Heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio Is Great, But His Scumbag Era’s Even Better

The Big Picture

  • Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon is praised as some of his best work, showcasing his ability to make an unlikable and ugly character magnetic.
  • DiCaprio’s career trajectory has led him to play characters defined by their muddy morality and selfish mentalities, moving away from his initial golden boy image.
  • His dedication to fulfilling his potential and not resting on his laurels is evident in his choice of complex roles and continuous efforts to challenge himself as an actor.

Leonardo DiCaprio continues receiving rave reviews for his performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, another much-revered role in collaboration with director Martin Scorsese. His work as the gormless stooge Ernest Burkhart has been praised by critics as perhaps his best work, citing how Ernest is such a thoroughly unlikable and actively ugly person, yet DiCaprio still makes him magnetic and the anchor through which the story works. If you look at the trajectory of his career, you’ll find that it’s been leading towards a moment like this, as DiCaprio is at his maximum power playing characters that are defined by their muddy morality and selfish mentalities. It’s a far cry from the golden boy image he first became famous for, and it shows the dedication he has to fulfilling the potential he’s always had and never resting on his laurels.

How Did Leonardo DiCaprio Get His Start in Hollywood?

Ellen Barkin, Leonardo Dicaprio and Ellen Barkin in This Boy's Life
Image via Warner Bros. 

The roles in Leonardo DiCaprio’s early career as a child actor allowed him to be both a young boy with an edge and also still maintain an underlying charisma that offset that edge. The first film role that really got people’s respect was This Boy’s Life – which also happens to be the first time he’d share screen time with Robert De Niro. DiCaprio plays a teenager dealing with an abusive stepfather. Young DiCaprio leaps off the screen with how unafraid he is to go for broke with his anguish and how he is able to hold his own against proven veterans like De Niro and Ellen Barkin. He pulls off being a “bad boy” who acts out his frustrations – a traumatized victim lashing out at his abuser with weathered restraint and occasional rage. In This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio demonstrates a range of emotions nobody was expecting from the at-the-time unproven actor.

Later that same year, Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a film that further boosted his newfound image as an explosive new talent. Here, he plays Gilbert’s (Johnny Depp) younger brother Arnie, a person with an intellectual disability. DiCaprio’s performance in this role is much different than his This Boy’s Life performance. Arnie is a boy so easily lovable in his earnestness and charm. DiCaprio seamlessly switches from pain and aggression to sweetness and affection throughout the movie. The mainstream took notice, giving him his first of six total acting Oscar nominations for his performance. With this new platform, DiCaprio sprung into an incredible streak of performances that solidified his image.

How Did Leonardo DiCaprio Become a Romantic Icon?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Jack and Rose embracing in Titanic.
Image via Paramount Pictures

The back-to-back phenomena of Titanic and Romeo + Juliet can’t be understated, as both films did huge at the box office and cemented Leonardo DiCaprio’s image as a romantic icon and the major male star of the future. Romeo + Juliet gave him more room to flex his dramatic chops; in a film full of the kind of excess and hysteria that only Baz Luhrmann can orchestrate, DiCaprio screams and smolders, carrying on the sacred tradition of doing justice to Shakespeare. Titanic presented him in a more matinée idol mode, fully selling us on this perfect man that makes Rose (Kate Winslet) feel like the only girl in the world, worthy of her spending an entire lifetime idealizing him. Once again, we see two extremes on full display, doing the absolute most effort and then the seemingly effortless with equal ease. All the while, the audience has been asked to see him as unambiguously charming and permit him to coast on that; this approach can only last so long, and DiCaprio moved on from this phase to prove that he had dynamic skill by starting to go for characters with much more conflicted moral makeup.

What Was Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s First Movie Together?

Image via Miramax

Despite some unfortunate duds like The Beach, DiCaprio eventually found his footing by teaming up with Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York, and while this isn’t one of either of their finest hours, it does display DiCaprio’s newfound drive to go for characters that could potentially be upsetting to some audience members. Amsterdam Vallon may be framed as a man traumatized by witnessing his father murdered while being an Irish immigrant to New York City in 1862, but he is also a man bloodthirsty for revenge against his father’s killer (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the film goes out of its way to underline how much he’s changed from the sweet boy he once was. It’s tempting to read this as unintentional subtext about DiCaprio’s career trajectory, but he himself seems uncomfortable in the role, with a shaky Irish accent, and he perhaps felt the uncertainty of untested waters. It doesn’t help that he gets blown off the screen in every scene he shares with Day-Lewis in one of his fiercest performances. When viewed in the context of the rest of his career, it’s a rough start to what otherwise becomes an incredible run of star turns where he gets more and more liberated to unleash his inner grot.

