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Leo the Cowardly Lion

October 19, 2006

Perceptive readers of this blog will know that I have my issues with Leonardo DiCaprio (it’s not nearly as extreme as my vendetta against Don Henley, but it’s significant nonetheless).

I’ve often pointed out how he has yet to be believable in any role where he plays an adult. Gangs of New York is only the most egregious example. While most critics tend to agree that he’s not a great actor, he is nonetheless often given credit for not pursuing the career of least resistance after Titanic.

He didn’t use his window as the biggest movie star in the world to star in dumb action vehicles or synthetic romantic comedies. Instead, it is said, he chose to become an actor and not a star, choosing roles based on their ability to challenge his talents rather than on their marketability.

But I think that’s bullshit. He remains one of the biggest stars in the world and continues to make $20 million a picture, even though he hasn’t had a real slam dunk blockbuster since Titanic (and only two, Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator, can be considered hits). But even more, he’s shrewdly attached himself to the handful of directors who get more press for their movies than the actors they cast: Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. (Tellingly, the two movies he’s made post-Titanic without those directors–The Beach and The Man in the Iron Mask–were both forgettable failures.)

One of the benefits of starring in a Spielberg, Scorsese or Allen movie is that the pressure to bring in audiences is off. These directors all have established track records for various levels of box office success: for Spielberg, it’s all blockbusters; for Scorsese, it’s always OK but never great; for Allen, it’s little revenue and sometimes even smaller budgets. So if one of Leo’s movies does poorly–as The Gangs of New York did, with $77 mil domestic on a $100 mil budget–Leo’s reputation doesn’t take a hit. It’s just said, oh well, that’s Scorsese, his movies never make money.

Moreover, Leo’s roles post-Titanic–with the exception of his gutsy cameo as an unflattering version of himself in Celebrity–have all served to reinforce the notion that Leo is a star. Even when he’s playing seemingly more challenging roles, like Howard Hughes in The Aviator or Billy Costigan in The Departed, he’s always the star of the movie, and more importantly, he’s always the hero. The best actors don’t only pick roles where they play the protagonist, and they don’t always pick roles where they’re the lead; they know that sometimes the most interesting roles are supporting characters and villains.

But Leo and his agent are smart enough to know that as long as he keeps playing heroes, audiences will see him as a star–whether his movies produce star-like box office or not. Leo has his cache and eats it too.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Juan permalink
    October 19, 2006 8:19 pm

    Man, you have really got it in for Leo. By any chance, were you one of the struggling young actors he beat out for that part in GROWING PAINS?

    If you ask me, Spielberg and Scorsese want to work with him because they think he’s an excellent actor, as I do.

  2. bro permalink
    October 19, 2006 9:06 pm

    i think you’re too hard on poor leo. i’m not necessarily defending him, but what leading actor of his generation is better- damon, ed norton…damn, where have all the leading men gone?

  3. October 19, 2006 10:03 pm

    Here is a short list of actors better than Leo:

    Matt Damon
    Ed Norton
    Christian Bale
    Hugh Jackman
    Tom Hanks
    George Clooney
    Ryan Gosling
    Robert Downey Jr.
    Jim Carrey
    Jamie Foxx

    My problem with Leo isn’t so much that he’s a terrible actor, but that he’s not a good enough actor for the parts he plays. He’s one of those actors, like Tom Cruise, that people always find themselves making apologies for: he wasn’t that bad, he was pretty good, but when’s the last time since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? have you classified one of his performances as amazing?

    I think Leo’s biggest mistake is pretending he’s an actor when he’s really a star. A guy like George Clooney is no chameleon, but he smartly chooses roles that cater to his limited range, and reinforce his star persona. Leo wants to reinforce his star persona but seems to think his range is limitless. He thinks he’s the Robert DeNiro of his generation when he’s really the Ryan O’Neal.

    (I also want to add that every time I see Leo in a movie, I think, who would have been better? For example, a young Tom Hanks would have been amazing in The Aviator. Ryan Gosling would have been phenomenal in The Departed. It’s a fun game.)

  4. Juan permalink
    October 20, 2006 12:24 pm

    “He thinks he’s the Robert DeNiro of his generation when he’s really the Ryan O’Neal.”

    I have never laughed so hard in my life! Well, I completely disagree about the O’Neal thing, but you certainly come up with some interesting thoughts, I’ll give you that.

    Hey, it’s too bad Kubrick died, because Leo could have worked him too. (Just to clarify, that’s a BARRY LYNDON reference.)

