In November 1997, six-plus weeks before Titanic opened in the U.S., 20th Century Fox launched the movie at the Tokyo Film Festival in hopes of generating some early buzz in the largely untapped Asian market. Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos, who was running international distribution at Fox at the time, expected the theater to be crowded. After all, the film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio, already enjoyed a budding global popularity thanks to the studio's 1996 release Romeo + Juliet, which had earned $148 million worldwide — 69 percent of its haul coming from overseas. But Titanic's Japan bow was something more akin to Beatlemania.
"It was pandemonium. The entire area of Tokyo basically shut down, with fans coming out to see Leo," Gianopulos recalls of the James Cameron-directed epic. "He started to be a heartthrob with Romeo + Juliet, but with Titanic, it just became insanity. It was the first time in history that a film was No. 1 in every single country in the world by a massive margin."
Fast-forward 22 years, and DiCaprio remains a global movie star, one whose consistent bankability and acclaim set him apart from his peers. In fact, he is arguably the only global superstar left in a film industry in which an interchangeable group of actors regularly suit up in spandex or brandish a lightsaber for the latest billion-dollar earner — only to be ignored by audiences outside of franchises. Unlike waning megastars like Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Downey Jr., DiCaprio sits alone atop the Hollywood pantheon without ever having made a comic book movie, family film or pre-branded franchise. Leo is the franchise.
Now, after a four-year absence from the big screen following his Oscar-winning turn in The Revenant (a 151-minute R-rated film that earned $533 million worldwide), DiCaprio returns July 26 with Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino's adults-only interpretation of the Manson murders.
"One of the things I like about Leo is he just doesn't plug himself into two movies a year," says Tarantino, drawing an unstated comparison with current stars like Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, who are omnipresent on social media as well as in multiplexes. "He kind of stands alone today, like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro were in the '70s, where they weren't trying to do two movies a year — they could do anything they wanted, and they wanted to do this. So that means this must be pretty good."
In other words, in an age of brand management, DiCaprio has cultivated a brand "of excellence," says Sony film chief Tom Rothman, amid an industry where "brand" these days usually means Marvel, DC or Lucas.
"What is remarkable about Leo is his consistency," says Rothman, who first worked with DiCaprio on Romeo + Juliet and Titanic at Fox. "If he's in it, the audience knows it's going to be good because he's in it. I mean, when is he not great? But that's not an accident. He works his ass off."
Sources say DiCaprio took a $15 million upfront payday — $5 million less than his usual $20 million — in order to get Once Upon a Time made, but he stands to make north of $45 million if the film meets expectations (his deal is structured in a way that certain territories yield higher percentages than others).
DiCaprio's ascent to the pinnacle of actors began well before Romeo + Juliet. A decade after appearing as a toddler on Romper Room, the baby-faced teen landed TV work, including a part on Growing Pains, which proved pivotal for two reasons: It led to him being signed by his manager Rick Yorn, who has guided his career for 27 years (DiCaprio is the rare A-lister who doesn't work with an agent), and helped him land his first significant film role, the 1993 drama This Boy's Life. That same year, at age 19, he co-starred in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, earning the first of his five Oscar acting nominations.
After the unprecedented success of Titanic — then the highest-grossing movie of all time — DiCaprio made a choice that would define his career over the next two decades: Instead of following up the blockbuster with a tried-and-true formula of tentpoles or high-concept thrillers, the Los Angeles native eschewed box office glory to work with the top directors in Hollywood.
That includes five feature collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street) and multiple films with Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby) and Tarantino, who also directed him in Django Unchained. And his one-off collaborations represent a who's-who of Oscar winners and nominees including Cameron, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Danny Boyle.
Among his compatriots, DiCaprio is by far the one most coveted by studio heads and top-tier directors, offering that rare blend of prestige (three of his past five films have been nominated for best picture) and box office prowess (those same films earned a combined $1.8 billion worldwide). While Smith is doing Netflix originals and a Disney remake, Lawrence is on a cold streak and Downey only makes money as Tony Stark, DiCaprio continues to choose films that would seem risky on paper — typically R-rated, longer than 2½ hours and with budgets topping $80 million — bets that have paid off and given him an unrivaled amount of power.
Before their collaboration on Gangs of New York, Scorsese found himself in a creative rut. He credits DiCaprio with reigniting his passion for filmmaking.
"He became the perfect muse. I was rejuvenated again," Scorsese says. "A key thing about Leo — and I always tell him this — is he's a natural screen actor. He could have been in silent films. It's the look on his face, the look in his eyes. He doesn't have to say anything. It just reads, and you can connect with him. Not everybody is like that."
