Movieline - March 1998
First there was the very young Leonardo DiCaprio who negotiated the eccentric energies of Ellen Barkin and Robert DeNiro with startling aplomb in This Boys Life. Then there was the surprise of Whats Eating Gilbert Grape, in which DiCaprio never let his acting show, even though he was playing a mentally retarded character - a genre of portrayal in which several gifted actors have given irritatingly mannered performances to great praise. The next shocking bit of data came with Romeo and Juliet, in which DiCaprio suddenly unfurled his adult face in a blaze of high wattage that proved how much the camera loved him. One suddenly understood why Michael Mann abandoned his James Dean project when he realized DiCaprio was too young for it - this was the first actor to come along since Dean who radiated at every frequency on the spectrum from pure actor to pure movie star.
The irony of course is that the vast majority of moviegoers are seeing Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time in Titanic, and have no idea that the actor James Cameron cast as Jack was best known up until that time for playing complex, intense roles reminiscent of a young DeNiro. They watch DiCaprio's performance as the brave, talented, funny, cocky, generous hero who wins the undying love of the upper-deck Rose (Kate Winslet) in a sweeping, old style love story and think the Tom Cruise level charisma they're witnessing is what this performance is all about. Indeed the cover of Vanity Fair declared DiCaprio "quite simply the world's biggest heartthrob" but the relevant information to those not already in the know is quite simply that DiCaprio is the best actor of his generation.
DiCaprio's blend of actor and star shows itself first and best in the beautifully orchestrated scene during which the spiffed-up steerage-class Jack joins Rose's first-class dining table and charms the inveterate snobs. Preternaturally natural, DiCaprio just breezes through the comedy of bringing these turned-up noses down to attention. He bites into food the way Jack bites into life, and makes the fiction of having no apologies for oneself seem like simple truth. When Jack leaves the table, DiCaprio slides the note that invites Rose into romance with a physical grace that speaks further words about Jack's optimism and confidence. DiCaprio is so smooth in portraying Jack's confidence, in fact, it's easy to believe he possesses that quality himself. And he may-his performances have never smacked of the anxious effort one detects in the work of young actors fraught with insecurities that come from looking over their shoulders. But DiCaprio's apparent effortlessness has far more to do with technical finesse than simple charismatic appeal. With all due respect, Tom Cruise could not have convinced us, as DiCaprio does, that Jack's chief emotion, as he slowly freezes to death in the dark water, is gratitude for having met Rose on the Titanic.
And yet the illusion of effortlessness is so strong in DiCaprio's work in Titanic, it makes you think he is perhaps not as in love as most Hollywood actors today with the process of eking chracters out of his own guts. He seems not to cannibalize his own soul. And good for him. The young man who talks a girl out of suicide by making fun of her, then talks her into love by showing her what fun is, could not have been brought to life by any actor's wallowing in personal angst. Thankfully, DiCaprio looked outward at least as much as inward for the spirit of a character, who, after all, has to be larger than life. When the 101-year-old Rose in Titanic's present-day framing story memorializes Jack at the end of the movie as one who saved her "in every way one person can possibly save another," that line catches the heart not only because of how well Gloria Stuart delivers it, but because DiCaprio has, in a careful, expansive act of imagination, given us a character we can believe inspired it.
Thanks a lot to Treggy !