  5. bro permalink
    October 21, 2006 3:42 pm

    fair enough, but notice i said “of his generation” – that disqualifies the last six names on the list except for gosling, as they’re all pushing 40 or above. also, i take exception to christian bale, i’ve always underwhelmed by his performances. and to put foxx in there based on one impersonation where he didnt even have to act with his eyes for most of the movie is a bit laughable

  6. October 21, 2006 9:08 pm

    I think your disparagement of Foxx is a bit unfair. Clearly you haven’t seen him in Stealth.

    But in all seriousness, he was terrific in a very anti-Jamie Foxx role in Collateral, was supposedly quite good in Jarhead and was the only entertaining thing in the otherwise awful Any Given Sunday.

    As for other better actors of Leo’s generation, how about these:

    Joaquin Phoenix
    Philip Seymour Hoffman
    Don Cheadle
    Terence Howard
    Johnny Depp
    Benicio Del Toro

    Granted, all these guys are older than Leo but Leo had the advantage that he’s been acting since he was a kid and getting his pick of parts since he was in Titanic at age 23, a luxury few other actors have had. While he’s not up for the same roles as the likes of Tom Hanks or George Clooney, he almost certainly is considered for the same parts that Phoenix and Depp are considered for. That, for me, defines an actor’s “generation” better than his age.

  7. Jen permalink
    October 22, 2006 11:45 pm

    When I think about what launched Leo to fame in the first place, it’s the spectacle of the movie Titanic, not his performance in it.
    Matt Damon is by far a better actor than Leo. And if you see The Departed, and you see the two of them on screen together, it is clear.
    An example I noticed of this happened towards the second half of the movie. As Leo’s character gets deeper and deeper into his undercover work, to the point where he feels he has no one on his side anymore, not even the department in the force that is supposed to be protecting him, to the point where he’s not sure if he can ever get out, Leo’s character is clearly under a lot of stress which calls for the actor to express his anxiety and emotions. How does Leo do this? Through props. Leo’s character begins popping pills, to deal with the stress and pressure that he is under. Towards the end of the movie, he’s popping pills left and right, and that was my cue as the viewer to recognize that he is in a state of turmoil, conflicted between the role he must play within the Irish mob, and the real person he is inside.
    Yet, when Damon’s character experiences the stress and pressure of doing the opposite; appearing like a good guy as a “Statie” detective while secretly serving as one of Nicholson’s men trying to get information on the inside, Damon’s abilities to express this stress are much more nuanced. What Damon could pull off as an actor with his facial expressions and mannerisms upon hearing information from the mob that would prompt him to have to go into the next room and indetectably lie to his unit, ran circles around what Leo tried to express by shakily lifting up a handful of pills to his mouth.
    I know this comparison makes no sense if you haven’t seen the movie, but even when you compare Leo’s roles to Damon’s, I feel like I’ve seen a lot more quality from Damon’s performances than from Leo’s.
    And no, just because I live with MOWC does not mean that I was influenced by him on this – I have never been a Leo fan.
    A Joaquin Phoenix fan, now there you go! He is certainly of Leo’s “generation” and his performance in Walk the Line was amazing. The scene backstage when he gets mad and rips out the sink? that wasn’t in the script, Joaquin just did that, he was that into the role. Reminds me of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen goes crazy in the hotel room… course I’m not sure if Joaquin was under any influence during the shooting of that scene like I’m pretty sure Sheen must have been. (Please note I am not trying to compare Walk the Line to Apocalypse Now, just that particular scene reminds me of the complete devotion to the character the same way Sheen had in Apocalypse Now…

  8. Juan permalink
    October 23, 2006 7:19 pm

    What’s funny is that I agree just about every actor on your lists is better than Leo, yet I still consider him an excellent actor.

  9. bro permalink
    October 24, 2006 6:32 pm

    i still think leo’s not getting the credit he deserves, but at least no one has had the nerve to mention the other member of leo’s pussy posse, my personal nemesis, the always overrated- tobey maguire

