Earlier this year, Leonardo DiCaprio told press during his tour for Django Unchained that after a busy 2013 — which includes this week's The Great Gatsby and this Martin Scorsese's Nov. 15 release The Wolf of Wall Street— he was looking forward to taking a break from the acting scene. Seems fair for an actor who has managed three Oscar nominations and a position at the top of the A-lister ladder at the ripe, young age of 38.
Gatsby marks another incredible performance from DiCaprio, a subversion of his natural good looks that turned him into a heartthrob in his in early days (would Tiger Beat have survived the '90s without the Growing Pains star?). Unlike a Hollywood titan like Brad Pitt, whose preferences draw him to "character actor" parts that require a chameleon's touch, DiCaprio is the rare performer who can deliver natural drama without simply playing himself over and over again. His roles don't need big twists or exaggerations, just an added layer for DiCaprio to unearth over the course of the film.
Hollywood honored DiCaprio when he was only 20 years old, for his work as the mentally challenged Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He's fully immersed, but the part has the most to hide behind. He's more vibrant when a role demands nuance. Think 1996's Romeo + Juliet, DiCaprio's previous collaboration with Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann, his downward spiraling character in Danny Boyle's The Beach, a cop holding back secrets in Scorsese's The Departed or a slowly unraveling suburbanite in Revolutionary Road. He's even found a way to challenge himself amidst blockbuster-sized action: wavering confidence is at the heart of DiCaprio's work in Christopher Nolan's Inception and if you write off Titanic as pure Hollywood schmaltz, you're too busy rolling your eyes when you should be taking in the glow of its leading man.
That's not to say DiCaprio is incapable of the extravagant. Gatsby sees the actor dabble with moments of physical comedy; the period settings of The Man in the Iron Mask and Gangs of New York open the door for broader characters; and his Oscar-nominated work as the eccentric Howard Hughes in The Aviator and the diabolical slave owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained see DiCaprio erupt out of his shell.
For me, the all-encompassing DiCaprio role is that of Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. Growing up with the con-artist over the course of Steven Spielberg's zippy drama is like witnessing every milestone in DiCaprio's career. He starts young and naive, makes a discovery that challenges him to develop characters and improvise on his toes, then unravels to become a madman. When Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) finds Abagnale towards the end of the film, DiCaprio sports straggly hair and oppressive paranoia. It's a dark side that DiCaprio rarely shows, but we know he's capable of.
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Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches