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The film directors who made Leonardo DiCaprio a cinema star

Victoria Luxford

BY Victoria Luxford

10th Oct 2023 Culture

4 min read

The film directors who made Leonardo DiCaprio a cinema star
Leonardo DiCaprio's career is littered with some of cinema's finest directors. With his next Scorsese film due, we revisit the masters he's collaborated with
Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the most talented actors of his generation, teams up this month with director Martin Scorsese for the Western crime drama Killers of The Flower Moon.
It is the sixth film the pair have made together, the most frequent collaboration of the actor’s career. However, notable directors have been the bedrock of what has made DiCaprio a legend in Hollywood.
Join us as we look at the many big name directors that have evolved and defined the Titanic star’s career.

Baz Luhrmann 

The first director to really make a star of DiCaprio, Aussie director Baz Luhrmann made him the face of two movies at very different stages of his career.
1996’s Romeo + Juliet was the actor’s biggest role to that point, with the fresh-faced newcomer winning legions of fans as one half of Shakespeare’s greatest lovers with Claire Danes. 17 years later, the director cast DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby.
"Luhrmann’s films always harkened back to the golden age of Hollywood, and DiCaprio always fit as his matinee idol"
Both films were colourful tales of tragic love, but the star was very different in both.
As Romeo, he was an emotional storm with his charisma fitting the modern setting, and his talent handling the dense dialogue. As Gatsby, DiCaprio was not only more mature but more reserved, playing the character with an enigmatic charm that made for another potent cinematic moment. 
Luhrmann’s films always harkened back to the golden age of Hollywood, and DiCaprio always fit as his matinee idol. 

James Cameron

A year after Romeo + Juliet came Titanic, the global record-breaking blockbuster that changed both DiCaprio’s career and cinema forever. It’s hard to describe just how big "Leomania" was in the Nineties if you weren’t there, with adoring fans seeing the film over and over in cinemas, until it became the first movie to make over two billion dollars.
Jack Dawson, the handsome chancer who won his way onto the ship of dreams, remains his most recognised performance, but perhaps also a character that changed the direction of his career.
Having experienced the intensity of blockbuster success, DiCaprio would avoid Hollywood franchises in favour dramas and biopics to this day, turning down Star Wars, Spiderman, and The Matrix to avoid appearing in effects-heavy action films.
Nevertheless, despite only working together once, Cameron provided the stage for DiCaprio to realise the enormous potential he had and the success needed to carve out the future he wanted.  

Martin Scorsese 

The Aviator
As a young actor, Leonardo DiCaprio idolised Robert DeNiro, whom he worked with in 1993’s This Boy’s Life. It makes sense, then, that he would collaborate with a director who was synonymous with the actor.
Though he cast him as a hero in 2002’s Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese most frequently brought out the dark side in DiCaprio’s repertoire.
"Martin Scorsese most frequently brought out the dark side in DiCaprio’s repertoire"
DiCaprio would play troubled men with immense power—Howard Hughes in The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, and troubled detectives in both drama The Departed and thriller Shutter Island.
Over the course of six films, the duo’s connection has matured and brought out the best in both men: DiCaprio delivered some of his finest performances, and Scorsese finally won a Best Director Oscar in 2005 for The Departed

Quentin Tarantino 

Moving further into that dark place, DiCaprio’s first collaboration with maverick director Quentin Tarantino saw him play a loathsome villain. As Calvin Candie, the horrific slave owner who is the antagonist of 2012’s Django Unchained, DiCaprio struggled with both the language and actions of such a despicable human.
According to co-star Jamie Foxx, the actor couldn’t bring himself to talk to other actors between takes, such was the intensity of the part he had to play.
Nonetheless, the collaboration was successful enough to bring about another film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, playing fading TV actor Rick Dalton. While Dalton was no hero, he was at least more sympathetic than Candie, and forced the actor to access his own insecurities in one darkly hilarious scene where Dalton gives himself a pep talk. 

The one-film-wonders

Blood Diamond
For one reason or another, many directors will have worked with DiCaprio just once, but still made a lasting impact on his career.
Steven Spielberg, the godfather of blockbuster filmmaking, gave DiCaprio one of his most captivating roles as Frank Abignale Jr, the real-life conman at the centre of comedy-drama Catch Me If You Can.
The Jurassic Park filmmaker was able to showcase the actor’s ability to play different types of role, through a character that had to impersonate many different professions convincingly. 
One of the great constant figures in cinema, Clint Eastwood, was also impressed enough to cast DiCaprio in his 2011 biopic of J Edgar Hoover. A tough performance that required the actor to wear a lot of makeup, Eastwood remarked that he saw something of himself in the then 36-year-old.
"Despite being considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, one accolade eluded DiCaprio for a long time: an Oscar"
“He could have made a lot of money just doing spectacle movies with all kinds of CGI,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “But he wants to vary his career like I’ve always looked to vary mine as a director”.
Finally, despite being considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, one accolade eluded DiCaprio for a long time: an Oscar.
He had been nominated four times previously without winning for his work on the dramas What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
The film that would ultimately secure that honour was The Revenant, his first time working with Alejandro G Iñárritu (director of 2014’s Birdman).
DiCaprio suffered for his art playing frontiersman Hugh Glass, fighting a giant CGI bear and enduring cold conditions to secure Best Actor at the following year’s Academy Awards. He used his moment to highlight the climate change issues that halted production on the film, highlighting his desire to be a real-life hero as well as a big screen icon. 
Banner credit: Courtesy of Apple TV+
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