Leonardo DiCaprio: The Survivor
A couple of stories, over 150 years apart and, it is fair to say, as different in their details as it is possible to be. But nevertheless, they have strange congruities, even as they come from wildly contrasting times and circumstances. Both involve luck, determination, a kind of maniacal bravery, transformation, Leonardo DiCaprio and, ultimately, this one word: survival.
The first tale takes place in 1822 when an apparently unremarkable frontiersman, named Hugh Glass, responds to adverts in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser seeking men brave enough to explore the Missouri River. The ads have been placed by General William Henry Ashley who wishes to secure fur-trapping prospects in the remote South Dakota wilds. Glass enlists and the following year finds himself scouting the banks of the freezing Missouri when, one fine, cold day, he inadvertently surprises a bear and her cubs. The bear attacks, but he fends her off long enough for two colleagues, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, to run over and help kill the animal; an incident that leaves him with smashed ribs, deep lacerations and a badly broken arm and leg. He is not expected to survive, so Ashley instructs Fitzgerald and Bridger to stay with him until he dies, to dig a grave and give him a Christian burial. Instead they flee, taking his possessions.
Glass is alone, unarmed and deep in territory dominated by the Arikara, a hostile Indian tribe who, years before, had slaughtered a comrade of his by piercing his body with hundreds of pine-needles before burning him to death. Nevertheless, he laces his wounds with maggots to prevent gangrene, shrouds himself in his attacker’s hide and begins the astonishing trek back to civilisation over 300 kilometres away. Along the way, he weathers fever, rattlesnakes, starvation and festering wounds, but six weeks later emerges from the wilderness, close to death and, quite understandably, with revenge on his mind.
The second story: in 1994 a winsome 20-year-old actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, with a sparse but varied career in bad television, cornflakes commercials and, latterly, ambitious arthouse movies, is cast in a movie about a boat. Upon release in 1997, the boat movie is a hit, the biggest of all time in fact, transforming him from struggling thespian into a global heartthrob, the likes of whom hasn’t been seen in at least a generation. There are synchronised mobbings in Japanese shopping mall and crowd-control issues at major international airports whenever DiCaprio travels. Assailed on one side by the fickle white-heat of fan adulation, and on the other by a critical consensus that he is, at best, a slightly above-average celluloid pretty-boy of the kind you can spit and hit a dozen at any Burbank casting-call, he seems destined for his moment in the sun, followed by a slide into obscurity or outright oblivion.
But then a Great Director, one not known for backing vacuous clothes-horses, casts him in one movie, then in another, and people begin to look again at this once-unpromising identikit matinee idol. Suddenly there is talk of Herculean commitment, unearthly skill and almost perfectly calibrated judgement. And by the beginning of the new millennium he is not only one of Hollywood’s hottest commercial properties, but also one of its most consistently interesting leading players.
These tales are, granted, somewhat different in their particulars. DiCaprio’s trial did not at any point involve having his limbs pulverised by a maternally enraged bear (though it did involve mass hysteria from Japanese schoolgirls, a phenomenon that might have given Hugh Glass pause). But the point is neither man was supposed to survive, let alone emerge as very different people, from these epics of endurance. DiCaprio was no more supposed to weather the assault of teenage passions any more than Glass was meant to walk out of the wilderness, like some risen ghost. And if this sounds overly dramatic, consider for a moment the many fallen pin-ups boys of Hollywood. Who, after all, remembers Jason Priestley, Josh Hartnett or Chris O’ Donnell or any other of DiCaprio’s swoonsome compatriots of the late ’90s?
DiCaprio could have gone the same way as those contemporaries. He could have faded along with the detritus of that brief, incandescent hormonal explosion known as ‘Leomania’, the remains of which no doubt still exists in peeling stickers on long-abandoned plastic lunch boxes; in i heart leo graffito wrought with ferocious, fleeting, passion in pink glitter pen on forgotten pencil-cases that now gather dust in Tokyo attics.
