So much more than a pretty face

Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy, hyperkinetic, 3-D, hip hop-scored version of The Great Gatsby opens today, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.

LD as JG
LD as JG

How the movie, and his performance in it, will be received remains to be seen, but each new DiCaprio movie presents an opportunity to reflect on past performances. For this viewer, he has never been better than he was, at age 18, in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which was released almost 20 years ago. That he did not win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award–he lost to Tommy Lee Jones, for The Fugitive–still rankles all these years later.

936full-what's-eating-gilbert-grape-poster“Grape” relates the story of an Iowa family whose members include a morbidly obese mother who hasn’t left the house in years, and a developmentally delayed teenager, Arnie, played by DiCaprio.  His performance is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen.  For me, it was one of those rare movie-watching experiences: I wasn’t seeing someone act, but rather an actual person who happened to walk into the movie.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended this movie to people over the years, specifically because of DiCaprio.

Here’s an excerpt from Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times on 17 December 1993: “The film’s real show-stopping turn comes from Mr. DiCaprio, who makes Arnie’s many tics so startling and vivid that at first he is difficult to watch. Mr. DiCaprio…winds up capturing the enormous range of Arnie’s raw emotions, and making it clear why the Grape brothers share such an unbreakable bond. The performance has a sharp, desperate intensity from beginning to end.”  I agree that he is difficult to watch at first, and I think it’s precisely because he does seem so real…it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a real person with real problems.

After I’d decided to create this particular post, I went to YouTube hoping I could find a clip or two of a representative scene and I lucked out: another fan of the performance assembled an entire ‘highlight reel’ of DiCaprio’s moments.

See what you think.

Extra tidbit: Another favorite–and more recent–performance in the “I wasn’t watching someone act” category is Christopher Plummer’s in Beginners.


  • Everything he’s done has been spectacular, and it’s an absolute crime that he’s never won an Oscar. I can’t wait to see him in “Gatsby!”


  • I fully expected NOT to like the new Gatsby film, because I loved the book and loved Robert Redford’s interpretation of Jay. I was pleasantly very surprised….Leonardo was wonderful in the role – made it so clear that Daisy was the ineluctable motivation behind his “success” (such as it was), and he played the ” school-boy-flustered-by-love” aspect of the role so well! I was completely won over by him and by the film in general. See it!


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