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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007



Hollywood's pretty boy comes of age

Special to The Japan Times

It is rare for a male movie star, especially one in his prime, to take time off from making feature films. Ask Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds, who have barely had time to pause for breath in their five-decade-long careers.

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"I've already gotten a lot of ego stroking. And I feel now I'm at a point where I can take it or leave it." AP PHOTO

One Hollywood superstar who is bucking the trend is three-time Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, who has stopped putting his youthful face on the screen temporarily in order to dedicate himself to the not insignificant matter of saving our planet.

"People used to take this world for granted, and it was easy to do," said the 33-year-old by telephone recently. "You just did your thing. It was all me-centered. We cannot do that any more."

DiCaprio has been bitten hard by the ecology bug. At the Academy Awards in February this year, he joked around on stage with Al Gore in front of a television audience of millions for the latter's acceptance speech — the former vice president's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," a call to action against global warming, won the Oscar for Best Documentary. The actor is effusive in his praise.

"Mr. Gore is a man who's much more than a politician," says DiCaprio, who since his Oscar appearance has had to deny rumors that he's interested in running for political office. "He's concerned and involved with issues of the day — things that make a difference. Politicians mostly make promises, and nowadays there's this habit of lying to the voters or potential voters. Al goes more for action than words."

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Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou in 2006 movie "Blood Diamond," for which DiCaprio was nominated for a best actor Oscar. AP/WARNER BROS. PICTURES PHOTO

Even though DiCaprio has recently taken a break from acting, he has still kept his hand in the business of making movies. And with friends like Gore, it's little surprise that DiCaprio's latest movie has its own environmental theme, leading to widespread comparisons with "An Inconvenient Truth."

With it's tagline, "Turn mankind's darkest hour into its finest," DiCaprio co-wrote and narrates the documentary "The 11th Hour," which opened in August and is being tipped for its own Oscar next year. With the beady eye of the world's media watching his every move and waiting for a mistake, much of the actor's off-screen time was spent researching the Earth's plight.

"I wanted to know what I was talking about," he says. Of course, as a celebrity, it helps that he has access to leading environmental activists and those in political and scientific fields.

Two famous names who appear in the documentary are physicist Stephen Hawking and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough is one of many experts also lending weight.

". . . man, I really have a new respect for the form, for the format now," says DiCaprio. "A lot of people think a documentary's easier to make than a (feature) movie, that it's quicker and you do it as you go along. (But) it takes as much time, and so much effort."

His brilliant career: three roles that made Leo a man

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993)

Whenever Leonardo DiCaprio was getting dissed in his pretty-boy period — whether for his mangled delivery of Shakespeare in "Romeo + Juliet," or the Oscar he didn't receive for "Titanic" — this is the film his defenders would point to, and with good reason.

DiCaprio gave an intense, fascinating performance as Arnie, a mentally handicapped boy dependent on his older brother Gilbert to bail him out of trouble. DiCaprio, then in his late teens, pitched the performance well, not going overboard on the tics that would undermine him later in "The Aviator." He was lucky to have Johnny Depp, smooth and stolid, opposite him in the big brother role. This one earned DiCaprio a deserved Oscar nomination.

The Departed (2006)

Curiously, DiCaprio's role here is almost identical to that in "Gangs of New York": a young guy whose father is dead has to ingratiate himself with a crime lord (this time Jack Nicholson) as a surrogate son in order to betray him.

DiCaprio, who so often has a problem with accents (see his take on a French accent in "Total Eclipse"), does a creditably grating South Boston one for his undercover cop here, and for the first time brings a sense of hardness and physical volatility to a role. Here, the caginess in his eyes and that constant anxiety that someone might see through his deception, serves him particularly well.

There was always a sense that DiCaprio — who maintained his boyish looks right up to age 30 — was always grasping for presence and maturity; here he just has it, no stretch required.

