Born: 11 November 1974
Where: Los Angeles, California, USA
Awards: Won 1 Golden Globe, 2 Oscar, 1 BAFTA nominations
Height: 5′ 11"
The Nineties saw the rise of some big, big stars. At different points Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Adam Sandler stormed the Hollywood firmament, each other them carrying a string of massive hits. But none of them enjoyed (endured?) the kind of enormo-fame achieved by Leonardo DiCaprio. Beginning the decade as a heavily tipped newcomer, he ended it with Titanic, the biggest hit in cinema history, and a worldwide army of teenage fans so crazed and committed to their idol they had critics recalling the manic days of Beatlemania.
So, DiCaprio could be viewed as a phenomenon, a lucky actor in the right place at the right time, who with one role reached the pinnacle of his industry. But this would be to seriously underestimate the man. The action-packed romance of Titanic may have made him a superstar, but it was hardly a challenge for a kid who’d already stood toe to toe with De Niro and Streep, convincingly played a junkie, a gunslinger, a whore and a bisexual poet AND been Oscar-nominated for the finest portrayal of a mental retard ever filmed (yes, that’s RIGHT, Mr Hoffman). If Titanic had never happened, DiCaprio would still have been seen as the finest and most versatile actor of his generation.
He was born Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio on the 11th of November, 1974, in Hollywood, to Italian-American comic distributor George DiCaprio and his German-American wife Irmalin, a legal secretary who’d go on to become Leonardo’s manager. The boy’s unusual name was chosen when he kicked his pregnant mother from the inside while she was viewing a Da Vinci in the Uffizi, the Wilhelm coming from a German relative — and not some dubious tribute to the Kaiser.
George and Irmalin would divorce the year after Leonardo’s birth but, the split being amicable, the pair would both be involved in the child’s rearing. Hence young Leo would enjoy a peculiarly bohemian upbringing (not unlike Winona Ryder’s). George being a prime mover in the comic underground of the Sixties and Seventies, visitors to the family home included Robert Crumb, Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr. The family would knock up outrageous costumes and attend numerous Californian festivals, one of Leo’s earliest memories being of tap-dancing onstage in front of an audience of thousands — his stage fright thus being eliminated at a very early age.
Though his parents might have been described as hippies, they were far from pot-smoking wasters. Experienced and still experimenting, they encouraged their boy constantly, his only trouble being finding things to do that they hadn’t already done. TV was one idea. At age 5 Leonardo made an appearance on his own favourite show, the educational Romper Room. Evidently this was not a prototype for the later Romper Stomper, but Leo was still nearly tossed off the set for his unruly behaviour.
A bright kid, Leo attended the Seeds University Elementary School at UCLA, an hour’s drive from the seedy, drug-infested Echo Park area where he lived — it was a mark of Irmalin’s dedication to her son that she’d spend 4 hours a day flitting to and fro. He’d then move on to the Los Angeles Centre for Enriched Studies, a school for gifted children, and then John Marshall High School in the Los Feliz area of LA. He wasn’t good in class, finding it hard to focus on academic studies. Indeed, he’d take to cribbing off his peers’ papers and become known as Leonardo Retardo. Instead, he concentrated on breakdancing for his peers at lunchtime, and playing practical jokes on the neighbours. The future heart-throb wasn’t much cop in matters of the heart either. Taking one Cecilia Garcia to see the appropriately romantic When Harry Met Sally, he kissed her and was summarily dumped.
Already keen to act, he’d spend his summers on courses in performance art. And he worked. Enthused by his stepbrother Adam Farrar’s starring in a Golden Grahams commercial (in 2000 Farrar would be arrested for attempted murder), at 14 he’d found an agent and scored parts in a succession of ads for milk, Matchbox cars and the like, as well as educational films like Mickey’s Safety Club and How To Deal With A Parent Who Takes Drugs.
