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“His Brand Is Excellence”: How Leonardo DiCaprio Became Hollywood’s Last Movie Star
Entertainment Hollywood

“His Brand Is Excellence”: How Leonardo DiCaprio Became Hollywood’s Last Movie Star

Jun 29, 2023


Look at how Leonardo DiCaprio was Hollywood’s final movie star, and whether Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will continue or end the streak.


20th Century Fox launched Titanic at the Tokyo Film Festival on November 17, 1997, more than six weeks before the film opened in the U.S. The company hoped to generate some buzz early in the Asian market, which was largely untapped. Jim Gianopulos of Paramount, who ran international distribution for Fox at the time and expected the theater to be packed, was right. Leonardo DiCaprio’s global fame was already growing thanks to the 1996 studio release Romeo + Juliet. It had made $148 million in total worldwide, with 69 percent coming from abroad. Titanic’s Japan debut was more like Beatlemania.


It was chaos. Gianopulos remembers the James Cameron directed epic. “The entire area of Tokyo was shut down by fans who came out to see Leo.” “He was a heartthrob in Romeo + Juliet but Titanic made him a maniac. This was the first film in history to be ranked No. “It was the first time in history that a film was No.


DiCaprio is still a global star after 22 years. His consistent success and recognition set him apart. He is the only global star left in an industry where actors don spandex and brandish lightsabers for the latest million-dollar film, only to be ignored outside of franchises. DiCaprio is the only megastar left in Hollywood who has never made a family film, comic book movie or pre-branded series. Leo is a franchise.


After a four-year hiatus from the big-screen following his Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant, a 151 minute R-rated film which earned $533 millions worldwide, DiCaprio is back on July 26 in Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This is Quentin Tarantino’s adult-only interpretation about the Manson Murders.


“One thing I like about Leo, is that he doesn’t just plug himself into two films a year,” Tarantino says, drawing a comparison unstated with stars such as Dwayne Hart and Kevin Hart who are ubiquitous on social media, as well as at multiplexes. “He’s like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the 1970s. They didn’t have to make two movies every year, they were free to do whatever they wanted. And they chose to do this.” This means it must be good.”


Tom Rothman, the chief of Sony Films, says that DiCaprio, in an era of brand management has created a “brand of excellence” within an industry, where “brand” is usually Marvel, DC, or Lucas.


Rothman, who worked with DiCaprio for the first time on Titanic and Romeo + Juliet at Fox, says that Leo’s consistency is impressive. “If Leo is in it, then the audience knows that it will be good. When is he ever not great? It’s not a coincidence. “He works his arse off.”



DiCaprio, according to sources, paid $15 million up front — $5 million less that his usual $20 million — to get Once Upon a Time produced. However he could make upwards of $45 millions if the movie meets expectations.


DiCaprio began his ascent to stardom long before Romeo + Juliet. DiCaprio’s rise to the top of the acting world began a decade before Romeo + Juliet. He landed television work including a role on Growing Pains. This was pivotal in two ways: it led him to be signed by Rick Yorn who has managed his career for the past 27 years. In the same year he was 19 and co-starred with Gilbert Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. This earned him his first Oscar nomination for acting.


DiCaprio, a native of Los Angeles, made a decision that would shape his career for the next 20 years. Instead of following Titanic with a tried and true formula of tentpoles or thrillers with high-concepts plots he chose to work with Hollywood’s top directors.


This includes five feature films with Martin Scorsese, (Gangs of New York), The Aviator (The Departed), Shutter Island (The Wolf of Wall Street), and numerous films with Bazluhrmann (Romeo + Julieta, The Great Gatsby), and Tarantino (who also directed him in Django Unchained). His one-off projects include a who’s who of Oscar nominees and winners, including Cameron, Alejandro G. Inarritu (Clint Eastwood), Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes and Steven Spielberg.


DiCaprio, among his fellow Americans, is the most sought-after. He offers a rare combination of prestige (three out of his five previous films were nominated for Best Picture) and box office success (these same films made a total of $1.8 billion in worldwide earnings). Smith is working on Netflix originals, Lawrence has a cold streak, and Downey is only making money as Tony Stark. DiCaprio, on the other hand, continues to pick films that seem risky – usually R-rated and longer than 2 1/2 hour with budgets exceeding $80 million – but have proven successful and earned him a unique amount of power.


Scorsese was in a creative slump before he and DiCaprio collaborated on Gangs of New York. He attributes DiCaprio’s passion for filmmaking to him.


“He became the ideal muse.” Scorsese explains, “I was rejuvenated once again.” “Leo is a natural actor, and I tell him that every time. He could have appeared in silent movies. The look in his eye, the expression on his face. He doesn’t need to say anything. You can relate to him by reading it. “Not everyone is like that.”



Tarantino met DiCaprio for the first time in 1993, at the premiere of True Romance. The Once Upon a Time director wrote the film. Tarantino remembers the time when DiCaprio was Hollywood’s newest “It” Boy and became the focus of paparazzi. “He was the man of that party,” Tarantino says. “He told to me that he thought it was a really great script.”


Tarantino says that they casually discussed working with each other and almost did so on Inglourious Baseterds in 2009. (“It didn’t work out” is what Tarantino said). It took nearly two decades for their collaboration to come to fruition in 2012 with Django Unchained.


Unlike his Once Upon a Time character, the star’s ruthless slave owner Calvin Candie in Django was not written with DiCaprio in mind. “I had written Calvin Candie to be about 62 or 63 or something like that,” Tarantino remembers. “And then I heard that he wanted to meet me to talk about it. So, we got together and we talked about it, and I was at his house for a couple of hours. A relationship almost always starts at his house, sitting out in the back by the pool and talking about things. I was really interested, but I told him, ‘Look, I’m not going to be convinced right here because this is just such a big change.’ “


Tarantino went home and gave it some thought, and DiCaprio’s pitch to play what Tarantino had originally envisioned as an old, crusty plantation master began to intrigue him. “I thought about him as being an evil, corrupt boy emperor like Caligula or a young Nero, just fiddling while Rome burns,” he says. “And that was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s an interesting idea!’ He has the power of life and death.”



While modern stars scramble to maintain a constant presence and relevance via social media and nonstop work spanning all platforms, DiCaprio as an actor sticks to cinema (he hasn’t acted for the small screen since a 1992 appearance on Growing Pains). Rather than using Twitter for self-promotion, he offers his 19.1 million followers updates on the Waorani tribe’s efforts to protect the Amazon from oil drilling or to promote vegan burgers.



Off-camera, DiCaprio has maintained a carefully crafted air of mystery. Some crewmembers on Once Upon a Time were instructed to avoid making eye contact with him, according to an on-set source. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, he brought his parents to the Once Upon a Time premiere but skipped other events on the Croisette despite having his security team do a sweep of a Nikki Beach party to promote the environmental documentary And We Go Green, which he produced with longtime friend Fisher Stevens, who says that they are in talks with John Kerry about producing an eco-minded series about threats to the world’s oceans.



Stevens says the public would be surprised by the depth of DiCaprio’s understanding of environmental issues, particularly climate change. “Leo is definitely into meeting people and talking to people on the cutting edge of this issue,” he says. “It’s definitely something he is passionate about.”



DiCaprio rarely talks about his personal life or even his career and typically promotes a film only in partnership with the director (he declined to be interviewed for this piece). Despite being one of the most photographed men in the world, hopping on a Citi Bike in New York or hanging out vaping with supermodels, little is known about his day-to-day life.

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