Thursday, 18 March 2010

Performances of the Decade (Male)

The general argument is that it’s difficult for actors to make a great impression on you in ensemble casts. Is it really? Brad, Ian, Ed and Tim all do excellent work playing supporting roles in large ensembles. I’m not certain if this is a supporting performance – I’d say no.
#5 Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed (2006)
Sometimes I believe I can not the exact moment I knew Leo was on to something special in The Departed with Billy Costigan. It’s about twenty minutes in as he watches over the deathbed of his mother. He’s approached by his waspish uncle who gives the general affectations of guilt ridden relatives. Sure, Monaghan’s script is an absolute delight, but DiCaprio’s delivery that always floors me: 
“…Well maybe it would have done you some good to have a question from time to time. Am I an asshole, are my kids a mess? Is my wife a money grubbing whore? Those are questions. Have I ever been good to my dying sister or am I now just pretending to be?” 
It’s the sort of intensity that marks DiCaprio as an actor, and distinguishes Costigan from his peers in The Departed. From the first shot of him, his shifty eyed discomfort in the classroom in his police uniform which seems completely wrong for him. Or the first shot of him in civilian clothing as he waits outside Queenan’s office – there’s something a little off about this guy, we're not certain if he's bad or something bad has happened to him, but he's troubled.
The Departed is not a film that’s wholly concerned with defining each of its characters (the actors are left to their own devices), and even though on the most superficial of levels it’s the battle between good and evil it doesn’t care to relegate its characters to types either because although it would be remiss of us to call Billy a bad guy we can’t exactly call him a good guy either. One of the ironies of The Departed for me is that even though DiCaprio’s visits to Madolyn are part of the ruse he really does seem like someone who needs psychiatric help. His eccentricities do provide laughter, but it’s the sort of tense laughter that always makes you just a little uneasy. Who can forget the line about the cranberry juice? - The anti-diurectic drink. His outbursts in Madolyn's office are nice to watch, the implications below are unnerving. DiCaprio plays Billy with a deliberate stride, he’s not quite unhinged, but he’s on the path there. I’m never certain, though, if he’s acting in that first meeting with Madolyn or is he really is feeling that high-strung. I’m not sure he does either.
The thing is, though Leo convinces me of Billy’s craziness it’s the moments of uneasiness when he breaks down that are my favourite. The most piercing is the moment of Queenan’s death. It all happens so fast (it is a pity that we’re robbed of seeing more of Sheen’s excellent portrayal). That moment as Queenan’s blood spatters on Billy is taut and the pathetic expression on his face is intense. Queenan’s role as a surrogate father to Billy is obvious, as is the conflicting role of father that Costello should represents. The chemistry between DiCaprio and Nicholson is as effective as that between he and Sheen. It’s with the same intensity after Queenan’s death that he returns to Madolyn, the only person he can trust – even when he can’t. I can’t speak of Leo without at least mentioning Vera’s excellent work. She takes a character that exists principally as the plot point – and the role in theory is quite thankless – and turns it into a highly nuanced character. More importantly, Leo works well with her and the two do good work together.
Someone once said The Departed was one of those badass flicks, and it is. It doesn't care to sentimentalise and Scorsese demands the same from his actors. I suppose that The Departed still manages to work without DiCaprio but that doesn't make this performance any less of important as far as I'm concerned. His immersion in character is impressive even as he goes (unknowingly) to his death he is always Costigan, and no one else. A truly brilliant performance.
There’s a slight aversion to DiCaprio the actor that exists even if he tries to be as diverse as possible. I see this as the best work he’s done with Scorsese; but do you think it’s worth a mention?


Univarn said...

I think this is definitely Leo's signature performance, and I still think the studio move in favor of Blood Diamond over The Departed for which role to submit for recognition to the Academy was a bad one. Still, not sure anyone could have beaten the Whitaker support train that year.

MrJeffery said...

Great writeup. I thought this was one of Leo's best. Surprised he didn't get award attention (maybe category confusion? and I guess Blood Diamond).

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

univarn and mr. jeffery i suppose it was category confusion. but still annoying. he was my favourite that year.

Luke said...

Yeah, definitely concur with everyone on this one - it's probably his best performance. And though I did also like his Blood Diamond turn, it's too bad the Academy's one-nomination rule kept him from landing two that year.

Heather said...

Leo is so sadly underrated and I don't mean he isn't an "A" list actor, we all know he is, but he's been doing incredible work for a decade now and generally receives a quiet nod of approval but no actual real discussion about how damn brilliant he is. He shoved it down our throats in this movie while also delivering a brilliant performance that same year in Blood Diamond. Instead we keep boasting about how great George Clooney is and while I love Clooney he doesn't have a tenth of the versatility or ability to emote as Leo does.

Ok. Taking a breath now.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

luke and the SAG were pushing him in suppoting. i guess it was vote splits, but still no excuse.

heather let it out, come on let it out. i agree with you completely.