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Leo vs. Tom: Two different paths to stardom

Both became movie heartthrobs at a relatively young age. Each has snagged three Academy Award nominations. Neither has escaped the scrutiny of the tabloid press.And that’s about it for the similarities.When it comes to two Hollywood personas, there may not be too many — at least among A-list males — who are perceived differently than Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio. What they have in common
/ Source: contributor

Both became movie heartthrobs at a relatively young age. Each has snagged three Academy Award nominations. Neither has escaped the scrutiny of the tabloid press.

And that’s about it for the similarities.

When it comes to two Hollywood personas, there may not be too many — at least among A-list males — who are perceived differently than Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio. What they have in common recently is their names atop two very high profile releases opening on the same day: DiCaprio in “Revolutionary Road” and Cruise in “Valkyrie.”

The films couldn’t be much different, either. “Revolutionary Road” is a drama based on the Richard Yates novel about a couple in suburban Connecticut whose marriage is crumbling. “Valkyrie” is a thriller about a plot by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. “Revolutionary Road” is directed by Sam Mendes, who is best known for another tale of middle-class dissatisfaction, “American Beauty.” Bryan Singer, whose most notable credits include “The Usual Suspects” and the first two “X-Men” pictures, did the honors in Cruise’s film.

Those choices offer an indication of the type of films with which the two Hollywood stars have become identified. It isn’t exactly accurate to say that DiCaprio always gravitates to prestige pictures while Cruise prefers spectacle and action, because there is enough crossover on both their resumes to disprove that conclusion.

Yet generally speaking, those are the posh pigeonholes they occupy in the movie business.

“The issue with Tom Cruise is always going to be his larger-than-life star power,” said Missy Schwartz, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly who covers movies, “and the fact that he’s even more scrutinized, more under the microscope, for things like the couch-jumping escapade. His career did take a hit after that. ‘War of the Worlds’ did great, but for a Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg film it didn’t do the amazing business it could have. Also, ‘Mission: Impossible III’ didn’t do as well as it was expected to do, and ‘Lions for Lambs’ was D.O.A.

“That said, he had one of the greatest cameos of the year in ‘Tropic Thunder.’ What that showed is that he has a sense of humor. Even if it was a little contrived, it came off as him poking fun at himself and having a good time. That went great lengths to repair any kind of weird feelings people have had.”

DiCaprio: Not a star for star's sake

And then there’s DiCaprio. Schwartz sees an actor less committed to stardom and his standing in the business and more focused on great scripts, great parts and great directors.

“I think Leo is interesting because he’s sort of the opposite of Tom Cruise in a lot of ways,” she said. “He has huge star power. Obviously the tabloids love him. But he really has gone to great lengths to not be a star for star’s sake. You can tell by his choices he really wants to work with auteur directors. He’s worked with (Martin) Scorsese three times (and a fourth collaboration,  ‘Shutter Island,’ opens next year). Ed Zwick. Spielberg.

“He doesn’t take Hollywood blockbuster star vehicles for the heck of it. He is concerned most with being an actor.”

So even though Cruise has been hammered at times for concentrating too intently on box office projects like the “Mission: Impossible” series and “War of the Worlds,” he manages to mix in reminders of his ability to act and chooses pictures that might cause Oscar to at least glance his way.

Do we judge Cruise unfairly?

In fact, Kirk Honeycutt, film critic of the Hollywood Reporter, feels Cruise is sometimes shortchanged in public perception.

“Cruise’s career has been astonishing,” he said. “He’s had numerous hits. In terms of box office, I don’t see that many missteps.”

Honeycutt said that at a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, there was at least some discussion about honoring Cruise for his brief but memorable turn as a boorish Hollywood mogul in “Tropic Thunder.”

And Honeycutt feels many of the knocks on Cruise have to do with his life away from the camera. “The popular press sometimes finds that Cruise is a little over the top,” he said. “I don’t spend too much time worrying about how he looked on ‘Oprah.’”

How DiCaprio and Cruise look, of course, has a great deal to do with how they’re received. The camera loves them, and so do audiences.

But the initial impressions they made still resonate. DiCaprio, 34, broke through in 1993 with two spectacularly received performances in “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” even though he had had minor parts before that. Cruise’s memorable debut came as a ramrod-straight military student in the 1981 drama, “Taps.”

Those personas — the baby-faced kid coming of age, the intensely driven young man — have remained indelible features of DiCaprio and Cruise’s careers, respectively.

Different routes to stardom

Jay Mechling is a professor of American studies at the University of California-Davis who specializes in the topic of masculinity. Although DiCaprio and Cruise both are considered charismatic leading men, he said they achieve that status in different ways.

“With DiCaprio, there has always been this slightly cocky kind of performance of masculinity that is out of tune with his presence,” Mechling said. “For me that touches the underlying business in masculinity studies in that masculinity is a very fragile construction. The little boy has to separate himself from the mother and identify with the masculine.

“If you look at boys friendship groups, like the Boy Scouts, two of the usual features are a lot of homophobia and misogyny. Teasing, pranks, name-calling, always around separating the masculine from the feminine. The feminine side is repressed and put aside. What it means, therefore, is that masculinity is always a performance, because it’s always so fragile and it’s always being tested.

“DiCaprio really captures that well, even on his rough side. There’s always the soft side to masculinity and fragility. Going back to ‘This Boy’s Life,’ there is an attempt to be a masculine teenager, but there is an underlying softness to him. With DiCaprio it helps that even though he gets older he still looks 15.”

But Mechling does not see the same quality in Cruise. “Tom Cruise, on the other hand, really has identified with macho roles,” he explained. “Although he does an occasional film with softness to it, I don’t think he embodies that ambiguity and danger and precariousness of performance in the same way DiCaprio does.”

And then there is the added baggage that comes with being Tom Cruise off the set, complete with rumor and innuendo. Mechling said that not only has an effect on perception, it might also play into Cruise’s choices of roles.

“It’s complicated, of course, by the sort of underground and not so underground talk of Tom Cruise and his sexuality,” Mechling said. “That complicates it 100 times. Has Tom Cruise ever chosen a film role that has that same kind of fragility of masculinity that Leo DiCaprio’s films have? It may be overcompensation.”

Schwartz noted that DiCaprio’s face made him a worldwide sensation after “Titanic” in 1997 — and it could have capsized his career. “It’s taken him a long time to convince people he’s a man and not a cute boy standing on top of a ship,” she said.

It took a while for Honeycutt to accept DiCaprio’s transition from boy to man as well. “I think ‘Blood Diamond’ (in 2006) was the first time I saw him as an adult where I bought him as an adult,” he said.

No matter their differences, they remain two of the most celebrated movie stars of their time. Said Schwartz: “They’ve just taken very different paths.”