In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Since 1993, plenty of leading men have written fascinating career narratives.
There’s Robert Downey Jr.’s unlikely recovery and amazing redemption. Will Smith transitioned from rapping sitcom star to Globally Bankable Action Hero. George Clooney floundered after ER before commercial and critical acclaim. Only in Johnny Depp’s fourth decade did eccentricities translate to billion-dollar box office.
But Leonardo DiCaprio’s accomplishments rank right beside them. And at just 38, a good 10 years younger than most of his contemporaries, it often feels like he’s just getting started.
Most famously, DiCaprio is Martin Scorsese’s muse now, and their fifth film, The Wolf of Wall Street, arrives this fall. He’s had six titles top $100 million in the last 11 years. He’s played cops, con artists, captains of industry and complicated heroes. And since 2002, he’s starred exclusively in films from Oscar winners or nominees.
That kind of pedigree makes Titanic seem oceans away. Plus, DiCaprio has plenty of time to grab awards that have eluded him — thrice nominated for an Oscar, each time amid shoo-ins or impossible competition.
His first shot came in 1993, for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (in which he played Depp’s younger brother). That was the year people who weren’t Growing Pains junkies or fans of straight-to-VHS Critters sequels took notice of DiCaprio’s gifts.
Less often remembered from that year is This Boy’s Life, in which DiCaprio was allegedly handpicked by co-star Robert De Niro to act beside him. It’s an adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir, detailing the writer’s itinerant adolescence with his single mother and their disastrous detour in the Pacific Northwest with a small-town galoot named Dwight Hansen (De Niro).
More specifically, they move to a sludgy, industrial hamlet oppressively named Concrete. Here, Toby’s isolation and Dwight’s indignation harden into a malaise that also consumes Caroline (Ellen Barkin), Toby’s mother and Dwight’s new wife.
The film demands ominous electricity between Dwight and Toby, the latter of whom endures various and sundry humiliation and harm at the former’s hands. And there are times when DiCaprio doesn’t just go toe-to-toe with De Niro but feels just as tall.
DiCaprio’s turn is indicative of what must have been not only inviolable trust between him and De Niro but also his inevitable stardom. If not Titanic, it would have been another hit. In This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio acts as if announcing intentions.
He convincingly plays both his own age, and four years his junior, with intensity and authenticity. In one scene, his rage gives way to resignation, seemingly capitulating to his lot in life as a small-town loser. Earlier, he offers a dangerously wild-eyed, cathartic howling of “Summertime Blues” after stealing Dwight’s car. (It’s one of many shrewd musical cues in a film latching onto dark, yearning undertones of 1950s pop and the Great American Songbook.)
Although the lion’s share of the film belongs to DiCaprio, Barkin’s value is immeasurable. Despite maintaining a bazooka bosom and shapely legs, Barkin had phased out of erotic vixen roles. Instead, she finds new angles for a woman whose life is defined for the worse by her libido. Stuck between fate and flirtation, Caroline sees bad sex as an acceptable loss to stave off something far worse.
In an early scene when Roy, an old lover played by Chris Cooper, catches up with Caroline and Toby, she gives in to his advances. Director Michael Caton-Jones’s camera lingers long enough on her face for us to realize that while it’s not even remotely rape, it’s still a resignation to stave off some form of retribution.
Caroline takes it a step further when she marries Dwight, vows exchanged less for love than security and what she sees as a positive father figure for Toby. Unbeknownst to Caroline, Dwight allows sex only “on the side or doggy-style.” He’s also careful to point out that it’s at least a choice. Again, Barkin wordlessly conveys fright at the unexpected roughness of this marital bed and the idea that she has, in totality, traded her happiness for Toby’s.
And to paraphrase one of Dwight’s oft-repeated phrases, screenwriter Robert Getchell knows a thing or two about stories of domestic violence. Getchell was one of several writers on the much-reviled Mommie Dearest. Thankfully, he hangs this story on a notion of humanity much stronger than a wire hanger.
This Boy’s Life avoids campiness or relentless depression because it examines both the pitfalls and the potential of behavioral patterns. At one point, Toby worries he’s turning into a junior version of Dwight simply by osmosis. (“He’s winning, isn’t he?”)
When we first meet Dwight, he hardly seems sinister, more like a square divorcé trying too hard. He’s an ex-Navy mechanic with a supernaturally strong Zippo and an array of overly earnest cheeseball jokes that only work on weary women like Caroline. De Niro also gives him a nasal Yooper accent that seems like the antithesis of aggression.
Ah, but Dwight’s people-pleasing patois is just an artifice. Under Dwight’s surface is an inferiority complex that manifests itself in seething rage only after Caroline says “I do” and he carts her and Toby off to Concrete.
Caton-Jones might be a journeyman banished from Hollywood since Basic Instinct 2. But damned if he didn’t twice extract some of Robert De Niro’s best, most engaged performances over the last 20 years. De Niro’s underrated work in 2002’s City by the Sea somehow echoes a softer Dwight, a cop cowed into indecision by reluctance to dredge up his demons.
De Niro makes Dwight as frightening as Max Cady, the pedophile psycho in Cape Fear he earned an Oscar nomination for playing two years earlier. We never know when Dwight will snap. Much of that uncertain tension comes from De Niro’s crisp diction and litany of derisive phrases: “Kill or cure!” “Piss and moan!” “Shut your piehole!” and “hot shot,” his nickname for Toby that comes out like “hawt shawt.”
Even then, Dwight is sometimes more gullible than guileful. There are moments of light comedy in which he proves terrible both at shooting a rifle and playing a saxophone. But even those are couched in a culture of compliance he’s created in his house. Although Carla Gugino has a minor supporting role as his oldest daughter, you sense she’s long clung to dreams of escape. Meanwhile, as his youngest, Eliza Dushku immediately clasps Caroline’s hand like a security blanket.
The ideals of self-reliance and responsibility Dwight seeks to instill in Toby aren’t bad. They’re simply perverted by his unmentioned, but certainly troubled, past. Little is spoken of Dwight’s service, but you know he was the one pushed around and it is now his turn to be drill instructor.
Eventually, both Toby and Caroline concoct their own plans for escape — he through the pursuit of preparatory school and she through campaigning for JFK. And the film finds an unexpected beauty in its conclusion, Caroline’s flibbertigibbet ways working, finally, in her favor.
Before that, though, Dwight’s anger peaks in a final scene that starts with a mustard jar held to DiCaprio’s eye so forcefully, you’re sure it will crack and slice his cornea.
DiCaprio is said to be taking an extended break from acting to focus on environmental philanthropy, even with 25 rumored films on his slate. He’s been judicious and shrewd about almost every step for the last 20 years. As long as he remains true to the wily instincts on display in This Boy’s Life, his will be one hell of a second act.