But he survived. And now, after a stunning, gruelling portrayal of Hugh Glass’ tribulations in the harsh American Frontier, which might actually redefine what acting can be, Leonardo DiCaprio’s name might finally be written in a classy script on the base of a small golden statue sitting on a stage in the Dolby Theatre on February 28th. And it will be long overdue.
Survival seems to have been hardwired into the DiCaprio genome from the start. His mother was lucky to emerge from World War Two at all. Irmelin Indenbirken was only two years old when she was admitted to Oer-Erkenschwick Infirmary in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, in the midst of the conflict. What started out as a broken leg led to a catastrophic deterioration in health, as infection piled on infection. With resources stretched to breaking point by the war, it fell to DiCaprio’s grandmother to battle to save her daughter’s life. Irmelin would end up spending nearly three years bedridden, often on the verge of death. Occasionally DiCaprio pulls out an old photograph of his mother as an infant in hospital. An emaciated, shy child, her tummy protrudes in a tiny, tight ball; the belly that would, years later, carry him is packed with worms. Occasionally, after looking at this photograph, he cries.
“His commitment to the truth of his character, no matter how ugly or inexplicable, is total” – Martin Scorsese
But survive she did, and later moved to the US where she hooked up with George DiCaprio, a young hipster of Italian/German descent, with whom she had a son, Leo, in November 1974 before separating with the father when their child was an infant. One day, some years later when George and Leo headed to the flicks on one of their sporadic paternal outings, the father leaned over to his son and gestured to the screen. “See that guy?” he told Leo. “That’s Robert De Niro; that guy is cool.” It was a prescient moment that reinforced young Leo’s fervour for acting, which had begun in high school and would later progress to the commercials and the bad TV and then the boat movie.
The subsequent period of universal adulation from that mega-hit had its undoubted upsides. There was the Olympian roistering in bars and cigar clubs and strip joints; the modus operandi of much commented on and variously admired/despised underwear models, a group of nolebrity ne’er-do-wells that glommed around the young DiCaprio, the likes of which tabloid readers had not gawked upon since the glory days of The Brat Pack.
But the idea that this elfin-faced repository of the sexual yearnings of a generation’s tweenage girls might one day rival and then eclipse his father’s hero was as ludicrous as… well, some guy who was supposed to be dead walking out of the forest.
It’s satisfyingly ironic, then, that it was Martin Scorsese, the man who had wrought De Niro’s early, peerless career, who spotted the same untapped intensity in DiCaprio that he had seen in his original thespian muse. He would cast DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002) and then The Aviator (2004) and then The Departed (2006). “His commitment to the truth of his character, no matter how ugly or inexplicable, is total,” Scorsese told Esquire in 2010. “This is one of the qualities that I admire most about him. It’s been one of the great adventures of my career. He is absolutely essential to me.”
The critical acclaim that duly followed meant that DiCaprio had the luxury of choice when it came to his career. “Most recently, the last few years, I feel way more comfortable than I’ve ever felt,” DiCaprio told Esquire a couple of years ago. “I’m pretty well-formed as an adult now. I don’t have to impress anybody. You ask yourself these different questions: What do I want to do? Interesting question: What do I want to do? What makes me really happy? I’ve learned all these things that I’m supposed to do. I know I’m supposed to be in that place and do this and that. But to really, deeply ask yourself that question — What do I want to do?”
It turns out that what he wanted to do was to head off to Calgary and shoot one of the most physically gruelling, crazily ambitious films ever attempted, and “feeling comfortable” would become, for a few months at least, a dimly remembered dream.
So we settle down in a swanky New York hotel one clear October morning to discuss Leo’s trials in the wilderness. Looking at him these days it’s hard to spot the winsome Ganymede who transfixed the globe’s younglings twenty-odd years ago. Unlike many former pretty men, whose early fresh-faced appeal tends to thaw into a slightly genderless blandness, he has cured impeccably well; just the right thickness of neck and a moderate, early-middle age (he’s 41), proto-jowliness. These days he has the aspect of, as the French would have it, un homme serieux; one confirmed both by the eyes, flinty blue, unnervingly sharp and as vulpine as ever, and a determination to keep the conversation firmly anchored to the work.