With both parents taking him to auditions, he now went for "proper" acting parts and, proving the foolishness of one agent’s efforts to change his name to a supposedly more US-friendly Lenny Williams, he quickly rose through the ranks. He won a part in Santa Barbara, a post-Dallas soap featuring a young Robin Wright, and played a friend of the family McCullough, owners of the latest reincarnation of Lassie. He also had a fight with Heather McComb in the TV spin-off from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, which featured Michael Madsen and Billy Bob Thornton, as well as a very young David Arquette.
The same year that brought The Outsiders (1990) would see Leonardo win his first regular part. This was in another TV spin-off, this time a take on Ron Howard’s big comedy hit Parenthood, the series being written by Joss "Buffy" Whedon. One strand of the movie’s multi-faceted story had seen Joaquin Phoenix as the son of Dianne Wiest, a troubled boy who’s befriended by his rebellious sister’s drag-racing boyfriend, Keanu Reeves. Here the parts were taken by Leo, Maryedith Burrell and David Arquette respectively. Sadly, the show would not replicate its parent’s success, lasting for only three episodes.
After briefly popping up as one of Darlene’s classmates in Roseanne, Leonardo now made his Silver Screen debut. As is the case with so many modern stars, this was in a thoroughly dodgy horror flick — Critters 3. The original Critters was a knowing and reasonably racy Gremlins rip-off, directed by Stephen Herek, who’d go on to classier fare like 101 Dalmatians and Mr Holland’s Opus. By Critters 3, the notion of small, furry, man-munching aliens had grown a tad tired, despite the excellent tag-line "You are what they eat". Nevertheless, the cast made a good fist of it, Leo standing out as a lonely kid who struggles to keep his new friends while his landlord dad is busy evicting them from their apartment block. Oh, forgot to mention the infestation of fuzzy carnivores and the numerous sudden deaths.
Now came a real break. Growing Pains, a sweet comedy series inspired by the success of Family Ties, saw a psychologist and a journalist raising their 4 kids on Long Island. Leonardo would win a recurring role as Luke Brower, a homeless kid taken in by the kind-hearted Seavers clan. This would lead to a brief appearance in Poison Ivy, where Drew Barrymore really kicked off her comeback as a nutty Lolita terrorising poor Tom Skerritt.
Growing Pains, Parenthood and Santa Barbara had all seen Leo nominated for a Young Artist Award, and his class was confirmed when he beat 400 hopefuls to the role of Toby in This Boy’s Life. Here Ellen Barkin played Toby’s mother, a divorcee who, fearing that her son is going off the rails, settles in Seattle and takes up with Robert De Niro, a straight-up mechanic who’s seemingly the nice guy she’s been seeking. Toby, on the other hand, recognises De Niro as the phoney, drunken bully he really is and engages in an ongoing confrontation with him, with De Niro often screaming "Shut your pie-hole!" — Barkin being so keen to maintain her new marriage that she stays on the sidelines.
Going the full 15 with De Niro would be a challenge for any actor. That DiCaprio pulled it off while still a teenager is testament to his innate abilities. This Boy’s Life saw him recognised as an outstanding new talent, and both the New York Critics and the National Society of Critics made him their second-best supporting actor that year. The movie also saw him working for the first time with Tobey Maguire, a close friend he met at the auditions for Parenthood. Once fame had arrived, Maguire would become a mainstay of DiCaprio’s Pussy Posse, a drinking gang featuring the likes of actor Ethan Suplee and Jonah Johnson (Leo’s assistant on Titanic).
Leonardo would work with Maguire again soon after This Boy’s Life. At least, it was legally claimed that he did. What certainly happened was that the 2 actors, along with Amber Benson and several others, were filmed in a bar, flirting, joking, and discussing drink, drugs and love. It was a raw affair with no one seeming to like each other very much, and according to DiCaprio and Maguire, it was just an acting exercise. Then, in 1998, after DiCaprio’s Titanic success and Maguire’s first steps into the big-time, the footage was released, put together as a feature named Don’s Plum. Leo and Tobey sued to prevent its release, claiming they had received an agreement that it would never be released as a feature. Co-producer David Stutman sued them back for — amongst other things — trying to stop him making a living. Eventually a secret agreement was reached. Money changed hands, and it was agreed that Don’s Plum would never be commercially released in Canada or the USA.
