Last month, Leonardo DiCaprio threw himself a lavish 39th birthday party at Manhattan’s Club Tao, and according to reports, it went something like this: Kanye West and 2 Chainz performed a raucous, half-hour set, while an endless stream of champagne fueled a boldface guest list — including Leo’s latest, 21-year-old supermodel Toni Garrn — until the wee hours of the morning. The over-the-top party raised $3 million for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, in addition to being a hotbed of fame and fun. It was exactly the sort of debaucherous rager we’ve come to expect from DiCaprio, and the kind we see often in Wolf of Wall Street, his latest character study on American excess gone awry.
In the Martin Scorsese-directed opus, which opens Christmas, DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the real-life stockbroker who swindled his clients out of tens of millions of dollars during that sleazy, pastel-soaked portion of the eighties. Belfort lived a life of reckless, coke-addled depravity, before his inevitable downfall. If it sounds familiar, it should: It’s exactly the kind of role we’ve seen DiCaprio tackle time and time again.
In films like Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, The Great Gatsby and now, Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio plays men who are dapper, charismatic, and ambitious, but also deeply flawed. Some of them, like Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale, Jr., and The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby, come from humble beginnings; others, like The Aviator’s Howard Hughes, are born into wealth, but never satisfied by it. What they each have in common is their rabid pursuit of, and their belief in, the myth of the American Dream. Once they achieve it, they want more, or, as the Wolf of Wall Street tagline informs us, “More, more, more, is never enough.” Ultimately, their insatiable, succeed-at-all-costs mentality becomes their undoing.
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But why is DiCaprio attracted to playing such ambitious, but morally corrupt characters?
Perhaps we can trace it back to his own career trajectory. Leo was raised in L.A. by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support him. He did the whole audition circuit — like most L.A. kids with a dream — with the dogged determination of someone who had no choice but to make it big. DiCaprio experienced early success thanks to a string of critically acclaimed performances in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries, but he and his crew of young, brash actor pals were still outliers. Leo wasn’t yet at the top of the food chain.
Before Titanic made him a stratospheric movie star, DiCaprio was often seen begging to be let into New York’s most exclusive parties, according to gossip columnist Anita Sarko. Then James Cameron’s $500 million juggernaut turned him into a global superstar almost overnight, and everything changed. In her seminal 1998 profile on the young actor, Nancy Jo Sales wrote that after Titanic, DiCaprio became the prince of New York, winning the attention of the city’s elite. "He's got rock stars, Puff Daddy, Donald Trump, going over to his table to sit with him,” nightlife impresario Jeffrey Jah told Sales at the time. “The models were all over him.”
And they have been ever since.
Over the last decade and a half, DiCaprio has built a steady reputation as Hollywood’s resident party animal. His love life is a constant revolving door of lingerie models and starlets, he still frequents the hottest nightclubs, and, at almost 40 years old, DiCaprio will even trash the odd hotel room, too. It’s that kind of extravagant lifestyle that sometimes makes it difficult to separate the real life DiCaprio from the man we see on screen.
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When he was cast as the millionaire playboy Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the classic Fitzgerald tale, it was difficult not to draw comparisons between DiCaprio and his onscreen alter ego because, well, they’re both millionaire playboys. When he was shooting Wolf of Wall Street, gossip sites would often post paparazzi photos of Leo and co-star Jonah Hill on a yacht filled with bikini-clad women, shooting scenes from the movie. The following week, we’d see photos of them on another yacht filled with women, this time for an IRL party. Fiction and reality blurred into one another. Earlier this month, DiCaprio was at Basel snatching up some pricey art, perhaps to be hung from the walls of his $20 million dollar Malibu mansion. Classic Gats — er, DiCaprio, right?
What does, ultimately, draw the line between DiCaprio and the men he plays on screen, is the way he’s maintained control of his own life, despite having the kind of success which most of us only dream. He can get any movie made, collaborate with whatever director he wants, travel anywhere he wants, whenever he wants, with whomever he wants. A lesser man, like Jordan Belfort, might become poisoned by that kind of success. But Leo has made being the most famous actor alive look effortless. Instead of being crippled by his fame and fortune, DiCaprio has used it for good, as an activist for a variety of causes including protecting the environment, endangered species, and gay rights.
For being one of the most famous men in the world, Leo keeps everything pretty low-key and controlled. Scandal, substance abuse, or seedy tell-alls have relatively passed the actor by — a feat in a town like Hollywood after this many years. But, most important is his career, which (aside from '95's The Quick And The Dead, perhaps) never saw a low: The ragtag group of actors he came up with have either faded into oblivion (Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead's Christopher Pettiet), become too strange for the mainstream (Kirk Cameron), share Leo's spotlight but have been relegated to one-note (Johnny Depp), or have since left us (River Phoenix). DiCaprio, the American Dream personified, keeps pushing on and scoring big, forever heading towards that green light.
So when you see Wolf of Wall Street over the holidays, don't wonder how similar Leo is to his despicable alter-ego. Just be thankful he's not. He just is our stand-in for that big, overstuffed desire for more, more, more.