Catch Me If You Can: DiCaprio, Directed by Spielberg and Scorsese in Same Year

In 1993, audiences had such a sense of discovery not once but twice. Leonardo DiCaprio gave fresh, riveting performances in two movies: As Robert De Niro’s abused stepson in This Boy’s Life, and as Johnny Depp’s mentally handicapped brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He held his own against such acting titans as De Niro and Johnny Depp, which is no mean feat.

Both were demanding roles that couldn’t have been more different, except that both films dealt with dysfunctional families and in both DiCaprio played a confused teenager, a chameleon misfit who doesn’t know who he is. Amazingly, at the young age of 18, DiCaprio received a supporting Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

This season, the gifted DiCaprio can be seen in two radically different roles. The only thing common to them is that both parts are contained in period dramas.

In Martin Scorsese’s eagerly-awaited Gangs of New York, DiCaprio plays the pivotal role of Amsterdam, Vallon, and in Spielberg’s biographical comedy-drama, Catch Me If You Can, he’s cast in the lead role, that of Frank W. Abagnale, a con man who worked as a doctor, lawyer, and co-pilot for a major airline–all before his twenty-firth birthday.

Vastly radical in theme, style, and tone from “Gangs of New York,” “Catch Me If You Can” unfolds as a stylish cat and mouth thriller, pitting Abagnale, as a master of deception, against FBI agent Carl Hanratty (played by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks), who had made it his prime mission to capture Frank and bring him to justice. Needless to say, Frank, who was also a brilliant forger with extraordinary skills at check frauds, is always one step ahead of Carl, baiting him to continue the chase.

Spielberg directed the picture from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the autobiographical book (of the same title) by Abagnale. The plot of Catch Me If You Can might have seemed a bit far-fetched even by Hollywood standards were it not based on a true story.

As DiCaprio observes: “Things that happen in real life are sometimes a hundred times more fascinating than anything a person could make up off the top of his head.” The film chronicles Abagnale’s life, how, as a runaway teenager without a high school diploma, he managed to pass himself as a doctor, lawyer, and college professor, all while cashing millions of dollars in fraudulent checks.

Both Spielberg and his star say they fell “under the seductive influence of the real Frank William Abagnale, Jr, just through reading his best-selling book. DiCaprio, who’s himself a product of divorce, holds that his character was strongly affected by the divorce of his parents: “There are all sorts of ways children act out against divorce, and frank just happened to act out in a way that was original.”

As a moviegoer, too, DiCaprio likes to watch movies about sensational rogues, like the two Paul Newman-Robert Redford charming collaborations, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. For DiCaprio, these and other classic American films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) “focus on individuals who work on the wrong side of the law and are against society, yet you can’t help but root for them because they’re so incredibly charismatic.”

The period during which Abagnale was able to pull off such elaborate scams was the decade of the 1960s, and DiCaprio (who was born in 1975) holds that Abagnale’s success “could be attributed to the innocence of the times, the last decade that America was truly naive and innocent.” It was a time before the counterculture, before the escalation of the American involvement in Vietnam, before the political assassinations. As DiCaprio puts it: “A time when people really believed that the clothes made the man, that a uniform connoted a certain status in the world.”

Spielberg, who has worked with the best actors (Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films), says he has always been “a huge fan of Leo’s.” “Leo is a very inventive actor and has a lot of ideas,” Spielberg says, “But he’s also his own best critic. There were times I’d accept a certain take, and Leo would say, ‘No, no. I think there’s something I haven’t found yet. Let me do it again.’ And he would invariably come up with something that was just brilliant.

DiCaprio appreciated that his director not only accepted, but encouraged his contribution. “That’s the wonderful thing about working with Steven. he is so open-minded–not just to me as an actor, but to people in every department. I think that is part of what makes him such a great director; he brings out the best in you, and gets everybody working like a well-oiled machine towards a common goal.”

After meeting with the real Abagnale, DiCaprio said he could still catch glimpses of the one-time con man’s innate ability to disarm you. “To look at him, you wouldn’t think he could steal a postage stamp. But he has an almost unconscious way of engaging you with his eyes, with his energy, and with his intelligence.”

While the actor says he was trying to bring those subtle traits to his portrayal, he was intent on not trying to create an imitation of the actual Abegnale. He explains: “At a certain point you draw enough information from the person, and then you have to go off on your own and create that character and let the character have a life of its own. I didn’t want to take away from the spontaneity of the young Frank going out in the world. I wanted the audience to be carried along with him on his journey of self-discovery, to see the sparkle in his eye the first time he sees a pilot looking like a movie star and being treated like royalty, or to watch his first mistakes as a pilot or as a lawyer.”

DiCaprio “didn’t want to be too perfect,” based on his belief that “Frank gets by more on his personality and charm and his ability to misdirect, rather than on being perfect at impersonating people.” Frank’s philosophy equally applies to Dicaprio’s choice of characters, having specialized in playing imperfect and flawed boys or men that are always deeply human.