Leonardo DiCaprio – His Best Roles

I thought it would be timely to write about DiCaprio this weekend considering he’s just had his biggest film opening ever. The Christopher Nolan penned and helmed Inception has already made $60.4 mil (that’s more than 2006’s Blood Diamond made in its entire run) and has landed at the top of the box office. 2010 has really been DiCaprio’s year; he’s starred in two of the best films of the year and has given two of the best performances of his career. I’m going to go over some of my favorite and, in my opinion, best roles he’s played over the years.

He started out really strong with his first few performances, then he was pretty much “king of the world” or at least the box office, then he had a few missteps before coming back insanely strong and proving in the last eight years that he is capable of giving one complex, compelling performance after another.

One of DiCaprio’s first major roles was as Arnie Grape in Lasse Hallström’s 1993 drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Although the film co-starred Johnny Depp and Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen, it was DiCaprio’s performance that captured critic’s and audiences’ attention alike. At the age of 19 he received his first Academy Award nomination, as well as being nominated for a Golden Globe and being awarded Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review. I really love this performance; it’s heartbreaking and tender and funny and sincere. DiCaprio showed an amazing range for such a young age and gave one of the most memorable performances of the 90s. The scene picture above, in particular, has stuck with me for years. In a matter of minutes DiCaprio’s Arnie goes from being full of wonder to being completely torn with guilt and sadness. It’s a harrowing scene and maybe one of the most traumatic scenes I’ve ever seen.

In 1996 he reached heart-throb status with his turn as Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s modern retelling of Romeo + Juliet. I for one really love this film. I loved it when I first saw it in theaters and I still love it to this day. Luhrmann is really a love him or hate him kind of director, with a point of view and artistic style that is really in your face. I love what he did with this play and I think he had a wonderful cast that really made the film work. DiCaprio’s performance is maybe not my favorite from the film (Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, anyone?), but it is a good performance. He captures the essence and the youth and the desperation of Romeo perfectly and his chemistry with Claire Danes’ Juliet was palpable.

In 1997 DiCaprio starred opposite Kate Winslet (who was also a previous Oscar nominee, for 1995’s Sense and Sensibility) in James Cameron’s historical romance/epic Titanic. The film did phenomenally well – it was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 11 and was the highest grossing film of all-time, and kept that title for over ten years. Although co-stars Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart got nominations for their performances, DiCaprio was snubbed. Regardless of being overlooked by the Academy, the film launched DiCaprio into his own sphere of celebrity and created a veritable “Leo-mania.”

This “Leo-mania” is credited with the massive box-office success of 1998’s The Man In The Iron Mask. I think that’s a little unfair, because I think this is a perfectly wonderful movie. It’s also full of great actors – Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne, Gérard Depardieu and a small turn by Peter Saarsgard. I think it says a lot about DiCaprio’s screen presence and acting chops that he was able to hold his own against those first four actors. I also must say DiCaprio plays dual roles and he plays them both well.

After a few missteps in the late 90s, DiCaprio came back with a vengeance in 2002, with two fabulous roles. Although he was not nominated, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was nominated for ten Academy Awards (it didn’t win any). I don’t think this film is that great, if I’m going to be honest. I think it had some pacing issues and was much longer than it needed to be. That being said I think DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis both gave phenomenal performances.

Which brings me to his other 2002 performance, in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio co-stars with a very funny Tom Hanks and a very sincere Christopher Walken (who was nominated for an Oscar and won the SAG award for Best Supporting Actor). DiCaprio received a nomination for Best Actor in a Drama at the Golden Globes for his performance as real-life con-man Frank Abagnale, Jr. This is perhaps my favorite performance of all of DiCaprio’s roles. This film is so much fun and full of energy and so is DiCaprio. I really think of this as DiCaprio’s come-back performance and I also think of this as the film where he finally began to live up to the potential he showed us in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

DiCaprio’s next big role was in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five. It also marked DiCaprio’s most nominated performance up til that point. He was up for numerous awards and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. I think this is one of his most complex and fully realized performances, and perhaps his second best (I haven’t gotten to what I think is his best yet). Unlike Scorsese’s previous film with DiCaprio, I think this whole film is fabulous, with DiCaprio’s performance one of its best features.

