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Up With the Ship

By Coury Turczyn

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  With the release of Titanic—and its ascension into the pantheon of immortal human endeavors—Leonardo DiCaprio went from being your run-of-the-mill teen idol to becoming a new sort of über-celebrity. He is now more than just another cute guy who recites lines in front of a camera—he has attained universal sainthood, worshipped across the globe by his female fans with an almost religious fervor, his every move scrutinized for signs of What He'll Do Next.

But what dark secret is hidden behind those slinky Elvis eyes? Well, the fact that he's a pretty good actor, for one. While his slender frame and pretty-boy features might make it difficult for him to grab any Robert DeNiro leftovers, he's nevertheless made a career of choosing risky film projects that require more than a gorgeous smile.

Some would say that Titanic's Jack Dawson was tailor-made for any teen idol James Cameron cared to insert, and it certainly isn't the most complex role that DiCaprio has tackled. But when the film was being made, Titanic had the reputation of its title character—a giant, overpriced project doomed to sink without a trace, drowning the careers of thousands in its wake. In that sense, choosing to work with Cameron on such a potential boondoggle was a daring choice—but DiCaprio pulls it off. While Titanic itself is pure Hollywood schmaltz with a new high-tech look, DiCaprio manages to cut through the smarm with his sincerity. His character's romance with Kate Winslet's Rose is sudden, short, and doomed—as it always is in big budget pictures, and as it so rarely is in life. But DiCaprio appears to believe it so completely, so enthusiastically, we get caught up in the romance despite any lingering skepticism.

For a better idea of what DiCaprio is capable of, try Lasse Hallstrûm's What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), in which he plays Johnny Depp's younger, retarded brother. When called upon to act mentally disabled, most actors resort to hokey mannerisms and glass-eyed stares. DiCaprio inhabits his role naturally, convincing enough to earn an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. More importantly, he made the character more interesting than Depp's title role, giving his portrayal more life than Depp's usual sullen characterization, and stole the movie.

And for a real stretch, there's always Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (1996)—if ever there were a Shakespeare "updating" that seemed set to fail, it would be this Miami Beach extravaganza. But it works, from the MTV-style shots to DiCaprio's portrayal of the ultimate doomed lover, Romeo. When he declares his love in iambic pentameter, you believe it—whereas most teen idols would've inspired only laughter. So maybe the girls know what they're doing...

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