1. On November 11 Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio turns 40 years-old.
2. He’s the only child of a German-born legal secretary and an underground comic book artist, Irmelin Indenbirken and George DiCaprio, who met while college students and subsequently relocated to Los Angeles, where their precocious child mainly lived with his mother and maternal grandparents. He never finished high school, but eventually earnt his general equivalency diploma.
3. Famous DiCaprio lore has him being ejected from a taping of the children’s show Romper Room at age five because he romped way too much. He did better in commercials, and graduated to television roles with parts on Growing Pains, The New Lassie, Roseanne, and Parenthood. The latter was a spin-off of the Ron Howard movie; DiCaprio played Joaquin Phoenix’s role.
4. His first film role was Critters 3. His third film role was opposite Robert De Niro in the sometimes uncompromising 1993 domestic drama This Boy’s Life. Michael Caton-Jones directed an adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s memoir, with DiCaprio restless and emotionally open, a teenage boy with a domineering and eventually abusive stepfather he is willing to confront.
5. “Growing up, it was always my ambition to work with great actors and great directors, and it was Leo's ambition, too, so that’s what we were focused on and aiming for. Parts like those start to shape you as an actor, and they shape people’s perception of you, too. Leo going into This Boy’s Life at 15 years old and working with Robert De Niro, that shapes the rest of his career,” DiCaprio’s close friend, Tobey Maguire, explained to Vulture earlier this year.
6. His fourth film role was as Arnie, the mentally handicapped younger brother of Johnny Depp’s solemnly becalmed Iowa grocery store clerk in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Some people assumed that director Lasse Hallstrom had cast a young man who was genuinely handicapped, and marveled at how he was able to get such a coherent performance on camera.
7. “You could see him switch on the character,” Hallstrom told ew.com on the 20th anniversary of the movie’s release. “His gaze kind of got lost and he turned into this kid. He was amazing to watch, so there was no question that he was the right boy for it.”
8. DiCaprio was so convincing as Arnie – gentle and then angry, chaotic and then calm, dedicated to the role but not to reassuring the audience –that he earnt a 1994 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He, along with Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List, lost to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. DiCaprio was 19-years-old.
9. “Back in New York, I arrange to meet Leonardo DiCaprio at the Essex Hotel… Seven girls call him in the hour I’m up in his room, most of them models whose pictures are on the cover of magazines on various chairs and tables… Listening to him deal on the phone with agents, managers, publicists, film production people and girls, there is a deftness and sense of detached control which is admirable and surprising.” – Screenwriter and filmmaker James Toback, from the April 24, 1994 entry in his diary published in Projections 4 (Faber and Faber).
10. “I tell him the story of Harvard Man, and act parts of the movie out. He seems taken by it, and by me. I certainly am by him. Within an hour, it is clearly something we both want to do.” – James Toback, ibid. DiCaprio never starred in Harvard Man or worked with James Toback. Adrian Grenier played the lead role for Toback, in 2001.
11. The handful of roles that followed are valuable, because they show DiCaprio as a young working actor able to pick and choose: tragically cocky as a baby-faced gunslinger in Sam Raimi’s 1995 western The Quick and the Dead, then later the same year a teenage junkie on his way to underground fame in the adaptation of Jim Carroll’s revered memoir The Basketball Diaries.
12. The fantasy scene in The Basketball Diaries where DiCaprio’s Jim Carroll, who for reasons unknown is dressed akin to a Terminator that doesn’t yet shave, shoots up his classroom is the daftest excerpt from the actor’s entire career. It is not part of the source material. [Warning: Graphic violence]
13. The Basketball Diaries was the feature debut of Scott Kalvert, whose most prominent previous credit was Form… Focus… Fitness, the Marky Mark Workout. He’s made one feature since, 2002’s Deuces Wild with Stephen Dorff.
14. The last time DiCaprio would work with a debut director was 1998, when he played contrasting siblings – King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin – for Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace in The Man in the Iron Mask.
15. DiCaprio has gone full arthouse just once: 1995’s Total Eclipse, where he plays the vainglorious and bisexual 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud, inspiration to Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith for expatriate Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Olivier Olivier) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons).
16. It is not pretty. The excess of Rimbaud’s self-expression, given form by his relationship with the married Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) overwhelms DiCaprio’s performance. Without parameters, he runs amok and literary genius is wasted on his character.
17. Baz Luhrmann did many impeccably hip things for his successful take on, Romeo + Juliet, each undoubtedly planned out to the nth degree, but most crucially he corralled a 21-year-old DiCaprio into being a tragic romantic idol, which is something Hollywood has excelled at for, oh, a century or so.
18. “This film's young lovers, played radiantly by Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, have the requisite magic and speak their lines with passionate conviction. They remain rapt and earnest even when some of the film's frantic minor players might as well be speaking in tongues.” – Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Romeo + Juliet, 1/11/96.
19. The first choice of executives at 20th Century Fox for the lead role of Jack Dawson in Titanic was Matthew McConaughey, but writer/director James Cameron – the man who had a water tank that took 64 million litres of water to fill – insisted on DiCaprio.
