Pop Culture

Leonardo DiCaprio flies high

Leonardo DiCaprio likes to think he and buddy Martin Scorsese share at least some of the obsessive fixations of Howard Hughes, the subject of their latest collaboration, “The Aviator”:

  • Living through a mammoth project when it looks like it might capsize, as DiCaprio did with “Titanic,” which went on to become the biggest modern blockbuster.
  • Becoming so engrossed in a story it occupies years of your life and requires a massive resurrection of another era, as Scorsese did with “Gangs of New York,” which took 25 years to develop and a colossal construction job to re-create 19th century Manhattan.

“The Aviator” screenplay hooked them from the start, with an early sequence detailing Hughes’ fanatic devotion to his World War I film “Hell’s Angels.” Using his own money, Hughes spent $4 million on the 1930 film, at the time the biggest movie budget ever, and reshot it for sound after deciding the silent era was finished.

“I think Marty and I can both relate to, when we read the script, we both immediately read ‘Hell’s Angels, year three.’ We were like, wow, we know what that’s like, being a part of an epic that just goes on and on and on,” DiCaprio said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Persevering against all the odds and trying to make the best film, being a perfectionist, trying to make the story the best it can be.

“I certainly can’t imagine taking things to the level Hughes did in his life. It’s too exhausting. The man led 20 different lifetimes in one life.”

“The Aviator” casts DiCaprio as Hughes during his scrappy years from the late 1920s to late 1940s, when he fought the Hollywood establishment and pushed bounds on sex and violence in film, dated parades of starlets, and oversaw creation of the world’s biggest and fastest planes.

Cate Blanchett co-stars as Katharine Hepburn, whom Hughes dated for three years. Kate Beckinsale plays Ava Gardner, another of his longtime companions.

The film hints at the Hughes of later years, the cloistered multimillionaire with long hair and fingernails, terrified of germs and locked in a hotel room surrounded by tissue boxes.

A longtime fascination with HughesIt’s the image of the freakish recluse that DiCaprio, 30, grew up with when it came to Hughes, who died in 1976. Then about eight years ago, DiCaprio read a biography of Hughes and became fascinated with the scope of his achievements and the conflict between his public image as a playboy and daredevil and private life as a man increasingly paralyzed by phobias.

DiCaprio initially developed “The Aviator” with Michael Mann, who decided against directing it after back-to-back film biographies in “Ali” and “The Insider.” The actor pitched the script to his “Gangs of New York” director Scorsese, who quickly signed on for “The Aviator.”

Scorsese and DiCaprio now have a third film collaboration in the works, “The Departed,” an update of the Hong Kong cop-and-gangster tale “Infernal Affairs.” Set in contemporary Boston’s Irish underworld, “The Departed” begins shooting next year.

“We found we kind of have similar tastes and just seem to be drawn to pretty much similar material, characters, stories,” Scorsese told the AP. “Despite that I’m 32 years older than him, we’ve got a lot in common to a certain extent, and a way of thinking. His openness and courage to deal with characters that run deeper than the one-dimensional, two-dimensional villain or hero.”

Not the typical childhoodBorn in Los Angeles, DiCaprio had a bohemian upbringing among such cult artistic figures as comic-book artist R. Crumb and painter Robert Williams, friends of his father, a distributor of underground comics.

DiCaprio studied performance art in grade school and quickly settled on an acting career.

“Even though I was born in Hollywood, I never knew you could be an actor professionally until I was like 13,” DiCaprio said. “I always thought it was like this cool, elite, Masonic clique you have to have some sort of royal bloodline to be a part of, and I never knew you could just get an agent and start going to auditions.”

In his early teens, DiCaprio appeared in commercials and was a regular on the TV shows “Parenthood” and “Growing Pains” before his big movie break opposite Robert De Niro in 1993’s acclaimed “This Boy’s Life.” That same year brought “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” his role as Johnny Depp’s mentally challenged younger brother earning DiCaprio a supporting-actor Academy Award nomination.

For the next few years, DiCaprio specialized in brooding young rebels in such films as “The Basketball Diaries,” “Marvin’s Room” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

The latter film laid the groundwork for DiCaprio’s status as teen heartthrob of the ’90s with “Titanic,” whose $1.8 billion worldwide haul was heavily driven by repeat business from millions of young girls.

Tabloid wearyLike Howard Hughes, who loathed being under the public lens at Hollywood premieres, DiCaprio has learned to live uneasily with tabloid celebrity.

“I hate being bothered by paparazzi. Anyone would,” DiCaprio said. “The flip side of that coin, I’m one lucky bastard, and I have nothing to complain about. People are dealing with problems around the world that are infinitely more complicated and much more extreme than anything having to do with a couple of crummy photographers. I’m not one to complain about it too much.”

DiCaprio shuns questions about his personal life, tersely denying recent rumors that he split with his girlfriend, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

When it comes to his Oscar prospects on “The Aviator,” DiCaprio is more forthcoming than most actors, who tend to insist demurely they never think about awards. After his Academy recognition for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” DiCaprio has been snubbed since, missing out on nominations with “Titanic,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “Gangs of New York,” films that put his co-stars in the Oscar race.

Does he feel overlooked by his peers come Oscar time?

“Mmm, maybe,” DiCaprio said. “But you do these films and you throw it out to the public, and it’s up everyone else to figure out whether they think it is worthy of something like that or not...

“I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to be nominated. Any actor would, any director would. They’d be lying if they said they wouldn’t want to be.”

Ultimately, DiCaprio said his greatest reward is to be part of films that might stand the test of time and bear repeated viewings decades down the line. Like Scorsese, DiCaprio has certain films that reveal fresh nuances each time he sees them, including movies by Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick.

“‘The Bicycle Thief’ is a film I’ve watched over and over again, too. I’ve just never seen a film that was that simply done that conveyed so much. It’s an entire lifetime in one day,” DiCaprio said.

“There are certain films out there, that’s the reason I get so excited about doing movies, that hopefully I can be part of a film that people 50 years from now will be able to still want to watch. That’s what’s exciting to me.”

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