Leonardo DiCaprio is a big star. A really, really big star - a bonafide A-lister who can call the shots. DiCaprio went through a pretty standard Hollywood trajectory for an aspiring actor kid who was born and raised in Los Angeles. First came the commercials, then the guest star roles followed by a stint as a recurring character on a goofy sit-com, then some sci-fi crap, some noteworthy smaller films and then the trajectory took one of those rare twisty curves and a run-of-the-mill working actor became a megastar by getting not just a big break but a giant, gargantuan break - when he was cast as Jack Dawson in the aptly titled Titanic.
DiCaprio's ability in Titanic to make young girls swoon, weep uncontrollably and pledge their virginity to him eclipses Robert Pattinson's Twilight powers a thousandfold. Titanic was the first film to make a billion dollars - and his fans' desire to watch DiCaprio's "Jack" declare his undying love for Kate Winslet's "Rose" over and over and over was one of the main reasons Titanic raked in that immense amount of bucks.
The Titanic experience messed with DiCaprio's head big time. He retreated from his massive fame and became profoundly uncomfortable with "Leo-Mania". In a 2000 interview with Time, DiCaprio said "I have no connection with me during that whole Titanic phenomenon and what my face became around the world [...] I'll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don't expect to. It's not something I'm going to try to achieve either."
Like so many other young performers, DiCaprio couldn't handle the pressure and the expectations so he spent his time indulging in escapist pursuits. He blew off interviews, partied heavily and ate - a lot. If his intention was to destroy the "heartthrob" Leo and bury him under a layer of flesh - he succeeded. When he emerged from his food-fueled retreat he had gained 20 pounds and his pretty face was bloated. But eventually the extra weight made him appear older and more serious. He transformed from Leo into DiCaprio - and entered Scorseseland.
When I first saw DiCaprio I never guessed he would become such a big star - although I did think he'd have a great career as a character actor. I wasn't a fan of Growing Pains or any of the other early DiCaprio fare so I had no idea who he was when I watched Lasse Hallström's quirky but moving film What's Eating Gilbert Grape starring Johnny Depp, another actor who has a love/hate relationship with his own pretty face. DiCaprio played Depp's mentally challenged younger brother, Arnie, with such intense realism that I had a hard time believing Hallström hadn't cast an actor who really had a disability.
Although DiCaprio is one of the actors in his generation who will probably have a long, diverse career - he'll probably even win an Oscar along the way - I don't know if he'll ever give a performance as nuanced and moving as the one he gave in Gilbert Grape. Why? Because stardom tends to have the strange effect of flattening rather than enhancing an actor's range. They get paid to be themselves rather than lose themselves in a daring performance. These days, DiCaprio is a leading man who stars in high-profile films with high-profile directors and is valued more for being DiCaprio than for being versatile.
So let's look back at DiCaprio before "Leo-Mania" and see how good he was as a relative unknown in a small but powerful film.