“It was the prospect of working with Alejandro,” he says of the decision to take on the role of Hugh Glass, and to collaborate for the first time with Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, of whom he is fulsome in his praise.
“He is an incredible visionary. There are very few filmmakers who could have made a poetic, existential epic like this. I mean, you have this linear story, a campfire legend of American history, the survivalist, travelling hundreds of miles through the harshest of conditions. But through Alejandro’s eyes it became something more than that. Certainly it tells a story of triumph and the human spirit; what it takes to overcome massive obstacles. But through Alejandro it becomes less of a plain revenge story and something that I think is much more profound than that.”
It is this honed cinematic taste, in both screenplays and directors, that is part of the key to DiCaprio’s enviable longevity. Since his astonishingly fruitful collaboration with Martin Scorsese he has quietly sought out the best scripts and the finest directors with the dedication of a patient oenophile after a rare grape from the right vineyard in the right year. And he has only committed when all these elements are in place.
He has worked with Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, returning, periodically, to the man who invented the second act of his career, Scorsese, most recently for The Wolf Of Wall Street.
He also had the right instincts for when to say no. For instance, he turned down the role of Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s biopic of the unlikable genius, spotting, correctly as it turned out, that, despite Boyle’s skills and a screenplay by The West Wing’s legendary Aaron Sorkin, it was in the end a movie about a grumpy bloke who invented a phone. Write this down, aspirant star: success in Hollywood is defined as much, perhaps more, not by what you do, but by what you don’t do. But Iñárritu? Well he turned out to be a whole different ball of wax.
“There’s so much to say about Alejandro,” DiCaprio enthuses. “He is a genius of filmmaking. He’s both an old-school filmmaker and an outsider at the same time. While he’s spent a lifetime studying cinematic history and the great masters, he has developed his own approach. There are very few directors who have achieved this, who do not fit into the Hollywood mould, but can still develop films on an epic scale.”
In the case of The Revenant, what Iñárritu achieved was not without its costs. His typically quixotic decision to shoot Glass’ story in sequence, using only natural light and to film in the wilds of Calgary in temperatures that regularly fell to 25 below zero, soon reduced the already ambitious production to a snail’s pace. Simply travelling to and from location would eat four hours out of the already-truncated shooting time. “The sun hits only where you need it to be for about 20 minutes a day,” co-star Domhnall Gleeson said later. “If you don’t get the shot during those 20 minutes, then you’re back the next day. We had one absolutely nutty scene that involved running in and out of water and getting onto a boat, and a lot of guys on horses coming toward us, and arrows and guns going off. That was all in one shot. Your nerves are absolutely shredded.”
DiCaprio’s own dedication to Iñárritu’s demands for total realism had him violating a lifetime of vegetarianism to sink his teeth into a real raw cow’s liver when the fake one didn’t spurt the required amount of blood. “The gelatine one didn’t look right to me,” says DiCaprio. “It wasn’t bleeding the right way when I was biting into it. Then Alejandro threw me the real one, and you’ll see my reaction in the film — he kept it in.”
Meanwhile, craft services dished out coffee and bagels from inside a steel cage, protection against the real-life bears that had started to take a worrying interest in the production, adding to the growing sense of chaos and unease. The film, which had been scheduled to wrap in March of this year was still shooting in August, its $95 million budget climbing, rumour had it, closer to the $135 million mark.
In July The Hollywood Reporter dropped a bombshell article, charting what was now being referred to as the dreaded industry phrase, “a troubled production”. The report gleefully recounted how a battle scene originally scripted with 30 players expanded to 200 and took two weeks to get in the can. Co-star Tom Hardy dropped out of his planned role in David Ayer’s much-awaited superhero smackdown Suicide Squad to accommodate The Revenant’s ever-expanding schedule. Producers were allegedly barred from set, shooting was relocated to Argentina on absurdly short notice when the weather became, paradoxically, too warm in Canada. Crew members complained that much of this misery and expense could have been avoided if Iñárritu had simply switched on the Macs and used digital effects.
