The Acting In Inception: Leonardo DiCaprio

While his performance here could be transferred, almost without an edit, into the recent Shutter Island (it’s unfortunate timing, basically), his work continues to surprise and fascinate me. I’ve been a fan for a long time, but back in the day, post This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I worried a little bit about him, as I am wont to do with precocious brilliant young actors. He was so good in both those movies. I saw This Boy’s Life, and his last moment, screaming and jumping up and down in his freedom, still has the potential to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There is such rage in this little boy’s screaming, yet what he is expressing is joy and release. It is a complex difficult moment, and he strolls away with the picture.

Then I saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and didn’t realize Artie was played by the same actor I had just seen in This Boy’s Life, and truly thought that the casting team for Gilbert Grape had found a wonderfully talented mentally-challenged young boy to play that part. It’s an astonishing bit of acting, and was even more amazing to me when I realized who it was.

I’m one of those people who loves Titanic, and thought he was wonderful in it, even with the terrible dialogue (“You’re no picnic, Rose. In fact, you’re a spoiled little brat.” Yeesh.), but the mania surrounding that movie again worried me, although fame has certainly been good to DiCaprio. But the darkness he showed he was capable of in those early movies is what drew me to him, his capacity for complexity and non-ingratiating qualities, and I worried that the projects he would be offered post-Titanic would not allow him to show that. Oh me of little faith. I have to believe, however, that his choices post-Titanic were carefully crafted by DiCaprio. He didn’t suddenly start making worthless rom-coms, he didn’t trade on the Tween-Love that went ballistic about him in Titanic, and that was a courageous and interesting move on his part. Not every actor in his position chooses so thoughtfully after achieving world-wide success.

His collaborations with Martin Scorsese have placed him firmly in the pantheon of leading men (I especially liked him in The Departed, although I’m a huge fan of his Howard Hughes as well), and basically he’s one of those actors I always want to see. I was not a fan of Revolutionary Road (the movie, the book is another story entirely), and felt that Sam Mendes, as per usual, chose the wrong focus for Richard Yates’s blistering critique. The demon in Yates’s book is not the suburbs themselves. It is those who feel they are better than the suburbs, who try to distance themselves from their own lives, convinced that they are more interesting, more special, more dynamic. The second I saw that Mendes was directing, I knew exactly what movie he would make, which was a disappointment (in the thought of it, and in the final product). The acting is uniformly excellent, but I felt that DiCaprio, in particular, shone, although Winslet and Michael Shannon got most of the accolades. Di Caprio gave the strongest performance, the most layered. In my estimation, DiCaprio was actually doing “Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road“, as opposed to “Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road“, and his portrayal of a weak-willed pent-up man, baffled by the transformation of his wife, and sucker-punched by the limitations his choices have put on him, was devastating to watch. He wanted to believe his wife, when she said to him, “You are the most interesting person I have ever met”, and yet he knows, deep down, that he is not. That he is a conventional person who has made conventional choices, and a bohemian freefall is not for him. It is his tragedy that he cannot communicate that, his own sense of shame and diminishing returns on his potential have balled him up in a world where the Truth cannot be spoken. The Truth is far too threatening to the status quo, and, in the end, his character loves the status quo. And his wife hates him for it. It’s not the suburbs that are the problem, it’s him.

In Inception, as in Shutter Island, DiCaprio plays a man who is (sometimes without even realizing it) on the run not only from his own past, but from self-knowledge itself. He investigates things, it being his job, yet somewhere within him is a strong streak of resistance to finding the answers … because he has a creepy sense that the answers will somehow involve him, and the revelations may be awful.

