Telegraph UK Saturday 30 May 1998 Issue 1100

Planet Leo

In only a matter of months Leonardo DiCaprio has become not just a film star but a phenomenon who can now command $25 million a picture. David Gritten reports on a global obsession

STRANGE to think that just four months ago the smart opinion for adults to hold about James Cameron's monumental film Titanic went like this: flawed but decent film. Terrific special effects. But oh, what a pity about Leonardo DiCaprio. To many people, especially those past adolescence, DiCaprio was fatally miscast as male lead Jack Dawson, a young poverty-stricken artist who had lived a bohemian life in Paris, sketching prostitutes. Those in the know scoffed: DiCaprio, a young-looking 23, wasn't weathered enough to suggest he could have lived rough by his own wits. This wasn't a man, but a boy-child of an actor. As Camille Paglia, that mistress of the soundbite, tartly observed, he resembles a 13-year-old lesbian.

The view prevailed when Oscar nominations were announced; DiCaprio, unlike his fellow Titanic actors Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart, was overlooked. Quite rightly so, many of us thought. Then when the US media reported teenage fans' dismay at the snub (with 200 e-mails of protest being sent to the Academy), and magazine cover stories started appearing with titles like 'Was Leo Robbed?', one could dismiss it as the routine workings of a well-oiled hype machine for a popular, appealing young actor. (The actor himself chose to spend Oscar night dining in a sushi bar in New York's Greenwich Village.)

How wrong could we have been? Initially, people may have gone to Titanic to marvel at Cameron's virtuoso special effects. But as the blues song says, the little girls understand: they returned again and again, 30 or 40 times in extreme cases, but at least four times seems to be the average, to gawp at poor doomed Leo and snuffle into their tissues. Thus Titanic kept on raking in huge sums of money everywhere it opened, becoming the first film to gross a billion dollars at the box-office - twice as much as Star Wars, even with its re-release.

It is now blindingly clear that Leonardo DiCaprio, far from being the weak link in Titanic, is, to this audience, the whole point of the movie. An industry analyst I know in Hollywood tells me privately that it's unprovable, but as much as half of that billion dollars might have been generated solely by his presence in the film.

Call this, if you will, the DiCaprio Effect.

It may have sneaked up on us too quickly to comprehend fully yet. And it may be an unlikely phenomenon, considering the bland, slightly dopey looks of the young man around whom it swirls. Yet the level and intensity of fan worship now being directed at Leonardo DiCaprio exceeds that for any film actor certainly since John Travolta 20 years ago, and probably since James Dean in the mid-Fifties.

The DiCaprio Effect is global in reach and apparently all-encompassing in nature. Even his publicist admits that he is suffering from complete over-exposure. Kerry Parnell, editor of the British magazine Bliss, aimed at girls from 12-18, tells me how DiCaprio topped this year's Bliss Boy Poll by an extraordinary margin: 'He got 70 per cent of the vote from 10,000 readers who wrote in, so he completely swept the board. Last year he came number 28, so it's all happened incredibly fast. We've never had a phenomenon quite like him.' Like it or not, we all now live on Planet Leo. But trying to define it is akin to explaining chaos theory.

Teenage girls in Buenos Aires sigh over posters on their bedroom walls, and 8,000 fans storm Leicester Square for the British premiere of his follow-up film, Man in the Iron Mask. One of them brandishes a poster bearing the words LEO SEX GOD. Inside, some even scream when a mask worn by DiCaprio in the film appears on screen. The cast are asked to stand away from the windows because their shadows are making the fans outside hyperventilate - all this before DiCaprio has even arrived.

In Japan, where his fans enchantingly pronounce his name 'Rio', schoolgirls organise 'Leo cry parties', during which they gaze upon DiCaprio videos and weep. In England, every girls' boarding school drips with posters of the actor. Indeed, DiCaprio opted to stay away from the Cannes Film Festival this year for fear of being mobbed.

In America the film magazine Premiere puts him at number 25 on its Top 100 Hollywood Power List; last year he was nowhere, now he is one place above Jeffrey Katzenberg, who runs the film studio Dreamworks with billionaires David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.

Speaking of Spielberg, I chatted to him recently about hot young actor Matt Damon, star of his next movie. 'Any father would be proud to take Matt home and introduce him to his favourite daughter,' said Spielberg. 'I know I would.' Then he added gloomily, 'Except, of course, my daughter, who is very taken with Leonardo DiCaprio.' No family, however grand, is immune to Leo-mania.

