“Bring me their heads,” decrees Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask. Is the new king of Hollywood pouting because academy voters snubbed his acting in Titanic, leaving him home alone on Oscar night? Hardly. Ever since that box-office juggernaut supersized his heartthrob status, DiCaprio has been dreaming up ways to debunk himself as a hunk. Mask provides a hell of a start. As King Louis XIV, the evil French monarch who wants the loyal D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) to kill fellow musketeers Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich) and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu), DiCaprio spoofs himself royally as a petulant brat dweeb.
The Man in the Iron Mask, directed and adapted from the Alexandre Dumas novel by Braveheart writer Randall Wallace, is an international-casting package that can reduce you to laughter on the basis of the accents alone. The trailer sounds like a broadcast from the Tower of Babel. Byrne does his brooding Irish number, Irons is British and clipped, and Malkovich speaks in the flat tones of the American Midwest. They make Depardieu, who actually is French, seem out of place. Where did these musketeers meet — Club Med?
Then there’s the Hollywood-born DiCaprio. Decked out in stacked heels, plumed hats and poofy shirts, he plays the boy king like a surfer dude in glitter-rock drag. The dud 1993 remake of Dumas’ Three Musketeers didn’t provide half as much fun, but at least co-stars Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and the ever-callow Chris O’Donnell sounded like they shared the same 90210 ZIP code. Faced with rioters in seventeenth-century Paris, King Leo retorts, “Shoot them,” with all the majesty of a teen video-game freak. DiCaprio gets de-prissified to play Philippe, the good twin whom the king has locked in the Bastille. But the iron mask that Philippe is forced to wear limits DiCaprio’s chances for cuteness until the musketeers pull a brother switch.
Got that? No matter. You can always watch the more-intelligible 1939 film version, directed in high style by James Whale. Meanwhile, here’s DiCaprio cast as a tyrannical fop who persecutes his subjects, seduces the Lady Christine (Judith Godreche) and, instead of dying for love — like DiCaprio’s characters in Titanic and Romeo and Juliet — tries to save his skinny ass. Mask will probably open big — fans will see their object of desire in anything once. My guess is there won’t be many repeat viewings, though. Leonardo loyalists will merely go back to deconstructing Titanic.
Not a bad idea. Was DiCaprio right to fear that Titanic might trap him as the man in the teen-idol mask? Was he ever. Titanic repeat business — running at twenty percent, when two percent is the norm — is credited mostly to DiCaprio. His Titanic co-star Kate Winslet is nowhere to be found on the list of stars who make top money for film exhibitors; DiCaprio ranks Number Three. Two books on the twenty-three-year-old party boy are best sellers — Leonardo: Scrap-book in Words and Pictures and Leonardo DiCaprio: Modern-Day Romeo — in which we learn that the six-foot, 140-pound Leo (his preferred nickname) likes pasta, hates drugs, bites his nails and says his biggest wish is “to save the environment and live in peace.”
DiCaprio is too good an actor for this male-pinup crap. He’s always fought it. Look at his pre-Titanic roles: Robert De Niro’s tormented stepson in This Boy’s Life, Johnny Depp’s retarded brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (for which he was nominated for a ’94 Oscar), Mark Wahlberg’s junkie teammate in The Basketball Diaries, Diane Keaton’s pyromaniac nephew in Marvin’s Room. Even DiCaprio’s failures as the kid gunhand for Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead and as the gay French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse showed a laudable desire to flaunt convention. Romeo and Juliet brought him closer to the romantic mold, but how like DiCaprio to do an MTV take on the Bard.
Titanic quashed the maverick in DiCaprio. As the young artist Jack Dawson, he was earnest, nonthreatening. Attracted to Winslet’s upper-crust Rose, penniless Jack helps free her spirit from the corsets of society, gentles her into self-awareness, lets her make the first move (“Put your hands on me, Jack”) and dies for her love. It’s not hard to figure why every teenage girl on the planet is paying rent at the multiplex.
Titanic director James Cameron says that DiCaprio balked at the perceived one-dimensionality of his role. A few critics balked, too. The academy, which lavished fourteen nominations on Titanic — a tally unequaled since All About Eve, in 1950 — failed to award a fifteenth, to DiCaprio. The brushoff was front-page news (right). teens weep as dicaprio snubbed, said one tabloid, which tagged him leonardo diloser. Titanic haters, who can’t fathom why this waterlogged weepie is on course for a record gross of $1 billion, felt vindicated. For them, Leo didn’t get the nod for one reason: He didn’t deserve it.
Me, I think he did deserve it, just as Titanic — despite banal dialogue — merits the Best Picture prize for its haunting blend of fact and fiction. Genuine romantic longing, of the kind DiCaprio achieves as Jack Dawson, is a rarity onscreen. Bogart had it in Casablanca. Ditto Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember and Robert Redford in The Way We Were. None won an Oscar, though each star had rarely been more memorable. Younger actors usually shy away from showing naked emotion, thinking it uncool. James Dean was an exception in East of Eden, as was River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. In Titanic, DiCaprio aims for that same kind of romantic nobility. No tricks. Just simplicity backed up by unstinting feeling. It’s a bitch to get right. DiCaprio gets it right. That’s why he’s an object of fantasy, no matter how much he hates it. DiCaprio invests Jack Dawson with grace notes that the Titanic script never imagined. That’s acting. It sure beats the juvenilia of spoofing himself as a twit in an iron mask. If golden-boy Oscar can’t see the difference, well, bring me his head.