DiCaprio plays this conflict straight as can be, and it’s an effective persona for him. These films have a Gothic sensibility to some degree, and the “OH MY GOD NOT THE TRUTH” refrain can become a bit tiresome if it’s not utilized subtly and with some gradation of mood. My main problem with Inception was with its lack of gradation, everything. Was. Urgent., and the overall effect of it was a sort of flat-lining. If everything is Important then the story suffers. Shakespeare understood that, trotting out the fools and clowns and bears in the middle of King Lear or Macbeth, to take the edge off the urgency. It helps the story. But DiCaprio is in full charge of himself in Inception, not an easy job, seeing as so much of it was special-effects driven, and his “job” was to stand around looking concerned and heartbroken and intense. He is able, as an actor, to make his love for his dead wife (played by Marion Cotillard) palpable, the loss is present in his every look, his every gesture. This is a wounded man, damaged beyond repair.

But it was his love for his two kids that DiCaprio (not a father in real life) really clicked into, and when the moment comes that a certain shot we keep seeing (the two little kids playing in the grass and then running off-screen, without looking back at him) is put into a context, and we realize what memory that is for him, and what it has meant to him, it’s painful. I heard someone gasp in the theatre at that scene. DiCaprio has a sort of visceral sense of himself (he always has had that; again, I flash back to his rage-joy dance at the end of This Boy’s Life), and he brings that to whatever part he plays. Inception is intellectual (although perhaps not as deep as it thinks it is), and without DiCaprio’s sense of meat-and-potatoes reality, of loss, of urgency (he must get back to his kids), the film wouldn’t be grounded at all. The shots of him looking at his kids, and they show up everywhere, in every dream he has, was repeated throughout the film, and each time, in each different circumstance, you could see DiCaprio jolted by the sight, disturbed, almost like a war veteran having a flashback. Trauma can work that way. DiCaprio plays a man ambushed by his own subconscious. Instead of upping the urgency factor, something that the film seems to want him to do, he underplays, showing flickers of unease, loss, a memory of regret, grief, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of staying in that place, he must move on, only by continuing to move will he have a chance to get back to those two little kids in the grass. DiCaprio’s talent naturally avoids the operatic. It is one of his greatest strengths. The pitfalls for schmaltzy over-acting are everywhere in Inception, and he deftly steps around all of them.

So that when he does go “operatic”, in a crucial flashback when, across an alley many stories up, he watches his wife let go of the windowsill and leap, the response he generates from the audience is earned, earned fair and square. He has not tried to play on us, or work us, he has not tried to manipulate us, or get on our good side. He, the actor, has kept himself in the story, and his horrible scream, helpless, as he watches, but can do nothing, is so powerful that I can hear it in my ears right now. This is the power of the imagination, something DiCaprio has in spades, and one of the most important qualities for an actor to have (obviously). I do not know his process. I do not know how hard it is for him to “believe”, to invest in the imaginary given circumstances. I don’t know if he prefers 30 takes or if he’s a one-take kind of guy. I honestly don’t care, although it would be interesting to learn more. But what I saw in that moment, that horrible anguished scream, his writhing body, because he can do nothing, was an actor leaping into the space of his imagination, the magic “What if” that is the pitfall of many actors: What if this were real? What if I were in this situation? What if I really saw what this character saw?

His response is not belabored or self-congratulatory. It is not portrayed, it is experienced. It is immediate; an explosion of raw, jagged emotional horror. His hands clutching at empty air.

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23 Responses to The Acting In Inception: Leonardo DiCaprio

  1. Excellent piece!

    When I initially left the theatre after seeing “Inception” I thought that the movie was good, but that a lot of the performances were obscured somewhat by the film’s intricacy of plot. Looking back, I can now see there was a whole lot more going on in DiCaprio’s performance than initially meets the eyes. His ability to communicate a character’s psychological state with something as simple as an uneasy glance shows a remarkable level of understanding of not only his craft, but his audience’s perception. A rare gift.

  2. gunter says:


    I fell in love with your writing with the “Gone Away, Come Back” piece, and have returned to this blog again and again for insights about the craft of acting, and your knack for identifying exactly what I love about this or that actor. DiCaprio really is one of my favorites–a piece of information I keep close to my heart; everyone seems to have an opinion on the guy. I think the ability you describe, that of experiencing rather than portraying a moment, is, as with Rourke, innate to the man and makes him incapable of appearing false onscreen.