Videos of older films featuring DiCaprio are in huge demand. The combined rentals of Marvin's Room, The Basketball Diaries and Romeo + Juliet increased 61 per cent in the three weeks after Titanic opened in British cinemas, according to Blockbuster video stores. Then there's Total Eclipse, an arty, scarcely seen film about French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, now a hot video item because of DiCaprio's full-frontal nude scene. 'Ah, yes, Total Eclipse,' says the man at my local video store. 'Or as we call it here, Leo's Knob.' (DiCaprio is currently trying to ban the American magazine Playgirl from publishing nude pictures of him as Rimbaud.)

Perhaps most astonishing is DiCaprio's emergence as a publishing phenomenon. In April the New York Times list of paperback bestsellers included three Leo titles (Leonardo DiCaprio: A Biography, The Leonardo DiCaprio Album and Leonardo DiCaprio: Modern-Day Romeo) in its Top 10, as well as three Titanic-related titles. New York author Grace Catalano, who wrote Modern-Day Romeo, has already profiled Brad Pitt, River Phoenix and other young stars in book form. 'Brad Pitt is very successful,' she says, 'but nothing has been anything like Leonardo.'

These aren't the only books on offer either. Leonardo: A Scrapbook in Words and Pictures has followed these others into the best-seller lists. British journalist Douglas Thompson's plainly titled Leonardo DiCaprio has sold 'only' 30,000 copies in the UK, according to publishers Andre Deutsch - which makes it a bestseller. Thompson recalls passing an upscale San Francisco bookstore just before Easter, which had two windows, one displaying 13 Titanic-related books, the other 10 volumes about DiCaprio alone. He has a nice line about the repeat viewers. 'They go back time and time again just to see the first half of the film, before the ship hits the iceberg. For the real fans, there's not enough of Leo in the second half.'

Edinburgh author Brian J. Robb's Leonardo DiCaprio Album has now sold 280,000 copies worldwide, including - get this - 10,000 English-language copies in Japan. Sandra Wake, editorial director of the small London house Plexus, which published it, says, 'We've got something like 50,000 copies back-ordered. We just can't keep up with demand. It's crazy, it's wild.'

What all these disparate shards of information confirm is that over the past few weeks something extraordinary has happened. Hollywood types who know such things say DiCaprio can now easily command $25 million a picture. This puts him in his own league, above the likes of Tom Cruise, who must toil for a mere $20 million.

For Titanic he received a basic fee of $2.5 million plus five per cent of the film's net profits. Considering that just before its release it was thought Titanic could never recoup its costs, that seems modest. How far DiCaprio has come, and how swiftly; no wonder Vanity Fair, the barometer of such considerations, dubs him 'simply the world's biggest heartthrob'.

Now everyone wants a piece of him. Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox distributed Titanic outside the US and made a fortune on it, is said to have gone out of his way to seek a meeting with DiCaprio. It's unprecedented for studio bosses to seek out actors like that, but the rumour mill suggests Murdoch was concerned DiCaprio should not feel 'left out' of all the Oscar acclaim showered on Titanic. And, of course, Murdoch would have wanted to assure him that Fox will gladly fund whatever his next film turns out to be.

The odd and slightly heartening aspect of the DiCaprio Effect is that it appears to have happened spontaneously; certainly there is no single shadowy Svengali figure behind Leo, pulling his strings and carefully orchestrating a campaign for world domination, as Simon Fuller was doing for the Spice Girls until they dumped him.

The proof of this becomes apparent when you surf the Net, that most democratic of media and the one hardest to rig by marketing types. When I search for sites including DiCaprio's name, the daunting news comes back that there are 393,421 listings of his name and 500 sites, including a number of Leo-hate sites, the ultimate confirmation of fame. I survey sites in Italian, Danish, French, Spanish and English, before settling at random on one with a 'chat board'. Here, teenage girls can pour out their hearts to each other over Leo.

'He is my mentor,' writes a serious young woman. 'I admire him for his great acting talent, not just for his looks. This is the way he wants to be remembered.' A girl named Teresa, under the impression DiCaprio reads all these sites, writes, 'My sister Bebli, 9 year old, is a great fan of you!' Another message enters the realms of fantasy; 'I'm Silvy di Caprio, I'm from Los Angeles, my husband is Leonardo. I love you Leo! Tonight at home at 9!' And a heartfelt note, 'I am a teenager, 15. I would die if I would be able to meet you.' There is so much more similar stuff, it would take weeks to read.

Those of us with daughters can surmise the following time-line: at 10, they wistfully declare their love for Leo; at 12, they boast of their lust for him; at 14, they discuss in worldly fashion whether he is gay; and at 16, they sniffily announce they find him immature. By then, of course, they have laid out sizeable sums to sustain their Leo habit.