When Did Leonardo DiCaprio Start Playing More Complex Roles?

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
Image via Warner Bros.

Starting with Catch Me If You Can, a delightfully underrated Steven Spielberg caper, Leonardo DiCaprio becomes more adept at finding new avenues to channel the underlying sickness that comes with his charisma. Frank Abagnale, Jr. was the ultimate con artist (so much so that even his claims of fraud wound up being fake), able to schmooze and woo anyone he came across, all while gleefully enjoying how easy it all came to him. DiCaprio is having the time of his life, gliding through every scene and doing everything he can not to wink at everyone he encounters. Even the later scenes where he gets caught have a pathos to them thanks to just how vastly humbled and ashamed he makes Frank, so regretful that his fun is finally over.

If Gangs of New York was a test run, then the Scorsese double bill of The Aviator and The Departed were the successful races, as these feature two of DiCaprio’s very best performances. Playing renowned billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and undercover cop Billy Costigan respectively, both roles are dazzling for how shredded to the nerves he is at all times. Whether he’s trapping himself in a bathroom because he can’t touch a doorknob or sweating bullets because he needs to keep his cover with major crime bosses in the room, he excels at playing men becoming trapped by social systems, both the ones they’ve created and are forced into. Both of these roles are essentially men building roles for themselves that they are compelled to uphold even when it’s actively torturing them, DiCaprio was unafraid to make himself look ugly, cowardly, or downright disturbing to serve the truth of the character.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s at His Best Playing Truly Treacherous Villains

Leonardo DiCaprio taking a pen from Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
Image via The Weinstein Company

Leonardo DiCaprio reached unparalleled heights of debauchery with arguably his two greatest roles, as Calvin Candie in the Quentin Tarantino masterpiece Django Unchained and Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Here were arguably the two most disgustingly deplorable creatures he’s ever done: as Candie, he was a monstrous slave owner with a fierce entitlement to his faux cultured sense of the world; as Belfort, he was a fraudulent stock trader reveling in his riches and smugly euphoric in his urge to share his insider knowledge with the audience. The key to why these performances in particular are so amazing is how unapologetically they take the “DiCaprio persona” we’ve grown comfortable with over decades of exposure and put them under pressure tests to see how far audience investment can be stretched.

Tarantino ironized DiCaprio’s tendencies, turning his charisma and swagger into a masterclass of anti-charismatic repulsion; look no further than the iconic zoom-in shot of Candie, flashing a smile that should have a foghorn noise coming out of it. Scorsese, on the other hand, magnified all of his traits to 11 and shoveled them into a shiny yet loathsome package. Jordan is always selling the idea that he’s sympathetic, with even the mildest of introspective moments reflexively flung back in our faces, mocking us for thinking he’d change. His conspiratorial fourth wall breaks and manic commitment to the lack of shame Jordan felt is DiCaprio truly unhinged in a way that’s unmatched at any other point in his career, and it’s a wonder to think he didn’t win the Oscar for it.

Why Does Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Stand Out?

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Robert De Niro as William Hale in Killers of the Flower Moon
Image via Apple Studios

This brings us back to now. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Ernest Burkhart is the culmination of a lifetime of learning how to break bad, at a point where he can no longer rely on the fallbacks of youth or natural charisma. If you were to argue this is his actual best performance, it’s due to how it feels spun from whole cloth and not as reliant on his past history as other highlights. Ernest may have a boyish charm, and he may still look like Leonardo DiCaprio, but in every other way, he’s a completely new invention. A thuggish, easily manipulated war veteran with a blighted sense of love and an abused puppy sense of loyalty, Ernest is a promising sign that DiCaprio is more committed than ever to pushing himself to the limit in exposing man’s basest impulses for all to see. Fingers crossed he actually gets to play Jim Jones one day, he would crush it.

Killers of the Flower Moon is in theaters in the U.S. now.

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