The New York Times - February 12, 1995


Fresh Blood: Leonardo DiCaprio

by Jesse Green


The boy with the most beautiful name in Hollywood was once told by an agent to change it to Lenny Williams. More recently, producers have advised him to star in movies about demonic teen-agers who strangle their girlfriends, or in tacky, fast-money Westerns like "The Quick and the Dead," which opened Friday. And it has not been uncommon for strangers to offer him cocaine and heroin at industry parties. In his short career -- he just turned 20 -- Leonardo DiCaprio has seen all the twisted ways people respond to a prodigy's gift: change it, own it. Shooting "The Basketball Diaries," due out in April, he was trailed by flocks of pubescent girls, who recognized him from the sitcom "Growing Pains." A mother who spied him blowing bubbles between takes on location in New Jersey ordered her barely ambulatory toddler to go up and hug the famous young man.

It's not that DiCaprio is magnetic or studly: a growth spurt two years ago left him more gangly than statuesque, and his eyes, though piercing, are vacant. Idling on a playground set, he's unremarkable, an empty vessel; his co-star Mark Wahlberg (formerly Marky Mark of underwear fame) has a far more electric physical presence. But when rehearsal begins, it's DiCaprio you watch: his movements are smallest, his stillness is deepest, his lines are tossed farthest away. His acting is effortless and, in the best way, unschooled -- which may be what makes people behave oddly around him. It's as if he were a talisman, imbued with dark magic. How else to explain his unnerving affinity for troubled characters? Plucked at 17 from the insipid "Growing Pains" to play the abused stepson in "This Boy's Life," he stole the movie from Robert De Niro. Then, as the retarded brother in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," he transformed a grab bag of schoolyard stereotypes into an achingly lyrical portrait of a misfit. The resulting Academy Award nomination made it official: DiCaprio was being groomed for one of Hollywood's classic scripts, the one in which talent equals torment and youth is public domain.

So far, DiCaprio has managed to resist, but how much resistance is it fair to expect from a kid with plenty of cash and hormones? He acts his age. He tells bathroom jokes, goofs on waiters, dares to be seen with the occasional pimple. Here on the set, as the sun disappears and rain machines start spouting, he rejects the ministrations of a wardrobe person who's trying to drape a coat on him; of course, he gets drenched. He's oblivious, and it's just as well. Better not to think about the millions of dollars riding on him in his first starring role. Until DiCaprio came along, "The Basketball Diaries," Jim Carroll's 1978 memoir of a youth spent on poetry, basketball and drugs, had steadfastly defied translation to the screen -- mostly because there wasn't an actor plausible and strong enough to play the young addict. Well, maybe River Phoenix, some said.

In an industry that eats its young, perhaps it pays not to seem too appetizing. Upon introduction, DiCaprio says only, "How you doin', bro?" then sits by himself in the cold, on a bench, not so much preparing, it appears, as preserving himself for the moment in which it will be safe to be alive. But the director persists in waiting for the "magic hour," that brief time just after sunset when the light has a strange and heartbreaking glow -- a light most familiar to moviegoers not from life but from other movies. And DiCaprio waits too.

"I was at a Halloween party two years ago, at the house of these twin actors," DiCaprio says, "and I remember it was really dark and everyone was drunk and I was passing through these crowds of people so thick it was almost two lanes of traffic, when I glanced at a guy in a mask and suddenly knew it was River Phoenix. I wanted to reach out and say hello because he was this great mystery and we'd never met and I thought he probably wouldn't blow me off because I'd done stuff by then that was maybe worth watching. But then I got caught in a lane of traffic and slid right past him. The next thing I knew, River had died. That same night."

With its running cadence and predictable ending, DiCaprio's tale of missed opportunity is the Hollywood version of a campfire story, one of many that go like this: Young man, talented, beautiful but damaged, makes too much money, parties all night, gorges on drugs, womanizes, wrecks hotel rooms, drives too fast and courts disaster; the body is found at a hotel, crushed in a car, flat on the sidewalk outside a club. Or: The sweetheart teen, an agent's daughter, blossoms on her sitcom while nearly starving herself to death. Or: The doctor's child, not quite pretty enough to be an actress, retools herself as a Hollywood madam, making money off such men as the above, until she's busted.

