20th Century Fox/Paramount Pictures
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.