Note: This feature was originally published in December 2015.
Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
Leonardo DiCaprio has arguably never delivered a bad performance. He’s been in some bad movies — and even then, that’s debatable — but he’s never the bad seed. Reason being, it’s not really in his blood.
Looking back, the only shoddy credit to his name is his debut on Romper Room at the age of five, which saw him removed from the children’s television series for being too disruptive. Since then, he’s climbed higher and higher.
As his former Growing Pains co-star Alan Thicke once told People: “We had the sense then that nothing was ever going to stop him. He just lit up the place.” And we all know Alan Thicke tells nothing but the truth.
In this particular case, Mr. Seaver was right on the money. At only 41 years old, DiCaprio is a leading member of Hollywood’s $20 million club, commanding a top salary alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, and Sandra Bullock.
It’s deserved. In only a few decades, he’s already been won 34 awards from 137 nominations, which include two Golden Globe wins and five snubs by the Academy Awards. Don’t send him your tears, though, he could care less…
“I don’t think I ever expected anything like an Oscar ever, to tell you the truth. That is not my motivation when I do these roles. I really am motivated by being able to work with great people and create a body of work that I can look back and be proud of.”
He’s done just that. Outside of being Martin Scorsese’s go-to, Lenny’s worked with Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Sam Mendes, Baz Luhrmann, Sam Raimi, and you get it.
Now, he’s back alongside Oscar-winning filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu for his Birdman followup, The Revenant. It’s a violently aggressive performance that saw him risking life and limb across the icy settings of Canada and Argentina.
Spoiler: It’s his best work to date. Having said that, here are his nine other essential roles.
10. Dominick Cobb
Director: Christopher Nolan
Lenny just wants his kids back! As extractor Dominick “Dom” Cobb, DiCaprio plays a tired and tortured father searching for reality after living a fantasy for much too long. Part of that reality includes a reunion with his two children, but mostly it’s a chance at redemption. He blames himself for the loss of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and it’s an emotional weight he carries from dream to dream in Christopher Nolan’s savvy sci-fi spectacle. Despite the film’s aggressive exposition, DiCaprio wields a subtle concoction of frustration, remorse, and obsession that injects a palpable sense of emotionalism that wouldn’t exactly be found on paper. It winds up shifting the film from being a summer blockbuster into the Oscar-nominated drama voters believed in.
There really ought to be a reunion of Cotillard and DiCaprio in the near future. The chemistry between the two itched with classic Hollywood romanticism and that certainly comes across in this gripping scene. “You dreamt that we’d grow old together,” Mal tearfully pines. “But we did,” Dom contends, as Hans Zimmer clenches our hearts, “We did…” And then we cry, too.
Leo Line: “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”
09. Frank Abagnale, Jr.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Arguably the performance that successfully transitioned him from teen heartthrob to acclaimed dramatic lead, Catch Me If You Can made fantastic use of DiCaprio’s well cultivated sense of manic energy to make legendary con man Frank Abagnale a tragically charismatic figure. A far cry from the unapologetic villainy of Jordan Belfort, Frank is just a guy trying to survive — so much of his showmanship stemming from his desire to make his father happy. Still fresh-faced at 28, DiCaprio’s ability to juggle so many dramatic modes and hold his own alongside acting stalwarts like Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken showed he was capable of being taken just as seriously as the big boys.
As slick and brazen as Frank’s ongoing flight from justice is, Frank’s desperation and fatigue come to a head in the scene where Carl (Hanks) convinces him he’s surrounded and should turn himself in. Pacing and sweating around the boiler room, circling Carl, DiCaprio’s eventual resignation to his fate is heartbreaking — doubly so when he sees only too late that Carl was bluffing about his backup. Frank’s genuinely impressed smile says it all: “That was really good, Carl.”
Leo Line: “Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.”
08. Frank Wheeler
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Director: Sam Mendes
Even by 2008, it was still strange seeing DiCaprio begin to take more layered and age-mature roles, especially as Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, a film in which director Sam Mendes takes the “suburbia is hell” ideals of American Beauty and casts them decades into the past, into a Sirkian melodrama about Frank, his wife April (Kate Winslet), and the slow dissolution of all dreams they once had for their future together. DiCaprio finds an eerie familiarity in Frank; slowly, his love and idealism curdles into frustration, cruelty, and rage, and it’s still among the actor’s most vicious performances.
Revolutionary Road is more or less a series of brutal arguments, each more to-the-core and destructive than the one before it. None hurt more than when Frank squares up to April’s declaration that she no longer loves him with one hell of a dressing-down. Yeesh.
Leo Line: “I want to feel things. Really feel them.”
07. Arnie Grape
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Director: Lasse Hallström
In some ways, DiCaprio’s first Oscar-nominated role as the mentally-challenged Arnie Grape hasn’t aged well: his particular performance tics certainly set the template for everyone’s impressions of developmental disability for the next decade, actor or no. Still, DiCaprio pulls off a small miracle in infusing Arnie with a great deal of heart and humanity, a charmingly contradictory core of joy around which the perennially miserable Grape family orbits. It’s this unabashed joie de vivre that DiCaprio infuses into the role, stealing the show right out from under a mopey Johnny Depp.
While he’s not the focus of the scene, Arnie’s manic fear at Gilbert’s self-destructive freakout breaks the heart with its sheer opacity. What’s even worse is the lack of realization as to what’s actually happening – Leo’s naïve smile after Gilbert slaps him several times is the catalyst for Gilbert to reassess his life and relationship with his family.
Leo Line: “I’m having a birthday party, but you’re not invited, but you can come if you want.”