Unfortunately for Leo and Tobey, who rather wished it would go away, the movie was picked up on by the art set in Europe and screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001. It was clearly still a sore point as, when the producers put an ad in Daily Variety in 2000, thanking the pair for their "amicable spirits, gentlemanly behaviour and wisdom beyond their years", they sued again. Amazingly, the lawsuits would still be flying come 2004.
Leo’s real follow-up to This Boy’s Life was another stormer. In Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Johnny Depp played a small-town boy who works in a grocery store to support his massively obese mother and his other siblings. Depp’s engaged in an affair with his boss’s wife, Mary Steenburgen (star of the original Parenthood), a woman who’s chosen him because, despite all his dreaming, she knows he will never leave. Then everything’s thrown into confusion when a precocious and independent Juliette Lewis arrives.
The movie was small, but funny, intensely moving and brilliantly acted. And undeniable star of the show was Leonardo, as Depp’s younger brother Arnie. Mentally retarded, he crows and brays and is endlessly trying to break out and climb the dangerously tall water-tower, proving a huge burden on his long-suffering brother. The scene where Depp finally cracks, sending Leo spiralling from cacophonous joy to uncomprehending heartbreak, has seldom been bettered. It was absolutely correct that the 19-year-old DiCaprio should have been Oscar nominated for his efforts, and absolutely criminal that Tommy Lee Jones won it for The Fugitive.
At this stage, Leo could have gone blockbuster, being offered the part of Robin in one of Jones’s next projects, Batman Forever. Instead, he chose a series of far more interesting roles, confirming his artistic ambitions. First there was a bit part in Agnes Varda’s tribute to film, The Hundred And One Nights Of Simon Cinema, which saw him alongside Mastroianni, Depardieu, Delon, Deneuve, Schygulla, and Lollobrigida, as well as Harrison Ford and his old pal De Niro, on one of the most impressive credit-lists of all time.
Next came Sam Raimi’s western The Quick And The Dead, where Gene Hackman holds a gunslinging contest that he fully intends to win by killing his old crony, Hollywood newcomer Russell Crowe. Both Crowe and DiCaprio were both personally chosen by the film’s star, Sharon Stone, who actually paid Leo out of her own wages. And she was well-rewarded, Leo standing out as Hackman’s long-lost son who joins the contest to prove himself to his daddy, along the way muttering such self-laudatory soundbites as "DAMN, I’m fast!" and "Is it possible to improve on perfection?"
But 1995 wasn’t all fun. In The Basketball Diaries, based on the true story of author Jim Carroll, he played a basketball star at a Catholic school who dabbles in drugs then hits the slippery slope to heroin, robbery and, eventually, prostitution (his former co-star Juliette Lewis excelled here as a scuzzy hooker). It was another superb performance in a hard-hitting drama. Indeed, it was so hard-hitting that in 1999 the video was recalled, due to a dream sequence where Leo dons a trenchcoat and blows away his teacher and classmates. Not only did this connect to the murderous activities of Colorado’s Trenchcoat Mafia, but it was also alleged to have influenced 14-year-old Michael Corneal, who shot 3 classmates in Paducah, Kentucky.
With his father George seeking out the best scripts for his son, Leonardo now moved on to another controversial picture, Total Eclipse, directed by Agnieszka Holland, who’d won a Golden Globe in 1992 for her Europa, Europa. This saw Leo out-there again, this time as the tormented, bisexual teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud, learning from then seducing David Thewlis’s Paul Verlaine. Crude, Dionysian and wholly obnoxious, he came on like a Jim Morrison of Yore — which is exactly what Rimbaud was.
DiCaprio’s stock with critics was now exceptionally high. It was time to step into the mainstream, and this he did by taking the lead in Romeo And Juliet, updated and MTV-ified by Baz "Moulin Rouge!" Luhrmann. Keeping Shakespeare’s original words, Luhrmann set the movie in modern-day Verona, seeing DiCaprio romance Claire Danes’ Juliet amidst an out-and-out gang war between the Montagues and Capulets. It was flashy and fun, and it hit the teen market hard, making a heart-throb of the hitherto fairly arty Leo.