"Gangs of New York" (2002)

OK, so becoming Martin Scorsese's new regular leading man was bound to draw some unfavorable comparisons to Robert De Niro, but really, just think how a young De Niro would have chewed up the scenery in DiCaprio's role here.

DiCaprio played Amsterdam Vallon, orphaned as a child and looking for revenge on Bill The Butcher, the gangster who killed his father. DiCaprio's performance here is cool and controlled, all the better to make room for Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill, who is let off the leash.

In one scene, Amsterdam wakes up in bed with Bill's former girlfriend, a floozy named Jenny (Cameron Diaz), only to see Bill sitting silently across the room, with a menacing glare. The ensuing panic subsumed into quick, shifty survival instincts is perhaps DiCaprio's best mid-career moment. (Giovanni Fazio)

"The 11th Hour," directed by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, starts with the now familiar-to-many facts of the Earth's decline as a result of overpopulation and the abuse of its limited natural resources.

"Some people find it useful to think of the planet as what some people have called it all along, especially thousands of years ago: Mother Earth," says DiCaprio. "And you have to look after her. It may seem huge and tough, but it has to be taken care of and not just blindly, mindlessly, used up. And destroyed!"

After its diagnosis, the documentary's second half offers possible cures and reasons for hope, telling audiences what action they can take. Some critics have said it's less alarmist than Gore's documentary. But DiCaprio isn't so sure.

"I think it's about time, if you gotta do it, to alarm people. I think it is the time, right now, to decide either we don't care and we'll be shortsighted and sabotage our future, or we'll finally take responsibility for our actions, because our actions impact the planet and so our own future, and that of future generations."

Like Gore, the actor asserts that this is a nonpartisan issue, and that politics should be put aside for the sake of the future of this planet. At the same time, he says that the current Republican administration is anything but pro-ecology, adding, "Election time is coming around, and change is finally going to occur . . . change for the better."

Appropriately, DiCaprio picks the politically charged thriller "Rendition" as one of his favorite recent films. Starring Reese Witherspoon, the movie's title refers to the Bush administration's post-9/11 policy of "extraordinary rendition," whereby the government sends suspected terrorists to another country to be tortured. "That is," says DiCaprio slowly, with emphasis, "an incredible movie. That'll open some eyes for sure."

Though he terms it "a labor of love," DiCaprio hasn't been solely occupied with "The 11th Hour." He's also appeared in a documentary titled "Manufacturing Dissent," about filmmaker Michael Moore, which opened in U.S. theaters in October.

Reportedly, it wasn't certain until the film was completed for release whether DiCaprio's scenes would be included in the Canadian documentary.

"Manufacturing Dissent" has two writer-directors and was made while Michael Moore toured with his Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush administration and its foibles, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which became the most successful documentary ever at the U.S. box office.

"Manufacturing Dissent" is less urgent and more celebrity-packed than DiCaprio's documentary, and includes interviews with the likes of Meryl Streep, Ben Affleck, Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Harrison Ford. It attempts to re-examine 9/11, dissecting what may have been exaggerated or pandering to the media or to people's fears.

"I think it's healthy, even when the subject is somebody who basically does good and important work, like Michael Moore, to still try and analyze it and see how the media works," says DiCaprio explaining his wish to get involved.

As he has learned, documentaries are sometimes prone to sensationalizing and highlighting certain facts over others or, as he says, "choosing what goes into the documentary and how you present it. Just the fact that you select something, or even interview a particular individual, that moves it toward your particular point of view.

"You really have to bend over backwards to try and not be biased, and just let the facts speak for themselves."

Perhaps a factor that has enabled DiCaprio, whose mother is German-American, to broaden his perspective has been his romantic relationships with international women. For years he was linked, off and on, with Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. The two were often rumored to be on the brink of marriage, but almost as much was written about DiCaprio constantly going out with the boys, especially chum Tobey Maguire, who's found fame as Spiderman.

For the last year, Di Caprio has been linked with an Israeli woman, model Bar Refaeli, but he shies away from questions about his personal life.