    As it happens, I watched Revolutionary Road this afternoon for this first time, and found the experience… traumatic. I understand your criticisms of Mendes’s direction, and even halfway agree with them, but there was so much humanity in the performances that I was just emotionally wrecked when the credits came up. Winslet gets a lot of praise for her work in that film, and she is great, but something about DiCaprio’s face just kills me: the way he looks at her over breakfast the morning after their climactic blowout, the way he tells her he doesn’t know when he’s ever had a nicer breakfast. Like you, I loved the book, and I’m with you when you say DiCaprio (and, I’d argue, the entire cast) seemed to understand it better than Mendes did.

    Do you get the sense that people have something against this guy? Critics? For some reason, when a new movie starring DiCaprio comes out, I feel like film writers are oddly silent about his work, even when they give his movie a positive review. When they do mention him, it’s usually in a tossed-off comment. Sometimes they’ll say he was “miscast”–they said it with Blood Diamond, with Gangs of New York, with Revolutionary Road–and I just don’t get it. Miscast in Revolutionary Road? His performance may have scarred me. I’ve been in a bad marriage, and had fights as over-the-top as Frank and April’s, and every note DiCaprio hit was gloriously, terribly true. I’ve read the criticism that he’s still a sort of “man-boy,” that he doesn’t have any range. People even make snotty remarks about his voice. I don’t understand. I know you’re a fan of Titanic–I’m not, so much, though I understand why you like it–but do you think it’s still just because of that late-90s Leo-mania thing? How often does he have to knock it out of the park?

    Amid the many, many reviews of Inception, it’s gratifying to see you talking about the acting, a topic most writers have given short shrift.

  3. sheila says:

    Gunter – thanks for your comment. And I’m glad you came here thru the Rourke piece – that piece brought me a lot of luck.

    Much to think about. I have wondered the same thing in re: DiCaprio. I always saw his career in the light of those early films – This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – and from that angle, Titanic seems like an anomaly, perhaps the only one. He was in weird little independent movies, where he played intense kids – he was a character actor at a very young age.

    I very much appreciate your personal response to Revolutionary Road, and while I did not care for the film, I can also think of films I have seen in my life that seem to cut to the heart of what I was experiencing in that moment. Films can be amazing that way.

    In my opinion, Leo gave the best performance in the film, and it was very much overlooked. I thought he should have been nominated for an Oscar. But, ironically, what he was doing was so subtle – and so IMPORTANT – that perhaps it didn’t seem “flashy” enough to warrant attention. It was HIS malaise that sets the whole thing going. Or … her malaise, and then the strange manic connection they share, sleep-deprived, as they try to re-imagine their lives … She is frenzied, and he is … well, I’ve seen it a couple of times, and I am still moved by the levels he achieves in those midnight conversations. He WANTS to believe that he can be cool enough and different enough to live the way she describes … but deep down? It is like he is breaking his own heart, realizing that he is not interesting or different or special. He really is just like everyone else. For me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of HIM in those scenes, even though she’s the one bouncing around. The theme of the movie lies in HIS character, not HERS – and that was one of the main problems I had with the movie as opposed to the book: the shift in focus towards her journey. But that’s neither here nor there. I still thought DiCaprio was the heart and soul of that picture, giving a powerful and emotionally real and complex performance. It bummed me out he was overlooked, and I should have written about it at the time, but last year was a tough year for me, and I let it slip by.

    I think, yes, critics want to distance themselves from him because of the overall contempt had for Titanic – a contempt I guess I can understand, but for me, the movie just flat out works – it is exactly what it wants to be, what it says it is, and it works on THOSE levels – Regardless, people have their own opinions. I think there is a natural backlash towards anything that has that kind of success – and also the Tween Market is, in general, not respected (although they wield a ton of power, in terms of buying tickets – if you want to know what loyalty looks like, then go seek out a Tween Fangirl. I was one myself, and I STILL have fond thoughts of Ralph Macchio, and will still keep my eyes peeled for him). But still: the fact that Titanic went over like gangbusters with the Tween set was a strike against it. Titanic is one of those movies where I can see its flaws (I would list them as: 1. Embarrassing script 2. Billy Zane, in general) but I forgive them because it works overall. There are some who found the whole thing distasteful – and I can see that, too.

