When he first made himself a reputation in the early to-mid nineties, Leonardo DiCaprio was often compared to River Phoenix, who died of an overdose in 1993, after having shown off his obvious talents in movies like Stand By Me (1987) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). Like Phoenix, DiCaprio’s way to mainstream appreciation went through smaller movies like The Basketball Diaries and This Boy’s Life, and although he has later done broad crowd pleasers like Titanic, The Beach and Catch Me If You Can , he has also taken roles that really have demanded of him that he expand his repertoir as an actor. Whatever you might think of Gangs Of New York, The Aviator or even Blood Diamond, they represented some brave steps for him.
But at some point the torch will have to be passed along again, which got me to thinking about which young actors are the most likely to step out of Leonardo’s shadow. I found three potential contenders, who apart from being obviously talented not only have shown a penchant for brave career movies, but also in my mind even look a little like Leo (which of course is not exactly a drawback.) I call them the Young Leonardos (YLs)
The first one, and by far the one most likely to succeed, is Emile Hirsch. His explosive mix of talent and attractiveness have been attested to in this space several times before, but in the end, two of his movies in particular made me draw a connection between him and DiCaprio. Tim Travis in Imaginary Heroes is not an easy part to play, but Hirsch strikes the exactly right balance between insecurity and the more self-assured facade his sometimes puts up, which is essential to understanding what kind of character we’re dealing with. Something similar can be seen in The Mudge Boy, though the end result is not nearly as good. Proving his talent in such small movies then earned him the lead in Sean Penn’s epic Into The Wild, a movie that could be comparable to The Aviator in artistic ambition. In my opinion, Hirsch could have netted his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chris McCandless. His Hollywood future looking increasingly bright, and he himself looking better than ever, his status as a frontrunner among the Young Leonardos is well-deserved.
If he wanted to however, Michael Pitt might could have given him a run for the money. He garnered some interest as Tommy Gnosis in the fabulous Hedwig and And The Angry Inch, but his YL credentials were only seriously bolstered by his leading role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s absolutely riveting The Dreamers. His physical resemblance to Leonardo in this film was so striking (and so rewarding, considering he is very sparsely clothed throughout much of it) that I constantly had to remind myself that I was actually watching Michael Pitt. Perhaps unfortunately however, this was also the film that seemed to permanently take him out of the mainstream, which at least in the short term make him less likely to compete for Leo’s legacy. He was very good in Gus van Sant’s loosely structured yet strangely fascinating Last Days, and Michael Haneke’s American remake of his excellent Austrian satirical thriller Funny Games suggests this is a guy who is intent on going his own way.
Finally, consider Kevin Zegers. I only know him from Transamerica, but then again, he really came through in that movie. His character was very complex, but even though it felt a little underdeveloped at times, he made me care deeply about him. It’s of course possible that I find just about any movie about sexual ambivalence interesting, but I doubt it. This movie really had something more than an intriguing plot to offer, it was also beautifully and movingly conceived. And also, Zegers no doubt had something special to offer, too.
But the beauty of all of them notwithstanding: If they have the necessary combination of luck and ambition, they could be the quality-concious heartthrobs of tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it already.