Is Leonardo DiCaprio very good or very lucky? That cherubic mug once seemed destined for a career of mere prettiness. Today he's in danger of becoming his generation's most prolific leading man. Before his recent string of successes, DiCaprio swam , ran and swashbuckled his way into the arms of Martin Scorsese, the slug-browed director who turned his previous muse Robert DeNiro into that generation's finest actor.
Last week, Scorsese and DiCaprio— do we have a name for this professional marriage yet? Scorprio? LeoMart?—gave the world Shutter Island, their fifth collaboration in eight years, to great box office, if not critical, success. Next year Scorprio is expected to release their sixth offspring, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a bio-pic based on the Pulitzer-winning book by Edmund Morris, with Leo in the title role. Scorsese wants to make Leo great. But to do that, he has to understand what makes Leo good.
This is a trickier problem than it appears. Seeing as his head was designed in a secret underground laboratory for the singular purpose of causing apoplexy among tweener girls, DiCaprio is blessed with a boyish complexion. He's also cursed with a boyish voice. In moments of dramatic agitation, his face enflames, his veins press the skin and he sends forth ... well, a proper shriek, as though the treble is dialed up to a volume that crackles the speakers. This somewhat NSFW video of Leo screaming his way through "The Beach"—but really: didn't we all?—gives you an idea:
Dramatic acting is about the pipes*, and high voices are like outer space: nobody hears you when you scream (and if they do hear you, they're likely to ignore you). Modern film's great leading dramatic actors have been almost all sonorous basses. Jack Nicholson owns a rusty set of brass. Al Pacino's throat has an orchestra to spare. Leo's voice has a bugle where a French horn ought to be. There are no bellows with him, only plaintive yelps. So Leonardo, the actor, dances around Leo, the boy voice. Sometimes he masks the voice with a dialect (Bostonian in "The Depah-ted" and "Shuttah Island"; South African in "Blood Diamond"; something-or-other in "Gangs of New York"). At worst, he senses the weightlessness of his tinny voice box and tries to power through the scene by twisting his facial muscles violently, like he's trying to wring tears through his nose. With a less photogenic actor, this might be unattractive, but with Leo it is mostly pitiable. Commanding gravitas—sincere gravitas—is a cinch when your voice comes through the floor like a subwoofer. It's damn hard to pull off with a toy trumpet in your mouth.
But here's the catch: Not all roles call for hyper-masculine gravitas powered by belly-rumbling basses. Some great roles are written for anti-heroes: frauds and cheats and double-crossing liars and mercenaries. And guess what? Leonardo DiCaprio happens to be brilliant—really, brilliant—when he's playing all of those things. He was great in The Aviator, but especially when he was descending into schizophrenia. He crushed in The Departed as a jittery double agent drawing leers from both sides of the law, and in Blood Diamond, as a conflicted mercenary. More than any movie, he dazzled in Catch Me If You Can as an outright fraud.** Those are his most impressive performances, and they're listed in order of both impressiveness and untrustworthiness. That is not a coincidence. Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a matinee idol. But he excels as an anti-hero.
Whether he's aware of it explicitly or not, DiCaprio's greatest skill is his ability to maneuver around his boyish voice, to use the toy trumpet as an instrument of mischief and doubt and insecurity. No matter how old DiCaprio grows, he's not growing new vocal chords. So Marty Scorsese, this is an open plea. I know you like this kid. I know you want to make him the king of the world, again. But this boy isn't a king. He's an Iago. If you want to get him an Oscar, find a character that mixes easy charisma with jittery deviousness. Dare us to root against that pretty little mug.
*If you don't believe me, try this exercise. Find somebody you feel extremely comfortable with. Look deep into her/his eyes. Say "I love you," twice. The first time, say in a pitch that feels high for your voice. S/he is laughing because you sound like a fool. Now take a breath, and say it again so that you can feel the vowel at the base of your throat. "I love you." See how that changed the mood a smidge? Even actors with naturally high voices are taught to speak out of their gut. Low voices command gravitas. It's science.
**I didn't see Revolutionary Road, but I hear DiCaprio played a anti-heroic weasel of a husband, and that he was excellent in the role.