It was all that damn coughing.
There’s a scene in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood in which Leonardo DiCaprio coughs. A lot. His character doesn’t want to be coughing. In fact, it’s the worst possible time for that nonsense, as he’s in the middle of a conversation. There’s a director looming over him, telling him things he doesn’t really agree with, but which he knows he’ll probably have to accept, so he’s trying really hard to suppress the cough and to seem cool; covering his mouth with his fist, halting his breathing, desperately attempting to maintain eye contact with the director—anything to reassert control. But try as he might he just can’t stop the convulsions from shaking him and his eyes from watering.
And, man, it just slew me. The rhythm of it, the editing, the reactions. But more than anything, it was Leo himself. With every anxious glance through watery eyes and every half-swallowed nervous cough he cracked me the hell up. I could not stop laughing the whole way through, and in fact began to mirror Leo’s movements, except from pure joy rather than anxiety, and from then on, something changed in me. When I went to see Tarantino’s elegiac, meandering tone poem a week or so ago, I entered the cinema with a vicious hangover in one hand and an axiomatic skepticism of Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting prowess in the other. I was pretty sure I’d enjoy the movie as a whole—Tarantino’s films fairly reliably hit the sweet spot for me (oh hey, here’s my ranking of them, sans … Hollywood!)—but I was equally certain that I would, at best, tolerate its lead. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Up until now, I have not exactly been what you could call a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, one of the first pieces I wrote here that managed to get a little bit of traction and pull in a decent bit of traffic still remains quite high up in the Google rankings, almost four years later:
Hashtag hot take, yeah?
Just to be clear, in that piece I wasn’t saying that Leonardo DiCaprio was a bad actor. Just that he wasn’t nearly as amazing as conventional wisdom would suggest. The hysteria seems to have died down a bit since Leo finally won his Oscar—for The Revenant, shortly after that piece was published—but popular discourse back then always seemed to place the actor in the pantheon of All Time Greats—and certainly in the hall of Greatest Contemporary Actors. I disagreed vehemently. To me, he seemed the epitome instead of Try Too Hard. Not just in his choice of roles, but more in the way he played those roles. I could always see him acting. Granted this is—as with anything concerning the arts—a fairly subjective issue, but Leo could never do what I judge actors on above everything else: Disappearing into a role. Making you forget that they are a famous face.
For me, Leo never disappeared. No matter the role I could always see him in my mind’s eye, rehearsing his lines between takes, checking that his posture is right for his character, furrowing that brow in the mirror to find just the right level of intensity. One might say that it’s harder to disappear into a role the more recognisable or unique your face is, or the more idiosyncratic a character you are in real life. Which is fair enough. Yet I never had the problem I had with Leo with someone like, say—just to compare him to a contemporary male example of each—George Clooney, or Michael Shannon, or Samuel L. Jackson. Those dudes could disappear. For me, Leo never did. Onscreen, no matter how hard he tried—and in fact the more he tried—he always remained Leo.
That piece got a fair amount of shares, and I remember receiving a bunch of messages of vociferous agreement, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one out there who thought so. A common thread in some of the replies was the feeling of kicking against conventional wisdom, and of the bafflement at Leo’s apparent status as conventional wisdom in the first place. To this day I’m not entirely sure where this conception of Leo’s titanic (sorry, had to be done) talent came from. To his credit, he has made a fair amount of interesting choices; and though he has not been shy of doing films that could reductively yet still fairly accurately be called Oscar bait he has also eschewed the comic book movie craze that has otherwise taken over all of Hollywood and that only the last remaining examples of what we used to know as Movie Stars—Tom Cruise being another example—have really been able—or willing, or both—to avoid.
Back in the days of Romeo+Juliet (1996), Titanic (1997), and The Beach (2000) I get the sense that thanks to his angelic good looks Leo was just as often tarred with the ‘pretty boy’ brush as he was recognised for any skill he might have brought to a role. Where the narrative began to change is some time around 2002, during which both Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York came out. Talking about diving headfirst into the Legendary Hollywood Male Auteurs pool, huh? You want the quickest route to industry prestige? Get an older white male auteur to cast you in something (no disrespect meant, some of those lot are my favourite directors of all time, but the point remains). It’s the latter of the two movies which I think represented the real turning point. Gangs of New York and Amsterdam Vallon’s scraggly facial hair is the role which to me marked out Leo’s desire to be seen as a Serious Actor. A Real Heavyweight. One Of The Greats. What followed was over a decade of (by and large) serious, often auteur-led, prestige pictures that tackled weighty themes, and for which Leo adopted his best Grim Frown and put on his most powerful Intense Face:
The Aviator (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Blood Diamond (2006)
Body of Lies (2008)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shutter Island (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)
Django Unchained (2012)
The Great Gatsby (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Revenant (2015)
And you know what, fair f**ks to him. The movies may vary quite wildly in quality—The Departed being a genuinely great remake of a modern classic; J. Edgar an anodyne and creatively bloodless biopic—but there are no sequels and a lot of the choices are genuinely interesting, if not always totally successful. It’s surprising the boy has had as much energy to chase original projects considering the endless quest to pursue every 19-25 (AND NOT ONE MONTH MORE!) blonde model under the sun but there we are. Some respect for the choices is due.
But still. I could never believe him. It always felt like he was acting under duress. ‘Act as hard as you can or your wife and children get it!’ Except here in this case it seemed as if it was Oscar himself that held the gun. I can’t pretend to read anyone’s mind, and it may well have just been the story created by the media, with Leo himself never feeling any pressure to claim himself a gold statue. But it certainly felt like he did. The cliched ‘destroyed himself physically for the role’ narrative around The Revenant—and the Academy Award that it actually did win him—contributed greatly to this impression. Perhaps it was just the internet and the pundit class that finally took a breath and let go of after he took that statuette home, but if Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is anything to go by, it feels like Leo did too. Yes, Leo’s performances in Django and Wolf of Wall Street are both characterized by a high energy, manic sort of gonzo power, but they still feel too studious, too self-consciously mannered.
I’m still processing my feelings about Tarantino’s latest. I respect the dazzling craft often on show—the entire Spahn ranch sequence is a bravura display of tension and quality not seen in the director’s work since the opening of Inglourious Basterds—yet I’m still unsure about the delivery of the movie’s message, and the late, great Sally Menke’s absence in the editing room is deeply felt in multiple parts. Yet the one thing I came away from the movie completely sure of was Leonardo DiCaprio. It started with that damn coughing, and from then on I believed him completely. Leo’s Rick Dalton is by far the actor’s greatest performance. It would be reductive and cheap to speculate how much Leo is drawing on his own experiences in portraying the anxiety-riddled, alcoholic actor worried about fading into irrelevance. All we have to go on here is the performance. And the performance is dynamite. You pity Dalton, you dislike him, yet you want to crack a beer with him, and to comfort him. Tarantino has written a great character, but Leo makes him come alive. The deep insecurities that wrack Dalton’s sense of self and belonging are writ large in Leo’s every twitch and flail and hilarious tear. It’s at once an outsized, loud role, yet also a very subtle performance, full of pathos and great comic timing. It feels natural, real, in ways that I have never seen from the actor.
Cultural opinions form part of our identity, and the more we repeat them and make them known to other people, the more baked in they get. They become dogma. Hard to shift. Axiomatic. For me, that was my belief that I could never believe Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting. ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ has changed everything. And I’m glad it has. I really hope that going forward Leo decides to echo his hero Jack Nicholson, and he keeps bringing the looseness and the lived-in understanding of character that he has here. If he does, I’ll keep believing.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures Releasing