    But it was the aftermath that is curious to me. DiCaprio himself had never courted that kind of fame, and seemed embarrassed by it a little – and took a step back, doing a Woody Allen movie (where he just commented on his new-found superstardom) and other smaller pictures – to try to knock himself off the pedestal he found himself on.

    I don’t know if people come to him with a bias – I don’t quite understand the “manboy” charge, although I’ve heard that criticism of him. First of all: there are worse things in life than having a type where you can play a childlike kind of man – That is part of his “persona”. He utilizes it. Like every other thoughtful actor in the history of acting. Why it should be worse for HIM to do it, I don’t know. I thought he was great in The Departed – and seemed like a valid and important rival to the more blunt-faced emotionally undeveloped Matt Damon (a good performance from him, too). In The Departed, it was my first time of really seeing him as a man, and I felt he owned it. I liked him very much in that.

    DiCaprio has been very honest about how crazy he was as a kid – OCD, and probably hyperactive – and he was able to tap into that with Howard Hughes, and I thought he was wonderful in The Aviator. Not a perfect film, by any means – but I love the moments when he runs his hand over the side of the plane, peering closely, looking for the bumps of the rivets … Again, Blanchett got a lot of the praise for that film – and I thought her work was okay, certainly not her best – and Leo was the heart and soul of the whole thing. It’s perfect casting. He seemed to know it, and threw himself into it fearlessly.

    So I, like you, am baffled by how he is ignored (of course I would like to be “ignored” and make 20 million per job!!!) – or not taken seriously.

    And if Titanic is a strike against him, and the fact that he was on the cover of Tiger Beat for a good 4 years straight and all that … seen in the context of the rest of his career – it definitely stands out. It’s the only time he’s played that sort of Golden Boy Hero, the Heartthrob, all that. I had heard stories about the filming – that his natural tendency was to look for underlying motivations, maybe hints of darkness – why was Jack Dawson on the run? What was he running from? All things any good actor does when preparing for a role. And Cameron apparently told him that No, there should be no dark secrets: His role here was to be positive, and open, and to “lift her up”. Everything else was extraneous. Whether or not people agree with that choice, or find it interesting or whatever, is irrelevant (at least in context of this conversation). So what I see in Titanic is that DiCaprio suppressed his natural tendency – to go for depth and complexity – and kept it fun, light, and loving – which certainly gave the picture the balance it needed. He may have had doubts about what he was doing, but he chose to trust Cameron – and in the end, the entire freaking teenage world went ballistic over him.

    I agree: I don’t know what he needs to do to “get his props”. He’s an excellent actor.

  4. David says:

    “It is not portrayed, it is experienced.”

    That is exactly what sets him apart! Brilliant piece Sheil-babe. It’s the same as Brando. he has that uncanny ability to experience the entirety of his character…it’s amazing to watch. I skimmed a lot of the Inception talk and will come back after I see the movie. I’m fanatic that way.

    Miss you!!

  5. sheila says:

    I miss you too. Happy birthday!!!

    Yes, definitely come back when you see the movie. I need to watch The Aviator again – that was one of those movies I liked from the get-go, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I really thought he was amazing. I’m amazed, too, that despite his movie star status and huge salary – he doesn’t get the critical props I think he deserves. Well, that’s okay. Cary Grant didn’t either.

  6. Jake Cole says:

    What I find entertaining about Leo’s work this year is that he’s had to pull off the “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” scream not once but twice, and both times he made them earned, felt moments. Those are so stereotyped and mocked by now that no one should be able to make them work, and he did it back to back. It’s a shame that his work with Scorsese basically means he has to be compared to De Niro, because Leo is great in a whole different way. He’s not about burying into a psyche to get at the primal force underneath so much as just getting the character. One could call that a surface reading, I suppose, but I’m far more likely to choke up watching one of Leo’s characters have a moment of grief than I am one of Bobby’s.

