Gangs of New York with DiCaprio

Every once in a while, an actor gives such a mesmerizing performance that he leaves an indelible impression on his viewers. This is one of the most exciting things about movies: discovering new faces, new talents.

In 1993, audiences had such 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.

A few years later, DiCaprio again appeared in multiple features, first starring as Romeo (opposite Claire Danes as Juliet) in Baz (Moulin Rouge) Luhrmann's updated, avant-garde screen adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. He then joined an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and De Niro, in the family drama Marvin's Room. But the film that put DiCaprio on the map, and made him a household name all over the world, was the blockbuster Titanic, which swept most of the 1997 Oscars and shattered box-office records. It's still the only picture in film history to have grossed over one billion dollars.

This season, the gifted DiCaprio can be seen in two radically different roles. The only thing common to them 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.

DiCaprio says his character in Gangs of New York is “a composite based on information taken from two books, Gangs of New York and Low Life.” More specifically, the actor was influenced by “a handwritten account that was discovered by researchers, a journal that describes the life of a young man who spent his entire youth in a juvenile prison called 'house of reform.' For DiCaprio, the journal “conveyed such extreme desperation that it became the perfect back-story for Amsterdam's obsession with avenging the killing of his father.”

In the film's first scene, Amsterdam is shown as a boy, witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his dad. The, the story jumps forward and finds Amsterdam as a youngster. Says DiCaprio: “When Amsterdam arrives in the Five Points, after spending fifteen years away in the house of reform, he learns to suppress his desire for revenge–until the appropriate time. First he has to learn the rules and codes of this new, unfamiliar world.”

DiCaprio was aware that the movie is imbued with Freudian psychology, specifically the father-son dynamic and complex relationship. He says: “In order to rid himself of his father's ghost, Amsterdam learns the hard way the skills necessary to challenge the villain of the piece, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis in a bravura performance), on his own level.”

DiCaprio began preparing for role physically about a year before the actual shoot began. He recalls: “My regimen included weight training, knife-throwing, and various fighting methods from the period.” He also perceived his character as having major advantages over the hordes of low-life characters in the violent region: “Besides being physically tough, Amsterdam has the determination that comes with his desire for revenge. Unlike the rest of them, Amsterdam has been spared the neurological damage of drinking the 'all sorts” (in the film, a barrel at Satan's circus, full of remnants of other customers' drinks). My character is also quicker than most.”

The atmosphere of Dante Ferretti's sets and Sandy Powell's costumes were a great help in entering the period and the mindset of the character. It's an unusual period. Lower-class urban life in mid-nineteenth century America is rarely, if ever, depicted in the movies.”

The sets at Cinecitta were so big that it was like living in the actual city at that time. The alleys of the Five Points seemed alive, as if the Bowery characters would walk out of the walls. Powell's costumes were so believable that you wondered where in the Five Points the street people rested their heads each night.”

DiCaprio has always wanted to work with Scorsese, a filmmaker he admires and one considered to be the greatest living director in America today. “It was great to collaborate with a director who's been developing a project for twenty-five years. The passion for accuracy in every detail of the period and historical context resonates through Marty's work.”

DiCaprio recalls: “I heard about the project when I was sixteen–the story of a young Irish immigrant in the 1860s who is placed in the center of the biggest urban riot in the New World. I was so determined to do this project with him that I actually changed agencies, when I was seventeen, in order to be in closer contact (Both Scorsese and Dicaprio are represented by CAA).

As for his actual work on the film, he says: “My experience turned out to be the most rewarding of my films so far. Despite our initial operatic Italian arguments about the story and Amsterdam's character, I have to say that I will truly never forget our first meeting on Gangs of New York. It was when I first learned that marty has seen every movie ever made until 1980–I was working with a true visionary, someone who can masterfully assemble all the hidden mechanisms that make a movie operate with seamless reality and dramatic force.”