  10. Bren permalink
    October 27, 2006 11:42 am

    I have to agree w/ the people who have said you’re a little hard on Leo… I can’t help but think that Leo is one of those actors/things that critics feel they have to hate, like Pirates of the Caribbean. As for the question what has he done since Gilbert Grape that’s amazing… well maybe he wasn’t amazing but he was pretty damn good in both Basketball Diaries and Titanic… let’s face it, it wouldn’t have become half the phenomenon it was with someone else (rumor has it that McConaghey turned it down…) He was pretty good in the Aviator, your main problem with that role is that he just doesn’t look old enough…true enough, but he’s still decent in it. As for your other actors, if you go by Leo having one amazing role then
    1.Terence Howard- only one amazing role (very amazing, but so was Leo’s retard)
    2. Hugh Jackman- no amazing roles (yes he’s a great Wolverine, but not amazing… and have you seen Van Helsing?!?)
    3. Clooney- you state yourself very limited range– he basically plays himself, absolutely cool guy…plus he could never play a retard
    4. Tom Hanks– a young Tom Hanks would never have been able to do the Aviator– he was too busy making amazing films such as Joe vs the Volcano and Dragnet
    5. Benicio del Toro- Fantastic actor…but has he ever been the lead role of any movie? All his fantastic roles (and they are fantastic) is as a supporting actor
    6. Cheadle- see del Toro… also has he ever done anything truly amazing? I feel like he’s just more of a really cool guy which makes it seem like he’s great…though I guess Hotel Rwanda was pretty fantastic
    7. Ryan Gosling- well to be honest I only know one movie w/ him…and he wasn’t amazing… what’s he good in?
    8. Robert Downey Jr.– completely unreliable to make a movie with… too much smack
    So really you’re only left w/ maybe 6 actors who you can truly make the argument as a better lead actor, plus I’ll add in Sean Penn, even though he’s older. Also, every role that Leo does is under a microscope, conversely we don’t give Christian Bale shit for his role in Reign of Fire or Matt Damon for Legend of Bagger Vance.
    So, a final note, by no means am I a huge fan of Leo, not even close, but he does need sticking up for

  11. October 27, 2006 10:43 pm

    First off, let’s bury this ridiculous notion that critics feel they have to hate Leonardo DiCaprio. The guy’s been nominated for two Oscars so clearly he’s getting respect among serious movie types. A lot of people, including many movie critics, think he’s a great actor; my point was just that I rarely find him convincing.

    The issue isn’t whether Leo–or Cheadle, or Terence Howard, or Benicio del Toro–is truly amazing, but whether he’s convincing. A good actor will be convincing in every role even if you don’t feel like he did anything amazing. But Leo is only intermittently convincing; he was completely unconvincing in Gangs of New York, somewhat convincing in The Aviator, mostly unconvincing in The Departed. A twice-Oscar-nominated actor shouldn’t be unbelievable in as many parts as he’s believable in.

    Ironically, I wonder whether Leo’s problem isn’t that he tries to be amazing in everything he does and forgets about the power of just being convincing. Look at Matt Damon. Not every role requires excessive displays of emotion or reckless demonstrations of angst. Some roles do, some roles don’t. But DiCaprio, like Sean Penn, won’t do any role without having at least two or three Oscar-baiting scenes.

    As for your disparagements of Tom Hanks, you know that’s B.S. The only reason he was doing movies like Dragnet and Joe vs. The Volcano was because he couldn’t get any dramatic roles. And it’s not like there aren’t some great performances scattered throughout his pre-Philadelphia days: Punchline, A League of Their Own, Big. But more importantly, even in ridiculous movies like The Money Pit and Turner and Hooch, he was always believable. The same cannot be said for Leo.

    Besides, you may think that I’m being hard on Leo, but wait ’til you see him in Blood Diamonds. Judging by the trailers, this could be his least convincing performance yet.

  12. October 27, 2006 10:45 pm

    One more point: every role Leo does is under microscope because he’s paid $20 million a movie for each role, and almost every movie he’s in has Oscar aspirations. It goes with the territory.

    When Christian Bale stars in only blockbusters and Oscar bait (which is nearly the case), then every role he plays will be under the microscope as well.

  13. Juan permalink
    October 28, 2006 4:39 pm

    Well, here’s one guy who disagrees with you about the BLOOD DIAMOND preview:

    This is bringing to mind the time a co-worker told me how ridiculous and over the top Daniel Day-Lewis sounded in the TV preview for LAST OF THE MOHICANS, delivering the line, “No matter what happens, I will find you!” (or something like that). I actually agreed with her — UNTIL I saw the movie, and heard Day-Lewis uttering the line within the full context of his magnificent performance.

    And no, I’m not saying DiCaprio is Day-Lewis’ equal as an actor — or even close. All I’m saying is, let’s wait for BLOOD DIAMOND before judging. (Although, as usual with Leo, we’ll probably disagree anyway!)

  14. bren permalink
    November 1, 2006 12:08 pm

    Hey just wondering, what was Leo nominated for, besides Gilbert Grape?

    No sleep til Borat!!

  15. bren permalink
    November 1, 2006 12:12 pm

    oh yes… the one thing I do agree with you about is that Leo can be quite difficult to believe as an adult…not because of a lack of acting skills though, but more because he just looks so damn young…. I mean really how do you go from playing a teenager in Catch Me then straight to a biopic of a grown man the next (The Aviator)?

  16. December 15, 2006 6:09 pm

    Two — not one — TWO best-actor Golden Globe nominations for Leo (THE DEPARTED, BLOOD DIAMONDS)!!!

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