These stories are not abstractions to DiCaprio. The Viper Room, where Phoenix died, is owned by Johnny Depp, the star of "Gilbert Grape." The brave little thin girl, Tracey Gold, played opposite him on "Growing Pains"; her father was, until recently, his agent. Even closer to home a few yards from a house DiCaprio grew up in -- the cautionary shingle of his pediatrician still hangs: Paul Fleiss, M.D. And now, as if to bring the story of Hollywood tragedy full circle, DiCaprio has been asked to star in a film biography of the prototype, James Dean.

On many mornings during the three-month New York shoot of "Basketball Diaries," DiCaprio woke to find himself heralded as the new crown prince to this throne of debauchery. "He seldom sleeps, so intense is his partying," Liz Smith trumpeted in her syndicated column. "Juliette Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio -- two lovebirds who seldom rest in the nest -- were all over each other at Rouge the other night," Page Six of The New York Post reported, making much of a back rub. "He hits Manhattan clubs . . . and brawls with locals," Rolling Stone snorted in its annual Hot List. "He seems poised to assume the mantle of River Phoenix."

It's no secret that such items are often fabricated. Publicists are paid to plant false stories about celebrities patronizing their clients' establishments; to that end, a brawl is as good as a burger, if not better. Columnists merely spin the lie toward censure or titillation, or both: that's entertainment. Either way, DiCaprio would brush his teeth in the bathroom of his hotel suite and head out to the set -- never late, never unprepared -- for another 15-hour day.

In the suspiciously dim lobby of the Royalton hotel in New York, which often seems like Hollywood East, it's hard to tell the navy-uniformed bellmen from the black-uniformed guests. Fish, perhaps dead, perhaps just jaded, float in four bowls; the patrons drooping one Sunday morning on the expressionist sofas look just as bloated. Into this torpor bursts young DiCaprio, handler in tow, sent by his publicist to protect him from his own reputation. But he doesn't need protection. In white sneakers, baggy jeans and a pale V-neck sweater over nothing, the reputed debauchee looks like an unfeathered bird. His hair falls into his face just enough to require frequent pushing away. He shows off his first "really good ring" and crows about frequent-flier miles. He doesn't need a handler; he needs to be left alone.

"They obviously don't know who I am," he says of the columnists. "But scandal sells. Come on, I'll admit it. I want to hear about Joe Blow the actor doing drugs on the corner -- that's interesting to me." He assumes the simpering voice of the weasel: "I really respect his work, but did you know he's doing heroin? Oh God, that's terrible . . . tell me more about it."

"So they make it sound like I go to clubs to wreck myself silly, get into fights, sleep with all the ratty girls there. It's true that while we were filming, Marky and I went out for a little dancing, a little socializing, a little flirting. And one morning we wake up to find that, according to the paper, I picked a fight with Derrick Coleman, forward for the New Jersey Nets! Like I'm going to get into an argument with him. Yo, Derrick! He's six foot a hundred. He could spill a drink on me, I'm not going to fight. And as for romances" -- not just Lewis but Sara Gilbert, of "Roseanne," described in one column as the "new girl on his arm" -- "they're just my friends. Can't I have friends?"

He takes a swig of a Diet Coke. "But people want you to be a crazy, out-of-control teen brat. They want you miserable, just like them. They don't want heroes; what they want is to see you fall." The weasel voice, now bitter, returns. "You're no better than me!" he hisses. "You're just like us!" With another swig of Coke the storm passes. "And I probably am," he adds.

DiCaprio is driving too fast through the picturesque roads of Griffith Park, high in the Hollywood Hills. The joyous voice of Marvin Gaye blasts from the stereo, and Leo -- as friends call him -- sings even louder. When not drumming an accompaniment on the steering wheel, he occasionally uses it to steer. He loves his car: a cobalt blue Jeep Grand Cherokee with cellular phone and a P.A. system. He veers off-road several times as if nature itself demanded he exercise the Jeep's four-wheel drive. "Are we gonna have to go up there?" he asks a hill. But he thinks better of it and demurely pulls back onto the road.