"Once the media get onto that," he says, "they just don't want to let go. And it's really nobody's business, anyway."

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DiCaprio arrives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006 AP/STUART RAMSON PHOTO

Nor will he talk about the fact that he did some commercials in Japan for big bucks, and was criticized for doing so by James Cameron, who directed DiCaprio in the 1997 hit movie "Titanic." That movie won 11 Oscars, but notably did not earn DiCaprio a best actor nomination. The two are allegedly still not talking since the actor declined to attend the Academy Award's ceremony, disappointing Cameron, who said "he let down the team."

DiCaprio is more forthcoming about another new project, the independent movie "The Gardener of Eden," which he is producing. It's a black comedy starring pal Lukas Haas and is directed by another close friend, Kevin Connolly, about a man who accidentally helps capture a serial rapist. He then becomes something of a vigilante, craving continued fame and adulation. Instead, he gets deeper into trouble with his acts of deception.

What drew DiCaprio to the project but kept him from taking the lead role himself and instead producing it?

"I don't mind going behind the scenes, you know," he sighs. "I don't have to put myself front and center. I had been, working really hard, one (film) after the other. It was time for a break. And this was a really cool story. Clever and funny and it has a moral."

Some critics have said "The Gardener of Eden," due out in 2008, is a satire on the vigilante-type movies so many young people have grown up with. But DiCaprio sees it differently, as "partly about how once somebody gets a taste of being a celebrity, they want it to continue. You know, how that guy (Andy Warhol) said everybody was gonna have their 15 minutes of fame? Well, a lot of people, they don't want to give that up after 15 minutes — or 15 months.

"And this guy, Adam Harris (played by Haas), he loves being in the spotlight, and he doesn't want to give that up. So he does these desperate, ridiculous things — unethical things — to stay a hero."

DiCaprio adds that first-time director Connolly has a big future and that Haas did "a terrific job." When asked about his sponsorship of friends and relatives in his projects, DiCaprio notes matter-of-factly, "Well, it's just about helping people you like, that's natural. And you tend to give more help to people you know can do a good job, not just anyone you like. There's other people I like, but maybe they're not up to doing the job. So there."

As for moving from producing to directing in the near future, DiCaprio only offers circumspectly that it's "not on the schedule." Several starring projects are in development, but he won't talk about those either.

DiCaprio emphasizes that doing "The 11th hour" was something he knew would be difficult, daunting even, but says that he "had to prove to myself I could do it, and go all the way with it. And the writing aspect, I was kind of intimidated, but I had a great writing partner (Nadia Conners), and I got lots of good advice.

"For me, it was sort of, in a way, a coming-of-age thing. Acting's always been fairly easy for me, and I started young. I've been doing this a long time — I kind of grew up in movies."

"Like I said, you know, being in this business for so long, I've already gotten a lot of ego stroking. And I feel now I'm at a point where I can take it or leave it." For the time being at least, anyway.

DiCaprio is hoping it won't be necessary to make a followup documentary to "The 11th Hour."

"If we did our job right on this one, I don't think I need to go do another, not on the same theme.

"If people watch this, I think they don't need to be hit over the head with it again. Not in the near future . . . (nor) if they care about what happens to our home, to our planet, Mother Earth. If you care about the future — your own future — and you see 'The 11th Hour,' I almost guarantee it'll get to you and it'll move you. I mean move your emotions and then hopefully move you to action."

Though he admits he had to do some heavy research for the movie, the environment is not an entirely new concern for DiCaprio. In 1998, the actor established the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation to help raise awareness of environmental issues, particularly global warming and alternative, renewable energy resources. Being away from the cameras has allowed him to concentrate more energy on the foundation, "getting it to reach young people, 'cause they're more optimistic. A lot of older people think it's all hopeless or too late, and that attitude doesn't help anyone. Besides, younger people have a bigger stake in rescuing our planet. They've got more time to spend on it, to put it bluntly."

"The 11th Hour" is scheduled for a Japan release in 2008.

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