2006 was another two-film year for DiCaprio. He received numerous nominations for both is performance in Scorsese’s The Departed as well as in Blood Diamond. The strange thing is, his performance in The Departed received more laud than his other performance that year, and the film itself was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning four including Best Director and Best Picture. Yet, DiCaprio was not nominated for this film. The thing is, this film is  a true ensemble and has one of the greatest casts of the last decade: Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga and Alec Baldwin. In the end the only actor nominated by the Academy was Wahlberg.

DiCaprio wound up receiving his 3rd Oscar nomination for his performance as South African Danny Archer in Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. He also received double nominations at the Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama for both films, he lost however to Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (who later went on to win the Oscar). To be honest I don’t remember very much about this film, other than being really impressed by DiCaprio’s South African accent.

In 2008 DiCaprio re-teamed with Kate Winslet for the first time in over ten years in the Sam Mendes helmed drama Revolutionary Road. Winslet and DiCaprio have such chemistry together and the two are positively explosive together on the screen. DiCaprio received his seventh Golden Globe nomination for his performance in this film, but failed to receive and Oscar nomination. In the end the only actor to receive a nomination was Michael Shannon, who gave a truly scene-stealing turn in a film filled with phenomenal performances.

Which brings me to his dual performances in 2010. The first to be released is his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, in Shutter Island. I think this is the best performance of DiCaprio’s career. It showcases his talent to a tee. He is both manic and tender and as the film progresses his performance grows more and more complex. This is the kind of performance that the phrase “tour de force” was invented to describe. If he gets any nominations this year, and he should get many, I hope at least he gets some love his performance in this film. In fact, I hope he gets his fourth Oscar nomination, and perhaps even his first win for this role.

But really, I hope he gets double love at the Golden Globes, like he did in 2006, for his turns in Shutter Island and Inception. He keeps getting better and better, and since he’s only 35 I’m sure we’ve got another 50 years of great performances to look forward to out of him. Regardless, I hope he gets his due for these two roles because it shouldn’t be about his age, it should be about rewarding talent. And clearly DiCaprio is one of the most talented actors of his generation, or any generation, working today.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 18, 2010, in Contenders and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. pinstripebindi

    What, no mention of The Quick and the Dead? Sharon Stone handpicked him for that role and offered to take a paycut if necessary.

    • oh wow. I didn’t know that. To be honest, I saw that movie a loooong time ago and I’ve only seen it once, so I didn’t feel like I could write about it sufficiently.

  2. i thought he was quite good in this boy`s life opposite of robert deniro, considering it was his second major film appearance. it`s not the best film in the world but he really held his own to the very powerful deniro! he also played delirious and desperate really well in the really dark basketball diaries as well.

    i always appreciate your insight and i follow your site and tumblr like it was my bible.

  3. Nice job. I particularly like the picture you picked from Shutter Island. I also loved that version of Romeo and Juliet.

  4. i think i may be he only one who didn’t get on the dicaprio bandwagon until the departed and blood diamond. since then he’s been on a winning streak for me

  5. Great post! I used to detest Leo, back in the Titanic days. I didn’t find him attractive (tbf I was, like, 9), and just did not get it.

    After Catch Me if You Can, however, it all changed. I remember watching Gilbert Grape about 6 years ago and being like, wtf have I been missing?! I’ve loved every one of his films since then, as you’ve perfectly illustrated. I have never seen Gangs of New York but it’s on my DVR so I might get around to that right now…

    • Leo is really wonderful in Gangs. as is Daniel Day-Lewis, but Cameron Diaz is so bad and that movie has some pacing/editing issues making it much longer than it needs to be.

  1. Pingback: Leonardo DiCaprio – His Best Roles « the diary of a film awards … | Leonardo DiCaprio

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