Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which comes out this week, will be the first movie Leonardo DiCaprio has made since his starring role in The Revenant, the film that finally won him the Oscar. Everyone was keenly aware, during the awards season cycle of 2015, that it was DiCaprio’s time. You couldn’t turn a corner on the internet without finding a sad Leo and his Oscar-less life meme. It’s been a constant in film Twitter circles for years now, in large part because it’s a fun and easy narrative to spin. What the hell does Leo have to do to win a damn Oscar already? His win was a relief but also a celebration. Even people who don’t care about the Oscars were happy to see Leo get his little gold man. It felt earned. Good for Leo, who has been a staple of film since his childhood, a figure many of us grew up with, the heartthrob turned Serious Artist whose star power has never diminished. So, what is that image built on?
Let’s start with that Oscar win. In The Revenant, Leo suffers. His character does too, but that wasn’t what made up the lion’s share of publicity for the movie. You couldn’t escape stories of poor Leo’s commitment to the role, from him eating raw bison to sleeping in animal carcasses. Everything was about how hard the role was and how hard Leo made the process for himself. It was an actor’s dream and the most perfectly constructed awards narrative. It was also bullsh*t. Matt Zoller Seitz argued that DiCaprio winning an Oscar for this extended display of self-flagellation would be bad for acting, noting, ‘Endurance test acting, or transformational acting, can be great acting. But why is it prized above other forms of acting?’ I think this was partly why the Academy just decided it was his time. He clearly wanted it bad enough. But his win was also a signal of something emblematic to Hollywood and its definition of prestige: Make it look as difficult as possible because that’s how you show the world how tough your job really is.
Being a Grade A Movie Star — the kind of worldwide celebrity that everyone knows and loves — isn’t necessarily an occupation that encourages risk. You don’t want to risk alienating your fans with an abrasive non-commercial role, and you don’t want to go against the industry grain by working on something that devalues your name. DiCaprio seems to get this, which may explain why he’s so stridently safe in his career choices. A recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, which declared him to be ‘Hollywood’s last movie star’ (Tom Cruise would like a word), celebrated his ability to balance prestige with box office viability, all without having to sign onto a franchise or don spandex for the now inevitable superhero movie seeming every actor in the business is obliged to do. There is some validity to this claim. I certainly can’t see Leo joining the MCU unless he is given all the money, all the creative control, and Scorsese gets to direct. It’s a testament to his popularity that he can make seemingly risky titles like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Revenant commercial hits. However, I wouldn’t say he is necessarily a risky actor himself. Indeed, I think he’s one of the safest players in the business.
DiCaprio likes to work with choice favorites, from Tarantino to Alejandro G. Iñárritu to Scorsese. He’s also partnered up with celebrated auteurs like Baz Luhrmann, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Sam Mendes. These are acclaimed directors with many Oscars to their names, but they aren’t dangerous, to put it bluntly. The roles may require tough work and emotional strain, but these are still secure choices that fall in line with Leo’s business and industry savvy. These are films guaranteed to at least be part of the awards conversation (hence why he got stuck with the Oscar hunger narrative for so long), with roles that put him front and center. Even in supporting roles, like his work in Django Unchained (for my money, his greatest performance), he’s the undeniable scene-stealer. However, he’s not an actor you could imagine getting truly shocking with his choices. He’s not going to do the kind of work, say, Joaquin Phoenix or Isabelle Huppert does. Could you imagine Leo signing up for You Were Never Really Here or The Piano Teacher? He’s not the kind of actor to use his clout to support rising stars or indie darlings.
That’s not to say he has to do work like that to prove himself. It’s a sign of his skill and awareness of his own image that his narrow choice in directors (almost all white men and he hasn’t worked with a woman director since 1995) gives him room to do what he’s good at. But this is a business as well as an art form, and Leo’s filmography is a great representative of what happens when the two elements meet to the best of their abilities. What these projects also do is pay well. Leo commands a hefty salary on every project. He picked up $10 million for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Wolf of Wall Street (on the latter, his co-star Jonah Hill earned SAG scale, which at the time was $60,000). This is not an actor who’s going to cut his price for the right project. Either they increase their budget or he walks because he’s worth it. You only need to look at the grosses of the past decade of his career to see healthy profits abound. He wants to be visible, he wants to be profitable, and he wants to be acclaimed, and he’s accomplished all three of those aspects with aplomb. Perhaps that’s why he’s the last great Hollywood star.
Like many Hollywood stars of old, Leo’s image is also one with a fascinatingly contradictory personal life. He is highly visible when he wants to be but knows exactly when to shut that down. Everyone knows he likes to party with young supermodels and his cut-off age for the women he dates is 25, but the stain of skeeziness has never stuck to him. It’s not as though his erm… tastes, so to speak, are hidden or a big shock to his fans. Perhaps it’s because we don’t see him at public events with those young girlfriends and he’s steadfast in avoiding discussing his private life in interviews. There’s a clear line between work and play for Leo and I think people are happy to obey that silent agreement for him. That may be changing now, however. I’ve never seen more discomfiting conversations over Leo’s young girlfriends than I have in recent months, as part of our growing cultural discourse on Hollywood and its various power dynamics. Separating the art from the artist is one thing, but even as he works overtime to keep the barriers in place, the image of a beloved prestige actor and dedicated environmentalist still feels at odds with the playboy persona of a vaping 40-something man who only dates women half his age.
For many, he’s still Jack Dawson. He’ll always be Romeo or that kid from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? who we just knew was destined for greatness. I hear his name come up a lot in casual conversations about who the best actor working today is, and while I don’t agree with that, I get why he’s such a popular choice for general audiences in that regard. He embodies what it means to be a Hollywood idol and he consciously plays around with that. There’s enough mystique in his life to allow such a myth to exist. DiCaprio makes a big movie, soaks up all the glory, then goes away for a few years. You may occasionally see him promoting a casino or partying on a yacht with his posse, but he allows himself to disappear long enough so that people miss him. In that sense, he is a true movie star. People always want more of him but he’s smart to not give it to them.
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