As if still striking against inevitable superstardom, Leo followed this up with the infinitely more low-key Marvin’s Room, where Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton played estranged sisters drawn back together when Keaton is diagnosed with leukaemia and Meryl’s son Hank (Leo), in an institution for burning down his mum’s house, is a likely bone marrow donor. It was traumatic stuff, with De Niro popping up again as a geeky doctor. Leo would next appear briefly in David Blaine’s Street Magic, the pair becoming friends for a while. Indeed, a notorious picture would circulate showing them, along with Tobey Maguire, clad in very loose kimonos and eating sushi. Arguments raged worldwide as to whether Leo could really be that, well, big.
Now everything changed. Turning down the part of Dirk Diggler in PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights (a part for which it seemed Leo would not have needed prosthetic enhancement), he instead took the lead as Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s Titanic. This was Cameron’s doing, the director having battled hard against the studio who preferred Matthew McConaughey. Everyone knows the story, how poor Irish emigrant Dawson creeps up from the cheap seats to woo, sketch and seduce hoity-toity Kate Winslet, before dying in his successful attempt to save her in the freezing water after the ship goes down.
Costing $200 million, Titanic was a huge financial risk that paid off in grand fashion. Scooping 11 Oscars to equal Ben-Hur’s record, it took a fantastic $1.8 billion worldwide, more than 3 times the take of Star Wars (including its re-release). And, of course, the movie sparked Leomania, a phenomenon so widespread that as late as 2001, 28 Kabul barbers were arrested by the Taliban for giving kids DiCaprio haircuts.
In the US, Titanic spent an incredible 15 weeks at Number One, with the first real challenge to its supremacy coming from Leo’s next picture, The Man In The Iron Mask. Here he played dual roles, as the decadent and cruel young king, Louis XIV and his twin Philippe — a nice guy that musketeers Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich attempt to sneak onto the throne. The movie was fine fun, but not sturdy enough to dislodge Titanic. That honour would fall to the critically derided Lost In Space.
Leo, Golden Globe-nominated for Titanic, was now the biggest star in the world, and was shocked to find himself on magazine covers even when he hadn’t done an interview. He was especially shocked to discover that Playgirl was planning to run a photo-spread, including a full-frontal nude shot. He immediately sued to stop it. But he couldn’t stop everything. Having lived with his mother up to the release of Titanic in 1997, now he moved out and began to really party, the real and imagined shenanigans of the Pussy Posse filling tabloids all over. He was linked to supermodels Kristen Zang, Bridget Hall and Amber Valetta, eventually becoming engaged to Brazilian beauty Gisele Bundchen. Though they did not marry, indeed they’d split for a while in 2002, this would be the relationship that lasted.
There’d be trouble, too. Having encountered actress Elizabeth Berkley at the launch party for The Man In The Iron Mask, it was alleged that Leo bombarded her with calls and, later, ordered his friends to kick the ass of Berkley’s boyfriend, actor and screenwriter Roger Wilson, an incident that apparently left Wilson with serious throat injuries. Come 2000, Wilson sued DiCaprio for $45 million, claiming Leo had set his friends on him. DiCaprio would be found innocent in 2004. Apparently, he had issued an order to kick Wilson’s ass, but there was no way his friends could have heard him. Beyond this, there’d be another nasty incident in 2000 when Dana Giachetto, financial advisor to a roster including Leo, Tobey Maguire, Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Courteney Cox and Matt Damon, was found to have misappropriated some $10 million.
