This week I watched two films starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The two films that I watched were What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and The Departed (2006). The two characters (and films) are drastically different from each other, and they were made at very different stages of his career.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was one of DiCaprio’s first films, made when he was nineteen. In the film, he played Arnie, the mentally challenged little brother of the titular character. The performance (which required much physical and vocal transformation) was extremely impressive, especially for such a young actor. Arnie’s speech patterns, his facial ticks, his physical movement, everything about him was absolutely authentic as a portrayal of someone with autism. You could tell that DiCaprio definitely did his homework and respected the character. Regarding the role, DiCaprio stated, “I had to really research and get into the mind of somebody with a disability like that. So I spent a few days at a home for mentally retarded teens. We just talked and I watched their mannerisms. People have these expectations that mentally retarded children are really crazy, but it's not so. It's refreshing to see them because everything's so new to them." This research and preparation for the role proves that he was not only just a talented young actor but also a smart one, knowing what kind of work would be required to pull off an honest performance.
In The Departed, DiCaprio played Billy Costigan, a state police graduate who goes undercover in the Irish mafia in Boston. By this time, DiCaprio had established himself as a leading man and gives a very powerful performance as the undercover cop. I think that part of the challenge of this role was a similar challenge he faced in Gangs of New York. Can the pretty boy from Titanic and Romeo + Juliet be convincing as a tough guy. That as well as developing an authentic accent. DiCaprio succeeding in meeting that challenge and then some. His performance as the emotionally unstable and paranoid young cop was one of the reasons the film was such a great success.
Both of these performances earned DiCaprio Academy Award nominations, and I consider them to be probably his two finest performances. I feel that Arnie was the more physically and mentally challenging role, whereas Costigan may have been more emotionally challenging. That being said, Costigan had the physical challenges and Arnie had his emotional ones. The scene where Arnie discovers his mother near the end of the film is absolutely devastating and tugs at the heartstrings. All in all, I would say that tough to pick one performance over the other, but if I had to choose I would choose What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? simply due to the challenge of the role and the fact that at no point did you doubt the character was mentally challenge. The authenticity was impressive.