Leonardo DiCaprio, Upstaged Leading Man

By  · Published on March 3rd, 2014

Another year, another Oscar ceremony in the books. Once the booze wears off from Matthew McConaughey’s final “Alright, alright, alright,” of our year in film, we can get down to the really important part of the Oscars and start second-guessing the winners. Sunday night is all about rewarding actors and filmmakers for their hard work in the past year. Monday morning is reserved for the art of tearing down our sacred idols, convincing our coworkers that we always thought American Hustle was a little overrated or that Dallas Buyers Club was more than just a Philadelphia knock-off. And somewhere in the middle of all these conversations, someone will ask about Leonardo DiCaprio.

When will the poor guy ever win an Oscar?

Last month, Esquire ran a story on Leonardo DiCaprio titled “The Moment Leonardo DiCaprio Became a Man.” In a throwaway line intended to highlight his perpetually boyish good looks, his agent Rick Yorn refers to DiCaprio as a character actor in a leading man’s body. This intended compliment instead offers a great deal of insight into DiCaprio’s performances and why he is so often overshadowed by those around him. Including last night’s nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for four acting Academy Awards (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, WoWS) without taking home a single statue. During that same period, DiCaprio’s films have generated an additional eleven nominations for his co-stars and supporting cast, with Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz each walking away with the final prize.

This statistic fails to highlight actors such as Jack Nicholson (The Departed) or Tom Hanks (Catch Me If You Can) who did not receive Oscar nominations for their performances but are widely considered among the best actors of their generation.

While Oscar nominations are only one criterion, these statistics help highlight an ongoing trend in DiCaprio’s career; namely, that he is frequently the least interesting performer in his own movies. This is the inherent difficulty in being cast as the leading man. Characters like Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) are highlight performances intended to show the intensity of the actors. Likewise, Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road is allowed to yell and scream in a movie otherwise filled with quiet desperation. Hollywood tends to reward – and remember – bombastic performances over more subtle fare, and DiCaprio’s frequent casting as the stoic protagonist allows his scenes to be eaten away by his supporting cast. He is asked to play a focal point character; actors like Nicholson, Day-Lewis, and Shannon are free to play the biggest possible version of themselves while orbiting.

DiCaprio also struggles with his penchant for multi-year biopics. Films like J. Edgar and The Aviator (for which he got a Leading Role nomination) require him to play a single character through many stages of his life, never allowing the actor to fully inhabit characters at a single point in time. The past, present, and future versions of the actor weigh heavily on his performance; his role becomes one of continuity, the personification of the narrative thread that holds the entire piece together. When paired onscreen with actors living fully in the present – playing characters who are defined by their relationship with the lead rather than by their own complicated backstories – DiCaprio is again made to suffer. Cate Blanchett in The Aviator plays Katharine Hepburn as she was at the height of her popularity and influence. We do not need to see her rise to prominence to understand her interactions with Howard Hughes; this narrow focus allows Blanchett to carve out a character an inch wide but a mile deep, a markedly different approach than the man with which she’s sharing screentime.

Interestingly, the past few years have seen DiCaprio move away from the confines placed upon him by his persona as a leading man. In Django Unchained, DiCaprio moved back to a supporting role, freeing himself of his straight-man straitjacket and allowing him to play an antagonist with both humor and venom.

Then there’s The Wolf of Wall Street. This may be the first time that DiCaprio was genuinely free to be the most energetic and commanding character in a film, not left to share his spotlight with a veteran actor in a flashier role. This is partially due to the lack of progression for the film’s primary character, Jordan Belfort. While Belfort’s methods may change over the course of his career, his underlying motivations – greed and self-interest – remain a constant. Here DiCaprio’s singular focus on Belfort as an unbalanced addict keeps his performance elevated above his supporting cast, even with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey doing their best to play spoiler. He is allowed to be both a character and a lead, a perfect match for his sensibilities as an actor.

Do these performances mean that DiCaprio is growing as an actor? Or is he just learning to play the game? It could be said that the villain and the addict are easier roles to play than the straight man, marked more by physicality than emotion. It seems to me that DiCaprio is an actor who has always given a great deal of thought to his craft, choosing each role as an opportunity to work with directors or actors he admires. Perhaps his clout within the industry will direct him towards smaller or secondary roles that allow him to show more personality. In fact it may happen soon as his production company recently acquired the rights to the Richard Jewell story, reportedly with the intention to cast Jonah Hill as the lead and DiCaprio as his attorney.

DiCaprio may be a very good actor who has hitherto been eluded by AMPAS greatness, but he is also one who also knows the industry well enough to play to his strengths. When DiCaprio finally wins that first Oscar, don’t be surprised if it comes in a supporting role.

Correction: A previous incarnation of this entry claimed Day-Lewis won for Gangs of New York, but he was only nominated. Apologies.

Matthew is a staff writer for Paracinema Magazine as well as a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse. You can follow Matthew on Twitter (@labsplice). Ask him about growing up in Alaska, and he will make endless comparisons to the last five minutes of The Thing.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)