A few days ago The New York Times published a profile of Leonardo DiCaprio and being the savvy, of-the-moment cultural observer that I am, I failed to be aware of it until this morning. But upon becoming aware I decided to read it, because I am a savvy, of-the-moment cultural observer. The piece focused largely on DiCaprio’s role in Clint Eastwood’s new biopic of J. Edgar Hoover called — wait for it — J. Edgar. I got two paragraphs in before I started snorting and rolling my eyes like a disgruntled stallion.
It was the opening passage that got the juices of exasperation flowing:
To transform himself into an aging J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio sat for hours at a time while makeup artists gave him liver spots, yellow teeth and big, bulbous love handles. He spends a good chunk of Clint Eastwood’s film “J. Edgar” that way, sweating and sneering in the unforgiving lighting of F.B.I. headquarters.
The part also meant memorizing endless monologues that needed to be delivered with Hoover’s own breakneck cadence. Additionally Mr. DiCaprio, who typically comes accessorized with a supermodel girlfriend in real life, had to wrestle aggressively with a man and then kiss him.
Oh, and wear a dress.
“Oh, here it comes,” I groaned, “Here comes the part where we are going to just wet ourselves with fawning admiration over the fact that an actor would be so brave and noble as to appear as anything other than gorgeous and unambiguously heterosexual in the service of actual acting.” And indeed, the author continued:
Faced with a role with demands like that, most superstar actors, even those eager to catch the attention of Oscar voters, would have turned and run. Look unhandsome and unheroic? Too big a risk, even with Mr. Eastwood at the wheel. But Mr. DiCaprio, at least the post-“Titanic” one, has made a career of highly risky choices, and somehow it keeps paying off not only on the awards circuit — he has been nominated for three Academy Awards — but at the box office as well.
Ok. First point of bullshit: the idea that post-Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio has made a career of “highly risky choices.” Right. Because playing brooding anti-heroes in Martin Scorsese movies– why, that just has “potential career suicide” written all over it! I mean, look what it did to that promising Italian fellow who played young Marlon Brando in the second Godfather movie. Too bad he let that Scorsese character derail his career so thoroughly in the late ’70s! If he hadn’t I’d probably remember his name. And how shocking that all these recent Scorsese movies did well not only critically, but at the box-office! I mean, audiences hate Scorsese movies!
Second, and much more important, point of bullshit: this whole “OMG can you believe this really attractive actor/actress was willing to, like, look ugly on screen for two hours?” thing the press does any time someone gains five pounds or puts on facial prosthetics for a role. First off, this sort of blathering is weirdly insulting to the people of the world who aren’t blessed with movie-star looks (and homosexuals as well in this case) because the writer is basically going “my goodness, how blighted are the gay and merely average-looking! They have to be gay and merely average-looking all the time!” It’s also kind of insulting to actors themselves, because why should we assume that looking hot and macho is always more important to them than doing good work? While some actors have been content to build entire careers off of standing around and looking studly, others actually want to, you know, act.
This is all even more bullshitty in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio, who even before Titanic was being praised for doing good work in challenging, offbeat roles. Marvin’s Room? Gilbert Grape? Remember those? So really, this hand-flapping over how fabulous he is for choosing this “risky” part is extra stupid. Seeking out such roles is EXACTLY what an actor with his track record should do. It is an expected and, dare I say, safe choice for someone who has clearly, for a long time, been focused on being a “serious actor” and not a heartthrob. Safe because such a role is probably within his capacity as an actor, because Clint Eastwood movies tend to do well critically and commercially, and because if he gives a good performance (which apparently he did) he is all but guaranteed to get nominated for an Oscar.
So really, can we stop hyperventilating every time an actor who is, actually, a real actor makes the totally logical decision to take on a demanding role that may or may not involve some extra padding around the waistline or kissing someone of the same gender? Not because people don’t deserve praise for doing great work — they absolutely do. But because treating this like an act of heroism assumes that “stars” are all too shallow to care about acting, that audiences are too stupid to understand what acting is, that homosexuality is gross for straight people and that looking beautiful at all times is more important than being good at what you do. Or, at least, it implies that people who think this way should be pandered to. And while I would expect this kind of silliness from Us Weekly, The New York Times isn’t supposed to do that! The New York Times is a beacon of civilization’s greater ideals and high culture and oh fuck I’m tired of all this thinking I’m going to go watch Real Housewives now. Whatever.