Why ‘The Revenant’ Proves Leonardo DiCaprio May Be Hollywood’s Biggest Star

In 2002, Leonardo DiCaprio was at a career crossroads.

His floppy blond mane and soulful blue eyes had threatened to stop teenage hearts around the globe as he slipped from Kate Winslet’s grip and slid into an icy ocean in “Titanic.” The unprecedented box office returns for the romantic drama transformed DiCaprio into a pinup with few equals, but it had also made him a prisoner of its success, hounded by paparazzi and dismissed as a party boy, whose dalliances with models were drawing more attention than his performances.

It didn’t help that DiCaprio’s post-“Titanic” roles as an American traveler in “The Beach” and as a French monarch in “The Man in the Iron Mask” left critics cold and were only modest box office performers. He seemed burdened by fame and risked being written off as a supernova who frittered away his talent in the white hot glare of Hollywood’s night life.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2002, DiCaprio acknowledged the burdens of fame, declaring that “my post-‘Titanic’ experience was a very empty existence,” and griping that, “you’re suddenly defined in the media as a cutie-pie.”

That interview was launched at a critical point for a young actor, hitting news stands as he looked to shed his pretty boy image. In the following weeks he would deploy a new career strategy, partnering with two of the leading lights in cinema by working with Martin Scorsese on “Gangs of New York” and Steven Spielberg on “Catch Me If You Can.” The two roles, one gritty and rageful, the other light and infectiously comic, highlighted DiCaprio’s range and ended any debate about his acting abilities.

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Over the next decade, DiCaprio hasn’t deviated from the approach that he took that year. Knowing that film is very much a director’s medium, he has sought out projects that bring him together with true artists, working with the likes of Christopher Nolan (“Inception”), Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby”), Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”), and Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”). And he’s been rewarded for his risk-taking by becoming one of the few consistent box office draws in an era when star power is at its nadir.

His latest, “The Revenant,” continues the tradition, pairing the actor with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a Mexican director fresh off the Oscar-winning “Birdman.” Despite bleak subject matter — man is mauled by bear and seeks bloody vengeance — and the fact that DiCaprio, sporting a beard that would not be out of place on “Duck Dynasty” and chapped lips that cry out for a dab of Blistex, is unlikely to make many hearts swoon, the film is shaping up to be a hit. It racked up a smashing $38 million in its wide release debut last weekend.

“He is proving himself with every movie to be perhaps the most bankable star on the planet,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “A lot of movie stars today can’t open a movie unless its part of a franchise, but he can open any kind of movie. He’s a chameleon on screen and in terms of his box office appeal.”

Indeed, villain or hero, comedy or drama, DiCaprio has done it all. A few films have faltered, such as “J. Edgar” and Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” but eight of his last 13 movies have topped $100 million at the Stateside box office.

That’s remarkable considering that DiCaprio does not have a major franchise on his resume and has never appeared in a sequel. In contrast, DiCaprio’s fellow A-listers, a group that includes Robert Downey Jr., Will Smith, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Lawrence, all boast at least one major film series among their credits. In some respects DiCaprio’s tastes, which run to darker examinations of the human condition, have diverged wildly from those of a moviegoing public that is increasingly obsessed with science-fiction epics and comic book fantasies. With the exception of Nolan’s “Inception,” few of DiCaprio’s post-“Titanic” roles fit neatly into the blockbuster template.

“I don’t think he will never don the spandex,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “I don’t see him lining up a superhero movie any time soon.”

For months during its troubled production, media outlets feasted on reports of tension and trauma on the set of “The Revenant.” Iñárritu’s drive to shoot the film chronologically, while using natural light and relying on remote locations, caused the budget to balloon from $90 million to $135 million, and led to fears that like “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar,” the picture could be an example of directorial hubris run amok.

Some critics have been left cold by the scenes of DiCaprio clawing and willing himself across the snowy tundra, but most reviewers have embraced the film’s blistering portrait of survival. However, Oscar buzz alone would not have been enough to ensure that “The Revenant” would have a chance of turning a profit. It needed a name above the title.

“This was an incredibly difficult movie to sell,” admits Chris Aronson, the domestic distribution chief at Fox, the studio behind the movie. “[DiCaprio] has been in a lot of quality movies, but if you went in blindly, I don’t think you would say this is going to be one of the more commercial ones, but that’s where it’s going to end up.”

There’s a reason that DiCaprio’s grizzled visage has been front and center in the posters for the film, and it’s a pitch that resonated with moviegoers. The lead actor was the most cited reason that audiences checked out the movie last weekend, according to Rentrak’s post-track survey, with 31% claiming DiCaprio was the reason that they bought tickets. That percentage is in line with survey results for the actor’s two most recent films, “The Great Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” demonstrating his draw. Many films are lucky to have 1% to 2% of respondents cite a film’s lead as the reason they bought a ticket.

For Aronson, the reason that “The Revenant” looks likely to pay off is that it followed the formula DiCaprio established with “Catch Me If You Can” and “Gangs of New York.”

“Look at the elements involved,” he said. “You take a remarkable performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and you put that within Alejandro’s bold and ambitious vision. You have an innovative filmmaker and a great actor and that’s the package that audiences are embracing.”

Thirteen year ago, two roads diverged before DiCaprio. As “The Revenant” proves, the one he took made all the difference.

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