Leonardo DiCaprio was a film superstar in his teens. Monty Clift, Brando and James Dean were legends by 27. But in 2014, Jack O’Connell was the only under-30 leading man outside the YA ghetto to anchor a $100 million movie. Is it an anomaly, or is something going on in Hollywood? I considered the issue, and O’Connell’s brief career so far, in The New Republic.
Leonardo DiCaprio turned 40 on Wednesday, and already he’s had a career more glittering and diverse than most enjoy in a lifetime. After appearing in commercials and featuring as a homeless boy in the sitcom “Growing Pains,” Leo made his first splash as an actor at age 19, playing a mentally impaired boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” The role earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod, but for a while it looked like Leo, wooing millions of girls around the world as Jack Dawson and Romeo, wouldn’t graduate from the realm of teenage idols into a serious actor. But just as he went from child star to heartthrob, Leo ground out a career for himself, becoming a well-respected thespian through stellar performances in movies like “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.” He has been nominated for the acting Oscar four times. No joy so far, but with decades still before him, Leo is sure to grab that golden statuette sooner rather than later.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, David Warner, Ewan Stewart, Ioan Gruffudd
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, streaming on Netflix
For better or worse, “Titanic” will remain one of Leo’s defining roles, and while it’s easy to deride him in his heartthrob days, golden hair and green eyes shimmering while sketching nude Kate Winslet, he was already showing glimpses of the talent he would become. “Titanic” is all about spectacle, but Leo gives the movie a levity and a joie de vivre that prevents it from taking itself too seriously. Like the romantic artist-drifter he plays, Leo seems to be enjoying every moment of the ship’s fateful voyage, and his energy and boyish charm play off Winslet’s gumption and moxie to give us one of cinema’s enduring romances.
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, James Brolin, Brian Howe
Available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
In retrospect, Spielberg’s charming dramedy seems something of a turning point for DiCaprio – part of his transformation from teen idol to a respected and adventurous leading man. As real-life con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., DiCaprio uses his boyish good looks and enthusiasm in service of schemes only a teenager could dream up, faking his way through an adult world he can barely understand but certainly knows how to enjoy. Doctor, lawyer, detective, airline pilot; Frank takes everything he’s absorbed from pop culture, adds in a smattering of bullshit and powers through it all. The how-did-he-do-that con scenes (accompanied by John Williams’ jaunty, jazzy score) are the most fun, but Spielberg’s film has a real heart in the scenes between DiCaprio and Hanks, as the dogged federal agent pursuing, and, bizarrely, befriending Frank at the same time.
“The Great Gatsby” (2013)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher
Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Baz Luhrmann’s addled adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s class novel at least gets points for trying, I suppose – for every horrendous passage of Nick Carraway’s voice-over narration or over-saturated Baz-infused rumpus there’s a counterpoint of fine character work by the director’s spot-on cast. And leading the pack is DiCaprio, who nails everything about the grasping, idealistic, tragic Jay Gatsby: the false bravado glued together by a sincere charm and deep-seeded desperation, the juvenile worldview packaged inside a street-smart operator. Everything about DiCaprio’s performance screams superficiality (his entrance, with fireworks blazing and Gershwin blaring, is one of the finest moments of Luhrmann’s career), from his gleaming smile to forced accent – until the genuine, lovestruck Jay Gatz pokes through, in tender and comic moments. The scene where he has tea with Nick and Daisy in Nick’s cottage is a delight – a superb bit of physical comedy from DiCaprio mixed with a real, endearing romantic yearning.
Everyone loves a leading man. From the gentlemanly air of Gregory Peck to the all-American boyishness of Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood thrives on leading men. But what about the other guys, the ones that don’t get the girl or save the day? If anything, they’re more interesting. That’s certainly the case for Michael Shannon, an actor who has made a career out of eccentricity. Ever since he made his cinematic debut in a small role in “Groundhog Day,” he’s played the mentally addled, a white supremacist, an unhinged NYPD officer, and many sinister villains. Working across many genres, he specializes in people operating outside the status quo, who have either given up or been given up on by society. No one in Hollywood today can unsettle you the way he does.
Of course Shannon has also impressed in lead roles, particularly in the critically acclaimed “Take Shelter.” But to celebrate his 40th birthday this week, we felt it was a more fitting tribute to his career to focus on three movies in which he stole the show from a supporting role.
“Groundhog Day” (1993)
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Blink and you’ll miss him, but in his debut feature Michael Shannon already displayed a bit of…flair. As one half of a young couple whose impending marriage is saved by a time-locked Bill Murray on his road to redemption (one of the many adventures of Phil Connors that we hear about only in hints and allusion), Shannon seems much like any anxious newlywed – until Murray presents him and his new wife with a parting honeymoon gift of tickets to Wrestlemania. The ensuing few seconds of mania would much set the precedent for Shannon’s scene-stealing career.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Brian F. O’Byrne
Available on disc from Netflix and Amazon
Sidney Lumet’s pitch-black final film is a maelstrom of shifty deeds and compromised morals, as performed by a relentlessly committed ensemble cast, making it all the more impressive that Shannon still manages, as ever, to stand out. As Dex, the blackmailer seeking restitution for the grisly aftermath of brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Hawke)’s pitiful robbery gone wrong, Shannon is simultaneously the most threatening and somehow the most principled scoundrel of the bunch. The actor’s trademark combination of humor and insanity provide several of the movie’s few moments of almost-half-levity.
“Revolutionary Road” (2008)
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Zoe Kazan, Dylan Baker, Richard Easton
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
This Oscar-nominated suburban dystopia is known for the lead performances by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, reunited for the first (and to date, only) time since “Titanic.” But Michael Shannon, playing the insane son living down the street, is the foil that keeps it all together. A study in the stifling gender roles and social expectations of 1950s America, “Revolutionary Road” is the story of Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet), a picture perfect couple whose marriage is in turmoil behind the drawn curtains. In a world of manicured lawns and white picket fences, Shannon’s character is the only one who understands the unhappiness around him, seeing this soulless world more clearly in his insanity than any of the supposedly sane. Shannon, nominated for an Oscar for this role, delivers a pitch perfect performance that shows the audience the true tragedy of the Wheelers’ lives, their hopelessness and helplessness in a world where it’s better to just be crazy.