by Scotty Coppage
“Inception” is everything a studio could want after a $200 million gamble on Christopher Nolan’s dream filled film. The focus of the film is the character Cobb played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Is this film a success because of Leo? Could anyone have played Cobb as well? George Clooney and Brad Pitt are getting a little long in the tooth for this kind of ride though they both could have done well. Keanu Reeves might have brought more Johnny Mnemonic and less Neo. Ten years ago Tom Cruise may have been able to pull it off, but he currently treads safer ground than this.
The key to DiCaprio's success, his his ability to choose films that rarely revolve around him alone, but rather hinge on great story, directors and other actors.
He did gritty dramas in his youth never a “High School Musical”, “American Pie” or even “Rushmore.” His stepfather was crazy Robert De Niro in “This Boy’s Life.” With “Titanic”, he had James Cameron and the most expensive film of all time. “Titanic” proved everyone wrong and DiCaprio was a big reason the film grew Olympian legs and became the highest grossing film of all time. Girls were in love with Leo. They couldn’t get enough of him. He had another film done before the Titanic phenomenon, “The Man in the Iron Mask”, a film that had no right to make $50 million, but it did on Leo power alone.
The actor had the world at his feet. He didn’t overdose or burn out. He took a year off, let things cool down knowing he could make any film he wanted if he played his cards right. His first film back was “The Beach” which only pulled in $39 million. It wasn’t the “Titanic” success but he got to work with Danny Boyle on a good story based off a great book. When “The Beach” underperformed, I’m sure every suit and handler wanted to pull back and put Leo in some romantic comedies, exploit his heartthrob status. Leo has never been in a romantic comedy. The one romance he was in ended in a double suicide. Still nothing wrong with romantic comedies, Matthew McConaughey makes his living trading his acting chops for biceps and Kate Hudson films.
Instead of pulling back, Leo did “Gangs of New York”, a film Martin Scorsese had been trying to make for 20 years. This would be the first of four Scorsese films in ten years. “Gangs of New York” wasn’t exactly gold at the box office. It only took in $77 million. There is an anomaly that gets forgotten though. “Gangs of New York” opened on Christmas Day against Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” starring DiCaprio. “Catch Me If You Can” also had Tom Hanks and was a fun more accessible film than “Gangs.” It’s possible “Gangs” would have made more if Leo hadn’t been pitted against himself but the film had already been delayed a year due to the corrupt firemen and policemen in the film. “Catch Me If You Can” soared to $164 million.
Leo turned to the well of Scorsese in the underrated “The Aviator” playing Howard Hughes. The film played better bringing home $102 million.
In 2006, Leo reteamed with Scorsese again for “The Departed” this time with Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. “The Departed” is a flawless film with great performances by everyone involved. Every scene is brilliant, with not a single frame wasted. “Blood Diamond” was released directed by Edward Zwick in a film that gave awareness to how everyday diamonds are finding their way to our malls and stores. It took in $57 million.
On paper, “Body of Lies” looked like it would be great. Russell Crowe and DiCaprio directed by Ridley Scott. This movie didn’t resonate with audiences, bringing in only $40 million. In 2008, he reteamed with Kate Winslet for “Revolutionary Road” directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”, “Road to Perdition”). This is not a romance or romantic comedy but a hard drama about an unfulfilling marriage. Oscar nominations and Golden Globes all around but just managed to pull $22 million.
2010 has been a great year for DiCaprio. “Shutter Island” is Scorsese’s biggest opening to date with $120 million. “Inception” opened at $60 million.
Leo stands apart from other actors because of his edge, the gritty intensity he brings to every film. He has been able to show us something different each film. His nose for a good project is as close to perfect. As king of the world, he had offers for everything from Anakin Skywalker to Spiderman. He passed. After ten years audiences can now see he made the right choice. Skywalker would have cut Leo off at the knees. Commitment to the Star Wars prequels would have preluded his work with Scorsese. In the same manner, “Spiderman” had Tobey Maguire locked up for a decade robbing years from his talent and our enjoyment of the same. Christian Bale is good but loses a few notches for John Connor, bringing nothing to the role. (But regaining points by working with Nolan.)
In the late nineties, Ben Affleck was in the race for biggest movie star but he never saw a script he didn’t like. Edward Norton does some great work but he doesn’t do enough of it and Ryan Gosling isn’t in enough films to be in the conversation. Mark Wahlberg is great with a great director. Wahlberg was excellent in “Boogie Nights”, “The Perfect Storm”, “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Departed” but he has also been in “Shooter” and “Max Payne.” Let's not forget his idiotic performance in "Planet of the Apes."
The only actor working the same formula as DiCaprio is Matt Damon, but is he a box office powerhouse? He is not a box office lock unless "Bourne" or "Oceans" is in the title. Damon was in an Edward Zwick film “Courage Under Fire”, a Speilberg film “Saving Private Ryan” and Scorsese’s “The Departed.” He even has his own Scorsese in Steven Soderbergh with whom he has made multiple films. Matt Damon has shown an ability to be selective with scripts and not just doing every film offered. He still lacks Leo’s edge. It’s very possible Damon could have played Cobb in “Inception” but would he have been able to bring the intensity Leo did?
Leo’s brilliance is in knowing he has to do good stories with good directors and actors. His “Titanic” status was able to take him out of Sundance films forever and allow him to take interesting chances with studio money. Even when he underperforms at the box office, it is with ambition and the intent to make a great film in mind, the polar opposite of Nic Cage. Leo has played his cards right for over ten years which puts him in a great position for the next ten years, and that is good for cinema and audiences alike.
by Scotty Coppage