A Look at the Work of Leonardo Dicaprio

Last night while on Letterboxd (which is a brilliant film website), I decided to make a list ranking the ten Leonardo Dicaprio performances that I’ve seen. I ranked them like this:

  1. His performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator
  2. His performance as Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
  3. His performance as Billy Costigan in The Departed
  4. His performance as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar
  5. His performance as Frank Abgnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can
  6. His performance as Danny Archer in Blood Diamond
  7. His performance as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  8. His performance as Cobb in Inception
  9. His performance as Jack Dawson in Titanic
  10. His performance as Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs of New York

While I was making this list I realized how big a fan I am of Dicaprio’s work. He has managed to deliver consistently good performances and, for me at least, he hasn’t delivered a bad performance in ten years. He is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation if not the finest and I would personally rank him as one of my ten favorite actors of all time. Why is that? What is it that makes his performances so excellent? That is what I’m going to be looking at now. What I’m going to be doing is taking a look at the top three performances that I listed and explaining why I consider them to be clear examples of Dicaprio’s talent.

The Aviator

In my opinion this is, without a doubt, Dicaprio’s finest performance. A film like this with a running time of just over three hours needs a talented to lead actor to survive. The entire film is about it’s central character Howard Hughes, and without a convincing lead it would amount to nothing.This is where Dicaprio steps up. This a tour de force performance, mainly because of what Dicaprio is required to do. He has to illustrate eccentricity to the point of insanity in the life of a committed and successful man. It is this breakdown that highlights the actors true talent.

There is one scene in particular that really stands out to me as a clear example of this. It is the final scene so this explanation may contain a spoiler regarding to the ending. Just a warning. The scene that I am referring to shows Howard’s paranoia and insanity take hold in his later life. In the scene prior to this he had successfully flown his Hercules plane which was a gigantic vehicle and he is now at the landing area where a party is being held. He approaches his two main men and starts talking about the future of flight with Jet airplanes. As he is explaining, he keeps looking at these men in suits who seem to be looking at him. He eventually stops working and pauses for a minute as the camera cuts to this group of men who appear to be making their way towards him. In that moment we see a close up on Dicaprio’s face and we see his paranoid mind at work trying to figure out who these men are. He soon starts up talking again about getting someone over from Lockhead to help them out and his two men start conversing. As those two are talking his is staring at the men who are still slowly approaching and begins to mumble under his breath “The way of the future.The way of the future.” over and over again.

As he says those words it looks like he is experiencing pain. He starts coughing between saying it and he is quickly rushed out to a small bathroom and he’s kept in there. As he’s in there he starts looking frustrated and angry and in more pain from before until this flashback occurs to him as a child with his mother. Once that ends it goes back to his face for thirty seconds or so and in those thirty seconds he could only be described as broken. Both mentally and physically. It is a flawless piece of a brilliant performance.

Revolutionary Road

For the longest time I considered this to be the finest of Dicaprio’s career, and there is good reason for that. This is Dicaprio’s most emotionally raw performance. It is here more so than any of his other films that he is required to channel strong emotions whether they be severe anger, depression, etc. And that is where he really shines. The character he plays in Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler, is a conflicted and unfulfilled man. He used to have great dreams until the day he settled down to live a empty, normal suburban life. His emptiness results in a resentment of his wife and vice-versa. What this conflict and tension results in is some of the most terrifyingly real arguments that you will ever see on film.

The one argument that stands out the most for me is towards the end of the film where their hatred for one-another really shows and it all erupts in a violent argument. I wont give away any plot points  but the scene that I’m talking about comes right after Michael Shannon’s character, a mathematician named John Givings, really exposes them and the reasons why they chose not to follow their dream. What happens in this argument is mainly Frank living in denial and attempting to prove to April that what John said wasn’t true. In that moment April really comes out with everything and tells him that she is repulsed by him. Dicaprio’s response shows some of the best acting of his career. In short: he explodes. And it is magnificent.

The Departed

Billy Costigan is a fascinating character, to say the least. For the duration of the film he is dealing with the unbearable stress of being undercover and working with an incredibly dangerous criminal. What this results in is a mass amount of unresolved issues with inner conflict, identity, and overall fear. All of this agony is put out in their in my favorite scene of the film where Billy opens up to a psychiatrist, Madolyn. What ensues is one of the finest moments of a transcendent display by Dicaprio.

For some reason this video wouldn’t imbed properly. Sorry about that.

As you can see, I am massive fan of Dicaprio. What do you think about him? Love him? Hate him?


4 thoughts on “A Look at the Work of Leonardo Dicaprio

  1. I think he is a great actor but he should challange himself more often – he usually yells and has some crazy chick that brings him more reasons to yell. I’m so glad he is doing something new with Django Unchained. Love the ones you chose, though for me Revolutionary Road would be number 1 it’s such a mesmerizing, powerful work.

    • I completely agree. He’s been stuck in his comfort zone for a while now and hasn’t really taken any risks. Granted he is fantastic in his comfort zone but I think he could be even better if he took more projects like Django. The placement of The Aviator and Revolutionary Road could change for me each day. They’re both brilliant.

  2. I think he’s a fantastic actor, particularly in The Departed (one of my all-time favorites). Usually I take myself out of a movie somewhat and think (for example), “Wow, I normally don’t like Charlize Theron but she is awesome in this role.”

    Most famous actors distract me just by virtue of being famous; but Leo di Caprio is so fully immersed in the role that I never even think of him as an actor.

    • He really is an excellent actor. I totally get what you’re saying. At some point his incredible talent allows you to forget that you’re watching someone act at all. One of the many things that makes him fantastic.

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