On the work front, he cut right back. 1998 saw him play an horrifically spoiled movie star brat in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, beating up girlfriend Gretchen Mol, trashing his hotel room and offering a spare groupie to hack Kenneth Branagh. But that was it for another 2 years, when he took the lead in Alex Garland’s The Beach. Here he played a traveller seeking thrills as well as himself in Bangkok, and finding a map showing a paradise island that’s supposedly the spiritual home of all wayward souls. Once there, he discovers a hippie commune led by benign(ish) dictator Tilda Swinton where he makes love, fights sharks and armed evictors, and eventually goes native in the jungle as the movie turns from The Blue Lagoon into Lord Of The Flies.
The film was not a success, but it did send Leo over the $20 million-a-movie mark. With financial security and time on his hands, he turned down the lead in American Psycho and signed up for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. Set in the mid-1860s, this saw DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, a man seeking revenge for the death of his father at the hands of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill The Butcher (a part originally intended for Robert De Niro). Both men have designs on pickpocket Cameron Diaz and both want blood as the Darwinian struggle between Anglo-Saxon natives and Irish immigrants explodes amidst the 1863 draft riots.
The beginning of 2003 would see Gangs Of New York joined in the charts by another Leo flick, Catch Me If You Can. This was originally to have been directed by Gore Verbinski, but he was forced to drop out when Leo was called to re-shoot love scenes with Cameron Diaz for Gangs%u2026 David Fincher, Cameron Crowe and Lasse "Gilbert Grape" Hallstrom were all approached, but turned it down, with executive producer Steven Spielberg finally taking over.
The movie was another true story, this time dealing with the career of Frank Abagnale Jr. Traumatised when his mother (the brilliant Natalie Baye) cheats on dad Christopher Walken, the youngster embarks on an outrageous succession of scams, posing as a lawyer, a doctor and a pilot, with absolutely no training at all. Breezy and amazingly charming, he thus wins wealth, status and women, while all the time being tracked by FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks (Hanks stepped in for James Gandolfini when the delays forced him back to The Sopranos).
Now dealing solely in massive projects, DiCaprio would join his Romeo and Juliet director Baz Luhrmann once more for a biopic of Alexander The Great, which would cause controversy well before filming began over Leo’s Alexander’s taking 3 male lovers, as well as a eunuch and an Amazon. Sadly, the movie would be shelved indefinitely as Oliver Stone’s Alexander epic reached the production stage first. Instead, there’d be a reuniting with Scorsese, with Leo taking the lead in 2004’s The Aviator, a biopic of Howard Hughes, following the brilliant pilot, inventor, film-maker and entrepreneur from the 1920s through to the 40s. It would cover his relationships with the likes of Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow and, especially, Katherine Hepburn, but would also concentrate on his gradual mental disintegration as he succumbed to obsessive-compulsive disorders. It was a fine role for DiCaprio, allowing him to play to play the charismatic outsider, glamorous superstar and unstable genius. It would win him a Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He’d also, along with Scorsese, be honoured by the French who in 2005 made him Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.
For years, DiCaprio had been attached to The Good Shepherd, a CIA history to co-star and be directed by Robert De Niro. But when the finance was finally arranged, Leonardo was contracted elsewhere, reuniting with Scorsese yet again for The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs. Set in New England, this saw young policeman DiCaprio infiltrate the Irish mafia, soon realising that mob have sent a similar youngster to infiltrate the police.
Despite his immense success, DiCaprio does not consider himself to simply be a movie star, describing himself also as an environmental activist. This extra-curricular activity seemed to begin when the makers of The Beach were accused by Thai officials of destroying the local eco-system, and it’s something that Leo clearly takes very seriously. Not only did he interview President Clinton about ecological affairs, he wrote an article for Time Magazine, and became a patron of the Dian Fossey Fund, Fossey being the murdered activist portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas In The Mist. Leo also has his own foundation, which won the prestigious Martin Litton Environmental Warrior Award for its passionate efforts. In 2003, he guest-edited the National Geographic Kids magazine, hoping to draw his younger fans towards the cause. The next year would see him campaigning for wannabe president John Kerry, making 20 speeches in 11 states, explaining how George Bush’s government had damaged the environment.
Like Harrison Ford, the biggest star of the previous generation, Leonardo DiCaprio is not simply an onscreen action hero — he wants to save the world for real.