film, was so convinced of DiCaprio's talent that when studio brass balked at his casting, she agreed to pay Leo's salary out of her own pocket.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)
This is DiCaprio's fifth collaboration with director Martin Scorsese—and arguably his best—with Leo playing real-life 1980s stock market huckster Jordan Belfort. DiCaprio is a monster here: corrupt, fraudulent, cruel and greedy, a sort of Robin Hood in reverse. But he's also electrifying and at times devilishly funny, giving a bravura performance from start to finish. As a Variety critic put it, "DiCaprio gives a star turn so electric it could wake the dead."
Since "Titanic," DiCaprio has mostly steered clear of pass-the-popcorn blockbusters,, choosing instead to take on character-driven roles that challenge him as an actor, but the sci-fi action film "Inception" happily offered both. As a thief who extracts secrets from his victims by infiltrating their dreams, DiCaprio gives his character a depth not often seen in summer movies.
"Critters 3" (1991)
Sure, it pretty much went straight to video—and deserved to. But DiCaprio isn't half bad in his screen debut as a skateboard-riding tween battling human-eating fur balls from outer space. More importantly, it's worth a look just to get an idea of how far Leo has come in his 27 years as a screen actor and star.
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