Looking back, the first stirrings of DiCaprio's inexorable rise were discernible in his 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. As in Titanic, he played a hero who ultimately dies; as in Titanic, lots of girls aged 10-18 went back to see it repeatedly - and not, it's safe to say, because they were mesmerised by the beauty of the Bard's imagery.

Back then, he was intriguing. But now he's a global obsession, one wonders how the DiCaprio Effect can sustain this intensity. We are talking, after all, about a man of 23, and there are already six (six!) biographies about him. What is there left to say? At this point, not much. Most of what his biographies tell us can be summarised briefly. He was born in November 1974 in a poor part of Hollywood and was given the name Leonardo in utero, because he kicked inside his mother Irmelin as she contemplated a da Vinci painting. His parents were flower children: his father George wore his hair long, distributed alternative comics and hung out with a counter-culture crowd including Hubert Selby Jr and Charles Bukowski. Mum, a legal secretary, and dad separated before his first birthday but raised him jointly.

The boy made his TV debut at five on a kids' show, Romper Room, but was dropped for being too boisterous. But he wanted to act, and his parents drove him to 50 auditions, without luck. He landed a toy commercial, at 14, which broke him into the market. In 1991 he took a role as a homeless boy on Growing Pains, an American TV sitcom.

At 17, he won a choice role, Robert De Niro's stepson in This Boy's Life, then filmed What's Eating Gilbert Grape? for which he won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor as a retarded boy. In The Basketball Diaries he was a teen athlete who became a drug addict, and critics first compared him to James Dean. He was ready for his career's next phase: playing Romeo and vaulting to superstardom.

On the surface, his life has changed hugely. Famous women hang on his arm: he has been linked with actresses Claire Danes (his Juliet), Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone. But not Kate Winslet, Rose to his Jack on the Titanic; no real-life romance there, she has insisted. One girlfriend was model Kristen Zang, who, after their split, breathlessly told the tabloids that Leo was, nudge-nudge, decidedly not gay. His latest girlfriend is the 20-year-old New York model Vanessa Haydn.

Now DiCaprio has an ever-present circle of friends, mainly bit-part actors who, like Elvis's Memphis Mafia, keep him company and, one assumes, laugh too loudly at his jokes. Leo always travels with at least 10 people in tow: 'That's not an entourage,' said an observer when his gang arrived in Paris recently. 'It's a delegation.'

For all this glamour, there are still hints of a vulnerable adolescent. It seems Leo is as happy playing ping-pong with pals or fiddling with his Sony PlayStation, as partying with models. Those on the Titanic set confirm he has a repertoire of pranks centred around breaking wind. And here's the clincher: this is someone who lived with his mother until last November. 'You never realise how much you need your mum until the day you leave her,' he said. Re-read that sentence, and it becomes obvious why 10-year-old girls adore him.

Still, in professional terms he has an engagingly stubborn streak and is drawn to darker roles more success-driven actors would run a mile from - The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse. He has opted to take the lead in the film version of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, in which he plays the super-slick Wall Street broker Patrick Bateman, who spends his evenings murdering women and slicing them up into body parts. It is hard to think of a role that could be more at odds with DiCaprio's image as a romantic hero. Meanwhile he will be seen in Woody Allen's new film, Celebrity, as part of an ensemble cast.

Kerry Parnell points out that this maverick quality has created problems for editors wishing to put the star on their covers. 'Leo markets himself as a serious actor, not a teen idol, so his people refuse to release studio shots of him to magazines like ours.'

He even talks of taking a year off, and has rejected lead roles in prestigious film adaptations of two highly rated novels - All the Pretty Horses (Matt Damon snagged that one) and Snow Falling on Cedars (Ethan Hawke was glad to step in). He is being touted optimistically as the lead in almost every upcoming film with a role remotely suitable for him (including British director Danny Boyle's next venture, The Beach). But producers of such films would do well not to hold their breath. All of this, perversely, gives DiCaprio a mystique which fuels his popularity further, and a touch of badly needed rugged individualism to neutralise his puppyish demeanour.

He's already risen to a giddy position, probably long before he expected it, where he calls the shots, makes the choices. Does he hold out for serious, complex (and maybe less well-paid) work? Or does he roll over, take the riches Hollywood so badly wants to lavish on him, and all that goes with it? The answer: at this point, Leo does whatever the hell he wants; for now, at last the DiCaprio Effect renders him invincible.

Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997. Terms & Conditions of reading.


This article was posted by Ann - thank you !