“That’s exactly what I didn’t want,” the director angrily responded to his critics. “If we ended up in front of a green-screen with coffee, having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of s***. I wanted to show how those guys lived, what they went through,” he said. “It’s 1823! Wild conditions, eating animals, wearing animals. There was no f***ing GPS. People got lost. They didn’t know what was there. How can I get audiences to experience that?”
By immersing his actors in the wild and letting the camera roll, that’s how. Which meant that the production was, to quote the paper’s unnamed crew member, “A living hell”.
“A tough shoot? Hell yeah! We took on nature, and nature bites back” – Leo DiCaprio
“A tough shoot? Hell yeah!” laughs DiCaprio of the now well-reported tribulations. “We took on nature. And nature bites back. We all worked incredibly hard. Whether it was constant extreme weather, or cameras not working because it was 40 degrees below zero… at one point we shut down for five weeks; they were very tough conditions and I don’t think anyone could have predicted the challenges that this movie gave us. It threw everything at us that you could imagine. But that’s why it’s so interesting. And for me it was fascinating to do a film where I didn’t have to articulate what was being put up on screen. This was almost like silent-film acting in a lot of ways. There are long periods where it’s just me, alone, at the mercy of the elements.”
As a technical achievement The Revenant is peerless, taking the fluid, impossibly complex continuous shots that Iñárritu pioneered with his Oscar-winning Birdman and applying them to a vaster, more immersive canvas. “We shot completely in natural light,” DiCaprio enthuses of cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki’s work, which is Kubrickian in its ambition. “We rehearsed most of the day and then shot during the few hours of natural light we had. If you think of [Kubrick’s 1975 period drama movie] Barry Lyndon, which was shot by candlelight, this took it even further. Chivo has managed to pull off a kind of epic intimacy. You see a vast landscape and bloody battles, but at the same time the camera snakes in on a small close-up of someone to capture a moment… and then it moves on. I don’t think there’s ever been a film like it; it’s a simple linear story of revenge, but at the same time it evolves into a great piece of cinematic poetry.”
Simultaneously intimate and epic, largely silent, alternately lyrical and gut-churningly violent, The Revenant cements Iñárritu as one of film’s most formally daring directors. It’s a glorious, strange, often heart-stoppingly terrifying film that crashes the ecstatic naturalism of Terrence Malick’s still, wondrous contemplation of the natural world, with Werner Herzog’s petrified admiration. DiCaprio’s Glass is very much in the spirit of Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre or as lunatic opera buff Brian Fitzgerald hauling his boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. But in Iñárritu’s vision, Glass is not, as with those characters, set apart from this world. His survival instinct, even his desire for retribution against those who left him to die, is in some mysterious way a part of the same natural world as the bear that mauls him.
And being as much a film about humankind’s relationship with the natural world as a propulsive survival story, it fits neatly in with DiCaprio’s much-publicised and entirely earnest concern for the environment. “I hope that element is there,” he says, perhaps a little wary of being seen to climb onto his familiar soapbox. “The region we shot in was a wilderness at the time, like the Amazon is today, inhabited by indigenous people, and this film depicts the first infiltration of man into what was an untouched region. The fur trade was before the gold rush, before the oil rush, it was the very first bit of nature that could be extracted and then exported. So there is that theme embedded in the film. I hope it’s something that people will pick up.”
And so, to endings. True stories tend to have messy conclusions. In real life Hugh Glass never satisfied the revenge that had burned hot enough to keep him alive out there in the wilderness. Perhaps it had served its purpose by then. And Leo? Well, if there is any justice, that Oscar, the bauble so far denied to him by an Academy more notable for its mistakes than its judgement, will be his. Not because it is long overdue, even though it is, but because DiCaprio has once again proved that he is much more than a pampered celebrity. For all the trappings of wealth and privilege that he unashamedly enjoys, he has repeatedly proved that he as serious as anyone about his craft. How else did he stay at the top of his game for this long if he were any other way?
And so this year should be the year. But if not, well, he’ll make it through. Live to fight another day. Y’know, survive.
- – -