    • Evelyn says:

      if you build your dreams with your memoeirs, you’ll lose sight of real reality and fall to madness as you’d see the dream as reality (limbo). So at the end, when he got to his home, you saw him start to spin his totem. As it’s still spinning, he hears the voices of his children and is tempted and turns to see their faces finally. By drawing the faces of his kids from memory while in his dreamstate, it seemed he at that point abandoned the totem thus walking away from it and just not caring if it was dream or reality. A strong clue that he has accepted his dream as reality. Frankly, even if the credits hadn’t interrupted the totem spinning, and if the totem had stopped, I’d still believe he was dreaming because if you think about it, if Dom just stopped caring about reality and whatnot, the totem would stop. Because the totem functions on the inquiring perception of the totem’s owner itself. Throughout the movie, little by little, Dom was falling to the limbo madness because he kept delving into dreams of his memoeirs (the regret memoeirs he showed to the architect girl). I also think his guilt was the one thing in his subconscious keeping him sane and not go into limbo. Without guilt, it made Cobb fall into complacency and thus his dreams becoming more acceptable and pleasing to him rather than disturbing and nightmarish. Another point is how Saito and Cobb were able to wake up. Nolan was clever in omitting the scene, making it a clue to the ending actually. What I believe happened, as well as most other people, is once Cobb was able to convince Saito that he was dreaming while spinning his totem and telling him about the regrets he once talked about.. Saito had taken the gun and shot Cobb then shot himself to wake up. For those who thought he actually did wake up for real at the end are not thinking more deeply into this. As the chemist said, once you were under the super sedative, if you die, you fall into a further level of subconscious (what I call super limbo!). So Saito, being a little rough around the edge for staying in limbo for about 50-60 years, mistakenly thought dying would mean waking up but forgot all about the super sedative. Thus Cobb fell into the ultimate dream world resembling the real world and most likely Saito as well. Anyways, the biggest and most revealing point is just the fact that the kids are wearing the same exact clothes, same exact stature, and same exact position and setting as Cobb comes in. That’s where Cobb’s memoeirs decided to fill in the rest at the end with the faces. Cobb and Saito would live in their super limbo for at least 500 years if not more (since the time increases exponential down each level, 6 months -> 50 years -> 500 years). And by the time they wake up, only hours will have passed in real life on the airplane and their minds completely expired by then. The rest of the team waking up with just hours being passed in their dreams but centuries being passed for Saito and Cobb. It’s a sad conclusion but one that I’m absolutely positive of.

  7. Sheila: I think DiCaprio’s performance in Inception will go down as the most unfortunately overlooked performance of the year. He’s terrific in it. It’s just hard to notice because he’s buried beneath tons of plot, plot exposition and, yeah, all that urgency. The scene that blows my mind (extreme spoiler warning) is the one in which he watches his wife plunge to her death. I mean, really, in any film, but particularly that one, how the fuck do you act that out? It’s just too big. You can’t possibly display enough anguish and hurt. And yet if you do, you can’t possibly avoid seeming melodramatic. DiCaprio is perfect. Collapsing. Screaming “Jesus Christ!” but not “Nooooo!” (I don’t know what I’d yell, but that felt right.) It’s just totally heartbreaking, in part because, yes, we really do see his guilt. He feels like he has blood on his hands.

    While we’re here … I’m a big defender of Revolutionary Road on all counts. I think, and actually your above thoughts somewhat support, that many people came in with fixed expectations due to the book and to their feelings about (and the hype around) Mendes. I can’t tell you how many fucking lazy reviews I read in which mainstream critics said it was about the evils of suburbia. Well, isn’t that simple, after Mendes’ American Beauty, for example. Let’s just tie them in a bow together. But I watch the film and see exactly the film you wanted to see, one in the suburbs are an indicator of the Wheelers’ condition, a symbol of it, but by no means the factor shaping their lives. I do believe it’s all about image — the images we create for ourselves, the ones that we’re too afraid to confront and rewrite. Other than Michael Shannon’s too loose supporting performance, I love that film without reservation. It’s devastating. And that’s one of those times that I think if the same movie had a different name attached you wouldn’t have read two dozen presumptive, knee-jerk blurbs deciding it was a story of suburbia, and that’s all. Though I have no doubt it doesn’t ‘live up to the book,’ because movies never can, if you’re up for it watch the movie again and look for the right movie and not the one everyone said it was. I think you’ll find it there. I do.

  8. sheila says:

    Jake – I agree (and that actually goes for all of the acting in Inception but Leo in particular – which is why I wanted to do this series). The acting is overlooked. I feel that there is a lack of self-importance in DiCaprio’s best work (from the very beginning) and he’s given some awesome performances in the last couple of years – he’s challenging himself, he’s not doing the same thing twice (well, except for that NOOOOOOO hahaha) – Even with the big salary, totally underrated actor.

  9. sheila says:

    Jason – In re: Revolutionary Road: I don’t know, I’ve seen it multiple times. I’m not a “lazy reviewer” (although I know you’re not referencing me) – not in the slightest. I have a pretty good critical eye for this stuff, and also for taking things as they are, rather than what I would want them to be. It’s not so much that it didn’t live up to the book, although I think, yes, that did come into play for me a bit. The book was one of “those” books for me. As in, I couldn’t sleep after I read it. It scared the SHIT out of me. My dream director for this would be John Cassavetes, who captured a bit of the true UNEASE in the book in Woman Under the Influence. So yes, I am a devotee of the book. That kind of thing can ruin a movie.When I heard they cast Kevin Spacey as Quoyle in The Shipping News I felt a swoon of despair, because I knew- just from the casting – what kind of movie they were going to make, and that it was a betrayal of the book. I was right, too. On the flipside, Possession is one of my favorite books of all time – and the movie really futzed with the book in many ways (turning Roland into an American – what?) – but I felt, in that case, it worked VERY well. It wasn’t MY Possession to be sure (the lesbian poet was not supposed to be beautiful – cast Amanda Plummer and maybe you’d be coming close to AS Byatt’s description) – but I thought the team did a great job on bringing the essence of the book to life. So I don’t have blinders on – I’m not blindly loyal to books, although I do have a certain possessive quality towards some of them, obviously.

    Revolutionary Road (the movie) came close to capturing the FEEL of the book in certain sections: the fight they have on the side of the road, for example. That was (and still is) exhilarating to watch. It had jagged edges, it was rough, dangerous – it felt like a real fight to me. I liked the scenes where they stay up all night, babbling about Paris and making love – you can feel, viscerally, that these two are not in a state of reality – they are in a shared delusion and they are going to CRASH. And also the sections showing DiCaprio’s character at work. The success of those scenes, for me, and the themes being portrayed – are all on DiCaprio’s shoulders, and he NAILS it. Just NAILS it. But the film, for me, was swayed totally to Winslet’s side, and in my mind it TOOK her side – saying: “Yes, something is wrong with her environment, look at what it has done to her” – when I think it is a much more complex (and interesting) situation. It is SHE who is the problem. Her vagueness of what she wants, her generalized sense of despair – but unwilling and unimaginative enough to come up with solutions. This is not a criticism of Winslet’s performance. It’s my observation of the focus, the viewpoint of the film. I personally thought the film suffered for it.

    I am also, however, open to admitting that I may be wrong – which is one of the reasons, I think, that I keep watching the movie!

    Back to Inception: You so nailed it when you pulled out his shouting “Jesus Christ” in that horrible moment. It is so real, so MESSY – I love it when movies allow emotions to be as messy as they would be – his wild gestures and writhing body, and the uninhibited scream of horror. To me, that’s the best thing that an actor can bring to any movie: his leap of faith, his sheer BELIEF in the situation – it translates, man. That’s what he’s doing there, and it is an act of true generosity. I think Nolan even shows that moment twice – and I thought that was a good choice, actually – I still wasn’t used to it the second time I saw it – it was as though it was happening for the first time (again, a good definition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, where there is a constant replay in one’s head). Nice device.