20. Delayed six months and running at 194 minutes, Titanic was expected by many to be a commercial disaster, having run up unprecedented production costs of US$200 million. It released worldwide a week prior to Christmas 1997 and went on to become the most successful film of all time, eventually earning over US$2 billion before it was finally surpassed in 2012 by Cameron’s next film, Avatar.
21. Leonardo DiCaprio had just turned 23 when Titanic was released. Some cinemas literally needed replacement reels because they wore the original studio prints out. Titanic was still screening commercially by the time it had got to its home video release. It’s a busy, dedicated portrayal by DiCaprio, full of roguish moments and hints of romantic dedication. It’s not a great performance, but it’s an effective one. That’s the James Cameron way.
22. Someone has a sense of humour. After Titanic, DiCaprio was the biggest film star in the world. One of the first roles he shot was a supporting role in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, where he plays Hollywood bad boy Brandon Darrow, who cavorts wildly, ingests liberally and gets very publically arrested.
23. Not being Brandon Darrow has defined the public face of DiCaprio’s career ever since. His career has been considered, consistent and aiming for the esteemed and entertaining. He’s remained one of the world’s biggest film stars for the last 17 years, a constant in a time of rapid change.
24. Since Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio has never appeared in a comedy, a superhero’s cape, a sequel, or been directed by a woman. Excluding documentaries he’s narrated, DiCaprio has made 14 movies this century – one a year, basically – and each has been a drama of sorts (crime, historic, literary) by a leading Hollywood filmmaker.
25. Five of those films have been directed by Martin Scorsese, which is an act of faith because in the very first one, 2002’s sprawling 19th century epic Gangs of New York, DiCaprio looks out of his depth and very nearly disappears from the screen whenever Florentine shoe artisan and occasional thespian Daniel Day-Lewis is present.
26. If Robert De Niro was the personification of Scorsese’s spiritual struggles in the 1970s (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), what is DiCaprio to the revered filmmaker? Instead of characters defined by their duality, DiCaprio has mainly played loners at odds with the world they inhabit, often caught up in deception, whether taken on voluntarily (The Departed) or dropped into (Shutter Island).
27. I’m not sure I could recite anything memorable about DiCaprio’s performance in Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes in Hollywood biopic The Aviator. It’s a tidy, tasteful performance, even in the excesses of the mogul’s solitary middle years. It ticks a lot of boxes, which is something – in a way – DiCaprio needed to stop doing.
28. His one collaboration with Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker who knows his Lost Boys well, in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can is greatly underrated. For Spielberg, DiCaprio find something joyous and liberating in performing, as opposed to being an act of artistic responsibility.
29. “He said, ‘There’s one way that you can really f--- this all up. Just do heroin. If you steer clear of that, the other obstacles you’ll be able to navigate’. And that makes sense, dude.” Teen idol Zac Efron explains the advice given to him by former teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio in 2009.
30. Two of his most emotionally interesting performances are as men who’ve lost their wives and are haunted by cruel visions of them: the uneasy investigator Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island and the cerebral thief Cobb from Christopher Nolan’s literal brain-bender Inception. In the former, the beguiling Michelle Williams, who has the ability to exist on another plane from the co-stars she nonetheless interacts with, appears to shake something loose inside DiCaprio’s character.
31. The section of DiCaprio’s Wikipedia page headed ‘Personal Life’, which mainly encompasses his romantic dalliances, runs to 254 words. The word ‘model’ is used in it seven times.
32. In this era of stars being accessible through digital bites, Leonardo DiCaprio has never hosted Saturday Night Live, sat between two ferns for Zach Galifianakis, played an exaggerated version of himself in a comedy cameo, or done something silly on air with Jimmy Fallon. It’s as if his publicist just has a big sign that simply says ‘NO’.
33. By never making anything that is knowingly meant to go viral, and by wearing an impeccable suit and displaying the wary good manners of someone very famous conducting their career in the public eye, DiCaprio has left the focus on his work. That’s what he will be remembered for. It’s incredibly old-fashioned, and quite possibly inspired.
34. Let’s just not talk about Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
35. Then again, did that film’s cloistered air and rheumatic progression spur DiCaprio into doing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained? In the main supporting role of plantation owner Calvin Candie, he had a playful watchfulness. The showmanship that Tarantino’s dialogue now requires – something Christoph Waltz has hit upon effortlessly – doesn’t come naturally to DiCaprio, but the performance opened him up.
36. Especially for Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is –sometimes literally – a drooling idiot, a man with a child’s control over his needs who is never ahead of the game but simply committed to outrageous self-satisfaction. The rousing speeches won strong notices, but it was the deranged physical comedy of the Quaalude bender that was a revelation.
38. Dancing is not really his thing (note the views: those 13 seconds have been watched almost four million times).
39. His first film post-turning 40 will be Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant, a savage tale of survival and revenge on the 19th century American frontier co-starring Tom Hardy and due in December 2015. Cary Grant’s first post-40 feature was Alexander Hall’s Once Upon a Time in 1944 (I looked it up, too); Paul Newman’s was Peter Ustinov’s Lady L in 1965.
40. This space awaits Leonardo DiCaprio’s next mov(i)e.