The Return of the Young Leonardos

Back  in 2008, I singled out Emile Hirsch, Michael Pitt and Kevin Zegers as three Young Leonardos (YLs). The standard was somewhat lazily applied, as it was not readily apparent what it took to be in contention for the title, apart from a) being handsome in a Leonardo DiCaprio-like way, and b) having shown a willingness to take on some challenging work in addition to career-conscious mainstream movies. Rereading the piece, it’s not immediately clear to me whether I wanted them to emulate the Leo of (the unconventional but terrible) Total Eclipse (1993) and The Basketball Diaries (1995) because such projects would allow them to show their range as actors, or because they would be good steps on the way to a more robust, conventional career (I seem to have decried that Michael Pitt had made a conscious decision no complete the transition into the mainstream), but I remain interested in actors who switch between small projects  and bigger movies. And, true to the spirit of the Young Leonardos and the general outlook of this blog, it obviously doesn’t hurt if they’re hot, either.

As for the careers of the initial class of YLs, neither of them are ready to dominate the zeitgeist just yet, and the assessment of their career futures might actually have looked more positive if I’d looked in on them a few years ago. Michael Pitt has the same strengths and weaknesses as an actor that made him such an compelling presence in breakout roles in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and The Dreamers (2003), and he played a pivotal role in the first two seasons of HBO’s mob drama Boardwalk Empire. His boyish sensitivity, which can’t really be masked by stern looks and facial hair, shines through, and there’s something Leo-like in the simultaneously raw and airy quality of his best performances, as well. The same is even more prominent in Hirsch’s work. It’s never been seen more clearly than in his role as Cleve Jones in Milk (2008), whch premiered just a few months after my initial YL post. As I wrote in one of my posts about that film, Hirsch’s emotional intensity is almost pure DiCaprio, whether you take The Basketball Diaries or The Departed (2006) as your point of reference. In keeping with the criteria of branching out into unknown territory, I suppose Hirsch should be applauded for taking on the role of a Vietnam veteran in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock (2009), but unfortunately, Hirsch’s performance struck me as one of several false notes in that film. Lately Hirsch has juggled back and forth between straight crowd-pleasers like The Darkest Hour (2011, which was, it should be said, “crowd-pleasing” only in the sense that it was a ludicrously inept attempt at making an alien invasion horror movie) and more challenging stuff, like the unsettling Killer Joe (2011), but it would perhaps be a stretch to say that Hirsch made a decisive difference in either of them. My favorite recent performance of his remains in the underseen Prince Avalanche (2012), an offbeat comedy from once-promising David Gordon Green. I continue to believe that Hirsch could become of one the better actors of his generation, in mainstream and art films alike, but he needs better roles.

If Hirsch and Pitt have so far failed to register in quite the way I envisioned for them, their careers are at least humming along. I’m not so sure about Kevin Zegers, who was, admittedly, included solely on the basis of his performance in Transamerica (and his hotness). There was, however, a sense of emotional honesty and vulnerability to his performance in that not-particularly subtle sex-change drama. It was only later that I saw him in the generic body-swapping teen comedy It’s a Boy/Girl Thing, which was probably closer both to his comfort zone as an actor and to the kind of material he’s usually given to work with. In a perhaps telling sign, I actually had to check his IMDb page to find out what he’s been up to in the past several years ago.

So, the track record for my designated Young Leonardos may not be the best. Still, I thought it might be time to induct a few new members into this rather exclusive club. I decided to apply the “young” and “Leonardo” parts of the standard a little more leniently this time, so while being an Adonis-like Leo-in-waiting would definitely not be a disqualifying attribute, I looked for people who maybe had more of a proven ability to choose outside the box and deliver performances in the young Leonardo vein.

My first candidate, Alden Ehrenreich, may be the long-shot in this company. He is no stranger to this blog, having placed on the SMA scoreboard a couple of times. Ehrenreich’s claim to YL fame principally is Francis Ford Coppola’s criminally underseen Tetro (2009), which made my list of favorite movies of 2010. In it, Ehrenreich holds his own against the attention-grabbing Vincent Gallo, with a performance that seemed to be custom-made for YL inclusion. He brought wide-eyed intensity and dazzling good looks to Coppola’s idiosyncratic genre picture, and made me want to see more of him, in every sense of the word. As yet, it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to follow that unconventional breakthrough with anything equally interesting, but after his lead performance in the pallid YA adaptation Beautiful Creatures (2013), at least he got a few scenes in Park Chan-wook’s Hitchcockian mood piece Stoker (2013).

If my next pick, Dane DeHaan, almost seems a little too obvious, it shouldn’t be because he’s about to get his big break on the back of his turn as Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Granted, DeHaan brings his broodiest A game playing Peter Parker’s famous frenemy, but he has been a Young Leonardo to watch for years already. He was a stood out as a troubled gay teen in the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, and he also enlivened John Hillcoat’s quite dull Lawless (2012). This subject matter, in addition to a very impressive performance alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the Beat generation drama Kill Your Darlings (2013), would in itself be enough to merit a nomination, but there’s also the added dimension that DeHaan is almost like a replica of DiCaprio, circa 1995. From his boyishness to the intense, stubborn stare and the mannerisms, this guy’s a Young Leonardo if there ever was one. Thankfully, some smart choices and his overall career trajectory suggests he could be in this game for the long haul.

Finally, I want to call attention to a familiar name to the readers of this blog, an actor who’s been doing his thing for so long already that its easy to remember that he’s both still young and not all that established. I’m thinking of Brady Corbett, known for movies like Mysterious Skin and the American Funny Games, and as a staple of the SMA’s lower tiers. He won’t turn 26 until August, and yet it feels he’s been acting forever. His acting is perhaps less flashy than Ehrenreich’s or DeHaan’s (maybe closer to Michael Pitt’s), but he shares with the younger Leo a total commitment to every role, and the ability to let the role take him where it needs to go. Two great recent examples can be found in Melancholia (2011) and Simon Killer (2012). In the former, he’s kind of a blank slate, yet he remains interesting, and in the latter, his performance is a slow build in tune with the movie, keeping my interest in its somewhat inscrutable titular character. Corbett may lack the screen-dominating leading man potential of Ehrenreich (in the right role) or DeHaan (in anything), but as for a long and varied career, he might be the best bet.

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