"When you don't have a movie to do and you want to stay out of trouble, you have to find something nice to look at," he explains. "It's so easy for a teen-ager to be in the wrong situation at the wrong time. I don't want to preach, but sometimes I go to clubs or parties and get a terrible vibe and have to leave. You get people in your face who want something out of you. Hey, dude, I'm promoting a club, you should come by. You can look in their eyes and see that they're lost. And directors too. They try to put some big Hollywood ball of feta cheese to me, saying that the way to do movies is, one for art and one for profit. One for the studios, one for yourself. And when you say no, the answer is, Here's more money, more money, more money! And I have to say, 'That's your plan, not mine.' "

Not that DiCaprio has always lived by these words: he made "The Quick and the Dead" because "it was quick," and now seems to regret it. But a day spent driving with DiCaprio is a day of contradictions and hairpin turns. However calm the narration -- he grew up poor in "the Hollywood slums," got laughs in grade school with his imitation of Charles Manson, made his first commercial, for Matchbox toys, at 14 -- some machine inside keeps him careening from attitude to attitude: impudence, dorkiness, self-mockery, zeal. The one he keeps coming back to is cynicism, which he sips like a drink he knows is too strong and then pushes away. Which he does with a vengeance. At the site of the abandoned Griffith Park Zoo, he gets out of the Jeep and wraps himself in an NBC blanket. "Oh how I love to walk in the park!" -- he's suddenly Norma Desmond. "Hello, my fans! Hello, Larry dear!" A jogger looks bewildered as DiCaprio waves.

Now he high-tails it out of the park; after a few minutes, he pulls into the driveway of a shabby bungalow. "Here's where I lived from 11 to 15. There's my old basketball net. And there's where I used to get on the roof and throw avocados at people." He snickers briefly and drives on. "That Thrifty store used to be a Ralph's -- I stole my first piece of bubble gum there, but I stopped because I believe in karma. This abandoned lot is where I used to play with car parts and get beat up." Next he points out the House of Billiards, the crack-addict haunts, the place where hustlers met their johns. Finally he pulls up to a grim old shack at the end of an alley. "My first house," he announces. "Smells like huevos rancheros."

Street kids stare at the big, shiny car. "So you see where I come from," he continues. "Which is why the money they throw around doesn't get me. What would I need all that money for anyway? I'd be miserable in a mansion, all by myself. I don't want to sound like I'm some underprivileged kid, but you learn certain values. Like not accepting that because you're in a hotel you have to pay $5 for a Coke -- just go down the block for a $3 six-pack! On the other hand, I have a $600 leather jacket. And my $35,000 Jeep."

With that he apparently reaches his credit limit on earnestness. "Let's get out of here," he says, backing out. But a car has blocked the narrow street. "Will the driver of the silver Dodge please move your vehicle!" he intones over the P.A. "We have an unsuspecting passenger." He makes scarily accurate siren noises. When the Dodge finally responds and we escape his old neighborhood, he improvises a little song: "Rags to riches! Here I come! Central heating! Bum bum bum!" And now he's reached his limit on dorkiness.

It might be the portrait of a beloved forebear, so prominently is it displayed on an easel in the living room. Instead, it's DiCaprio's monthly agenda. Irmelin, his mother, a shy, pretty, German-born blonde, manages the multicolored chart; across the hall, his father, George, winnows scripts, selecting for his son's consideration the few worth reading. It's all very homey, except that George lives two miles away: the couple separated when Leonardo was 1. Still, having raised him together quite amicably (they remain married, even though George now lives with Peggy Farrar, an exercise physiologist), the DiCaprios help run his career.

They seem less like stage parents, though, than stage hippies. Part of New York's bohemian underground in the 1960's (George still has the elbow-length hair to prove it), they are casual to the point of ostentation. Irmelin's pleasant East Hollywood ranch house is a vast improvement over the homes her son has shown me, but it's still awfully modest for a hot young actor. The pool is the size of a postage stamp.

Perhaps this is a relief for Leonardo, who lives here when not avoiding the $5 Cokes at fancy hotels. Here, even the Rottweiler is mellow. It's tempting to credit Leonardo's survival to this laid-back atmosphere ("We already did the craziness for him," Irmelin says), but River Phoenix's parents were hippies too. Talent is even harder to account for.

Perhaps because of his name -- which he got, in utero, by kicking Irmelin as she studied a Leonardo da Vinci at the Uffizi -- the DiCaprios thought he'd be a painter. When Peggy joins them one night for an interview, George says his greatest gift to his son, aside from the "DiCaprio power brows," was the gift of fearlessness. "Leo is on a quest to find out how many things he can do in life and not do them straight," he says, bemused. "He would walk to the guillotine and act goofy. We think he's actually an alien, wired a different way than us. There's something going on in him that we don't understand."

Parents everywhere have felt the same way. But how many have children who can out-act De Niro? Is Leonardo really that good?

Irmelin, wearing a black DKNY jump suit, shakes her head in amazement.

"They've convinced us," she says, one eyebrow raised.

"He must be," George says. "He gets 10 scripts a week."

"He's the golden boy," adds Peggy, whose own son made enough money as an actor to pay for college, then quit the business.

"I'm overwhelmed," Irmelin continues. "I can't see him as other people do. All I'm concerned about is his health -- sleep more, exercise more, eat better. That's the litany. The rest, I wouldn't care if he gave it up tomorrow."

"He's the golden boy," Peggy chimes in again. "It all just comes to him."

Well, not exactly. George and Irmelin are full-time employees of their son's production company. They've mostly given up their other work, with no regrets. "I couldn't imagine working for -- with -- anyone better," Irmelin says. "I'm in heaven." She doesn't look as if she's in heaven, but for someone born in a German bomb shelter, maybe this is what heaven is. She sighs, waves vaguely, perhaps at her past. "Whatever I was doing before, it wasn't as interesting as what's happening to Leonardo."

When Peggy and George leave, she lights a fat joint. She takes me into the garage to exhibit some 10,000 fan letters, in bags and boxes. She looks helplessly toward them: they can't be answered. Also on the linoleum floor, alphabetized by title, several hundred movie scripts await disposal. Is one of them the magic one? The one her son will be remembered for? The one that will move him out of the house? She takes a long drag and holds her breath.

Basically it's about stepping into the unknown," DiCaprio says. He's calling from the Paris shoot of "Total Eclipse," a project directed by Agnieszka Holland that his father recommended. In it, he plays the poet Rimbaud, who by age 19 had shocked the literary elite of his time as much by his gorgeous, surreal verse as by his affair with his mentor, Verlaine -- who was 10 years older and eventually shot him. Rimbaud survived to renounce his gift, run guns in Africa and die in agony. Dead gay poets?

Erotic violence? Sounds like a DiCaprio project.

"To be that courageous!" DiCaprio continues. "Rimbaud wasn't blase about anything. He did things that were unheard of! If I could just scratch the surface of that -- I don't mean to compare myself with him. But I identify with.. . ."

It is almost too obvious to say what he identifies with. Rimbaud was utterly untutored in his art, except by the experience of making it; DiCaprio's theatrical education consists of having read 10 pages of "some Russian book with drama masks on the cover." Though the gossip columnists have not yet spotted DiCaprio urinating on guests at a dinner party as Rimbaud did, he has the same bad-boy reputation. More to the point, Rimbaud had a gift, which was also his undoing. When I'd asked DiCaprio, back at the Royalton, if he had "a gift," he'd cringed into the puffy white sofa.

Eventually he admitted that he did, though it pained him to sound like a Hollywood idiot. Now I ask if the gift is a burden. "How could it be a burden?" he snorts. "Then don't use it. I can't! I can't ignore my burden!" -- the voice of the weasel emerging again. "Yes, I have big social problems. I can't sit down and have long conversations about a croissant. I feel like an alien in life, like my father says. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you the dark stuff. It's there, but it's for me. People want to know about it, they want companionship in their victimization -- that's the burden! I can relate to that need. But I'm not going to feed it.

"And it's nothing I can't handle. Thinking about Rimbaud, it seems that artists aren't sure if they're truly artists unless some big disaster happens. I pray that won't happen with me. I respect the gift, but acting is not the biggest deal in the world. If the gift means disaster, I won't go there. There's no guarantees, but I won't be ending up like Rimbaud. You mark my words. So if you hear of any incident about me -- a fight, a change of clothes, a little extra gel in the hair. . . ." He resists the weasel voice, but just barely. "Don't believe it till you talk to me."

--Jesse Green is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.


Thanks to Ann !