  10. sheila says:

    I am so thrilled to see all the Leo love in this thread.

  11. Sheila: Yes, first of all thanks for not taking my “lazy reviewer” comment as a jab at you. Indeed, it wasn’t. (Nor did I mean to imply that only a lazy reviewer could come away thinking the film is about the evil of the suburbs. I just think most of the reviewers who said as much didn’t seem to be looking at the film. But, I’ve said all that.)

    * “It is so real, so MESSY.” What a perfect way of putting it! And I totally agree with you, about that moment and the beauty of all moments like that in film, when moments happen that seem to be unwritten because they can’t be. (Alas, there are lots of movies that have written messiness, and that’s no fun.)

    * Woman Under the Influence Honestly, that could me in my top-10 Hardest Films to Watch list. There are some moments I really appreciate, but fuck that’s just an emotionally brutal film. Not a criticism. Just a description.

  12. sheila says:

    Jason – God, yes, Woman Under the Influence is relentless. In a movie full of devastating scenes (quiet and loud), to me the most upsetting moment, one that haunted me for days after I saw it for the first time a million years ago (and still haunts me), is the day Peter Falk brings his co-workers home for an impromptu lunch of spaghetti and meatballs and the one co-worker spills his plate in his lap. That moment!

    It’s one of the most human moments ever captured onscreen. But it tears you apart to watch. There is no catharsis. There is just the human condition. We all are there, whether we can admit or not: shame, guilt, feeling like everyone is making fun of us, feeling doomed, lost, uncomfortable … So it’s universal, sure, but to be able to capture such a moment …

    Still. NOT pleasant.

    Gena Rowlands is my favorite actress.

  13. Kathy says:

    Another fabulous post, Sheila. I’m going to have to watch it again, to see if I can get closer to your point of view. I have to admit I was disappointed with him, as I have been recently. I, too, loved “Gilbert Grape” and thought he was AMAZING, that he has oodles and oodles of talent, and yet, lately, it just seems like he’s been phoning it in. (Have not seen “Revolutionary Road,” so I’m not making any comments regarding that.)

    I have no idea why I think this, for that matter, because it’s not like he’s horrible in any of the films he’s been in lately, it’s just the impression that I get, like he’s truly not challenged with the characters he’s choosing to play. He was fabulous in “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed,” which was a truly phenomenal performance in a film full of phenomenal performances. Maybe I’m just disappointed that I know he’s capable of tremendous feats, that his range is HUGE, but he’s choosing not to exercise it, but is instead choosing characters which simply require small, subtle moves to portray them. I dunno. Maybe it’s more my fault, that my expectations are so high, but I wanted more of him, more extraordinary stuff, of which I know he’s capable.

    And anytime you want me to shut up, go ahead. :)

  14. sheila says:

    Kathy – Have you seen The Aviator? There he is on the boundary of what he has been asked to do thus far. It’s not perfect – but there he comes close to transcendence – his talent given a HUGE space to express itself in The Aviator. It’s also a characterization. He can’t play himself, he has to go really really deep, he has to go from the wonder-boy aviator with a couple of OCD issues to a recluse with long fingernails, peeing in milk bottles – He does a bang-up job. Check it out if you haven’t. I love it. Again, I don’t feel he got the Kudos for that that he deserved – Blanchett got the praise, something that baffled me. (I love her, but I don’t think Aviator was her best work, by far).

  15. sheila says:

    And Jason: Yes, I remember the reviews of Revolutionary Road, and found many of them baffling at the time. Either people wanted it to be the book, or they disliked Mendes and treated it as American Beauty II, or they discounted Leo’s performance and focused only on Winslet – or whatever. I thought Zoe Kazan did a great job too, as the young woman at the office who has an affair with Leo. Thought she also captured some of the flavor of unbearable loneliness that was so acute in the book. She doesn’t have much time to establish her character – she does it very well.