06. Tobias Wolff
This Boy’s Life (1993)
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Not many performers have made the leap from childhood star to leading man as effortlessly as DiCaprio. Not many could have gone from working alongside Kirk Cameron to facing off against Robert De Niro, but late-teen DiCaprio did just that in This Boy’s Life. The young actor plays stepson to De Niro’s abusive stepfather in an almost too-convincing fashion, taking blows both physical and psychological. That it’s based on author Tobias “Toby” Wolff’s life adds another piece of realism to a movie already too tough to watch. DiCaprio was proving he was years away from the likes of Critters 3 and ready for more meaty roles, somehow courtesy of Grapes.
Because the finale ends in triumph, despite the awful lead-up, the scene that sticks in my mind after all these years comes after Toby takes his stepfather’s car for a joy ride and pays the price. The kick to the gut seals it.
Leo Line: “You can dream of a moment for years and still somehow miss it when it comes. You’ve got to reach through the flames and take it, or lose it forever.”
05. Billy Costigan
The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
What separates Martin Scorsese’s The Departed from other crime dramas and thrillers are the stakes. Not just what’s been drilled into the story, though, but the emotional toll on every character. You see Matt Damon’s calm demeanor crack, you watch Jack Nicholson lose his mind over leaks, but you really, really, really see DiCaprio crumble and tape himself back together again and again under the pressure of his thankless inside job. It’s the way he pushes back, both verbally and physically, and how he always appears as if he’s ready to dive into his cell phone and escape, if only he could. His determination, fear, and rage felt all too real and the performance pushed his co-stars to, in the words of Costello, “act accordingly.”
Try and picture this situation: Boston’s most dangerous and violent gangster has you by the neck, and you know it, but you have to convince him otherwise. Or, you could just see how DiCaprio works it out against Nicholson. It’s an Oscar clip for ’em both.
Leo Line: “I’m not the fuckin’ rat.”
04. Calvin Candie
Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
For as great as it was to see Christoph Waltz take a deserved second Oscar home for his turn as Dr. King Schulz in Django Unchained, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that maybe it was the film’s other supporting male turn that left even more of an impression. Calvin Candie is among Quentin Tarantino’s most memorable villains, mostly because he’s a true vision of evil in a way the director has rarely ever approached. Candie is vicious, sick, and flush with the certain knowledge that to control other men is to exercise his natural place in the world. And here’s how you know that DiCaprio made a great villain: When’s the last time a man being shot in the chest in slow motion on film was so utterly satisfying?
While his actually tearing his hand open during the dinner interrogation tends to come up as the rawest example of DiCaprio’s commitment to character, the scene that lingers most is his introduction, when he addresses his company with consummate politeness as a bloody, brutal slave death match takes place alongside him for some evening entertainment. There’s no Tarantino irony to the scene, just the introduction of a monster.
Leo Line: “Now, bright boy, I will admit that you are pretty clever. But if I took this hammer here and I bashed in your skull, you would have the same three dimples in the same place as old Ben.”
03. Jordan Belfort
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Little more can be asked of an actor in a single performance than is asked of DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s baffling, vulgar, genius The Wolf of Wall Street. As a real-life bottom-feeder who amassed a vulgar fortune and spent his days flaunting and escalating it until his misdeeds all caught up to him, DiCaprio mugs, delivers Mamet speeches until veins pop from his neck, and even approximates the depravity of a quaalude binge with immaculate comic timing. It’s a performance just as magnetic and gruesome as its source material, and finds a perfect balance between the charm of a born grifter and the menace of privilege gone unchecked.
The film climaxes in one last grand freakout before the well-earned, speedy crash, and if you’re still cheering on Belfort’s exploits, him violently assaulting his wife (Margot Robbie) is a stark reminder that The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie about guys you’re not supposed to like.
Leo Line: “Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”
02. Howard Hughes
The Aviator (2004)
Director: Martin Scorsese
“Ambitious” is an amicable tag for Scorsese’s The Aviator, a 170 min biopic that tries to capture the majority of Howard Hughes’ eccentric and complicated life. Yet it’s also an appropriate description for DiCaprio’s hefty role, which found him slowly devolving from madman billionaire to billionaire madman. Out of all his Oscar snubs, this one had to hurt the most; DiCaprio poured himself into this performance, working tirelessly alongside Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA to grasp the effects of obsessive compulsive disorder. He succeeded in bringing the notorious recluse back to life — focus on his stony eyes and his tense physical quirks — but also graduated from boy wonder to timeless talent in the process. By becoming Hughes, he became an adult.
If you’ve also suffered from OCD, then you likely understand the terror of this scene. Scorsese perfectly bottles the tension with a dense arrangement of frantic shots that expand and contract, making you feel as if you’re hyperventilating alongside Hughes himself. As for DiCaprio, again, it’s all about the eyes.
Leo Line: “The way of the future, the way of the future…”
01. Hugh Glass
The Revenant (2015)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Martin Short once said he went to a Steve Martin movie and thought, Boy, is Steve acting for Steve Martin. While DiCaprio goes all out in his finest role as real-life fur trapper Hugo Glass in The Revenant, he goes beyond “acting” and truly transfers himself over to the character. If that statement sounds precious, DiCaprio’s performance is anything but. It’s as though he’s given in and completely let himself go in favor of becoming Glass.
With every clenched-teeth grimace and howls alternating between fury and pain, DiCaprio makes us feel it. Feel the broken bones. Feel the claw marks that have torn his body apart. Feel the helplessness as events unfurl around him in which he can do nothing about. The most memorable movies take us on a journey we won’t soon forget, and while director Alejandro González Iñárritu presents us with the imagery, its DiCaprio’s performance that acts as guide.
What will be known as “The Bear Attack Scene”. Once you’ve seen it, no explanation is necessary.
Choice Line: In lieu of an actual quote from the movie, it’s the guttural sounds that emanate from DiCaprio’s mouth in the pic above.