    Speaking of Kazan, I am now reading Kazan’s directing notebooks, and it’s fascinating there – especially in his collaborations with Brando – how much he had to step back, not say too much, not “direct”, and allow for mess. Meaning true human behavior. He analyzes the situation with Brando to death – what to say, what not to say, how to give a small suggestion and then STOP TALKING … because Brando would run with something to such a degree that talking about it would ruin it.

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  18. Simon/Ripley says:

    I agree, yeah. I’ve always admired him, for the roles he picks if not for his literal acting ability.

  19. Terilyn says:

    Amazing. Finally, others who agree with me about acting! Sheila, your opinion on DiCaprio’s acting mirrors my own.

    It’s surprising how people dismiss him so quickly. DiCaprio has proven to choose outstanding, deep roles and to then nail the performances.

    How much is ‘acting celebrity’ concerned with real acting, though? Consider the actors who are gaining ‘celebrity status’ and compare them with your favourite actors (i.e., Gena Rowlands, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Christian Bale). Strong acting is aligning oneself with the character, believing the reality of the character; it is not being the ‘celebrity’ AS the character, and this seems to be something DiCaprio intuitively understands.

    Shutter Island: remember… the look on his face when he comes home to see his wife and ask where the children are / the pain you can feel emanating from him when he realizes his children are drowned in the lake / the confusion on his face in the lighthouse when he doctor explains the situation / the way he looks at the dying Nazi soldier / the craftiness when he tells his ‘co-worker’ that the hospital employees are on to them… for a lack of better words – you can’t FAKE that kind of acting :) you can either do it because you believe in the value of it or you don’t do it… and these snapshots mean nothing if he hadn’t built the character underneath so we could understand why he looked that way at that time.

    If an audience prefers escapist-based literature/texts, these types of plot lines are probably not what they are looking for – they may not see that DiCaprio is fine-tuning all the character bits that allow the movie to LIVE. The audience that prefers a thematic-based literature/text but also can enjoy an escapist piece will be able to see what he is doing. Unfortunately, society is fast-paced and escapist texts sell… most people want to see car chases and explosions, etc., but they don’t want to spend money to deal with emotions that rule people’s lives. DiCaprio’s acting may seem too deep or intense except to those of us who appreciate the effort.

    Inception: the dreamworld… how cool is that? how confusing is that? Nolan is amazing. DiCaprio: again, with the kids – it’s amazing that he can show us that unconditional love / at the end (SPOILER)… with the spinning top – he is so unsuspecting, even though earlier he specifically said that dying in the dream meant dying – he stayed behind and ‘bought into’ the idea that he was saving his employer (his idea of letting go?) / lack of underlying chemistry between DiCaprio and Page – real or acting? if acting – TRULY amazing

    Grape / R&J / Titanic / The Departed – my faves for sure: for each of those, he could be used as a teaching aid for acting students… how it can be done: BELIEVE, and your audience will, too.

    Thanks for the read! I’m really glad I found this :)

  20. sheila says:

    Terilyn: Yes!

    // Strong acting is aligning oneself with the character, believing the reality of the character; it is not being the ‘celebrity’ AS the character, and this seems to be something DiCaprio intuitively understands. //

    To me, that is the key. I watch him as Howard Hughes, and that’s what I get.

    Thanks for the great and detailed comment!

  21. Terilyn says:

    I have bookmarked your page – I can’t wait to read the rest of your work :)

  22. D. C. says:

    The last movie I saw DiCaprio in was The Quick and the Dead. Then I see The Departed and I’m like Whoa … where did the cute squeaky kid go? He had seemingly grown up overnight. I sat there both impressed and mesmerized watching him on a couch in a rundown apartment looking at pictures of his dead mother. The tortured look of loss and uncertainty so palpable on his face I could almost feel it myself.

    It seems DiCaprio has finally found a way to shake off his Titanic image, thanks to a vulnerable, gripping (and arguably career-best) performance. So long Leo.