Tarantino first met DiCaprio in 1993 at the premiere of True Romance, which the Once Upon a Time helmer wrote. "He was kind of the man of the hour at that party," Tarantino recalls of the days when DiCaprio first became a fascination of the paparazzi as Hollywood's latest "It" boy. "He told me he thought the script was really terrific."
They casually discussed working together and nearly did on 2009's Inglourious Basterds ("That ended up not working out," is all Tarantino will say). Ultimately, it took almost two decades before their collaboration came to fruition with 2012's Django Unchained.
Unlike his Once Upon a Time character, the star's ruthless slave owner Calvin Candie in Django was not written with DiCaprio in mind. "I had written Calvin Candie to be about 62 or 63 or something like that," Tarantino remembers. "And then I heard that he wanted to meet me to talk about it. So, we got together and we talked about it, and I was at his house for a couple of hours. A relationship almost always starts at his house, sitting out in the back by the pool and talking about things. I was really interested, but I told him, 'Look, I'm not going to be convinced right here because this is just such a big change.' "
Tarantino went home and gave it some thought, and DiCaprio's pitch to play what Tarantino had originally envisioned as an old, crusty plantation master began to intrigue him. "I thought about him as being an evil, corrupt boy emperor like Caligula or a young Nero, just fiddling while Rome burns," he says. "And that was like, 'Oh wow, that's an interesting idea!' He has the power of life and death."
While modern stars scramble to maintain a constant presence and relevance via social media and nonstop work spanning all platforms, DiCaprio as an actor sticks to cinema (he hasn't acted for the small screen since a 1992 appearance on Growing Pains). Rather than using Twitter for self-promotion, he offers his 19.1 million followers updates on the Waorani tribe's efforts to protect the Amazon from oil drilling or to promote vegan burgers.
Off-camera, DiCaprio has maintained a carefully crafted air of mystery. Some crewmembers on Once Upon a Time were instructed to avoid making eye contact with him, according to an on-set source. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, he brought his parents to the Once Upon a Time premiere but skipped other events on the Croisette despite having his security team do a sweep of a Nikki Beach party to promote the environmental documentary And We Go Green, which he produced with longtime friend Fisher Stevens, who says that they are in talks with John Kerry about producing an eco-minded series about threats to the world's oceans.
Stevens says the public would be surprised by the depth of DiCaprio's understanding of environmental issues, particularly climate change. "Leo is definitely into meeting people and talking to people on the cutting edge of this issue," he says. "It’s definitely something he is passionate about."
DiCaprio rarely talks about his personal life or even his career and typically promotes a film only in partnership with the director (he declined to be interviewed for this piece). Despite being one of the most photographed men in the world, hopping on a Citi Bike in New York or hanging out vaping with supermodels, little is known about his day-to-day life.
If he's made a misstep, it was becoming entangled with Riza Aziz, whose Red Granite Pictures financed Wolf of Wall Street. In January, DiCaprio gave closed-door testimony to a Washington, D.C., grand jury regarding a multibillion-dollar Malaysian corruption scandal. In June, Aziz was arrested and charged in Malaysia with laundering $248 million from a state investment fund and channeling the funds into Red Granite bank accounts. It remains to be seen if DiCaprio will be dragged into any trials. Regardless, the Red Granite debacle appears to have had little effect on DiCaprio's standing in Hollywood — agents will say privately that there is no actor or actress that they would rather put their clients next to in a movie.
Django producer Stacey Sher, who has known DiCaprio since he was a teen, notes that the intensity of his performances is no accident. “He makes it look effortless, but he’s that ‘10,000 hours’ and beyond," she says of the Malcolm Gladwell rule that explains success in any field. “I think everybody thinks of him as the greatest actor of his generation first, who happened to become the biggest movie star of his generation.”
It was playing the grizzled frontiersman Hugh Glass in Iñárritu's dark, violent Western The Revenant that proved DiCaprio could still draw massive audiences despite leaving behind the boyish charm that made him a star. "He is a perfectionist and demands a lot of himself," says Iñárritu of working with DiCaprio on The Revenant. "There was this scene in the river that he is meant to be floating, and there were huge pieces of ice. He never hesitated, and even when you got the take, he asked for another. He was relentless when it was sometimes not necessary."
When it came time for Tarantino to cast Once Upon a Time's Rick Dalton, an actor experiencing something of a midlife crisis because he's never lived up to expectations from his youth, the director was hopeful that the famously finicky actor would commit despite taking a four-year hiatus. "I absolutely had him in mind, but I didn't know if I was going to get him," says Tarantino. "I'm not presumptuous. I mean, everyone in the world wants him."
Once Upon a Time producer Shannon McIntosh says there was only one scene that instilled fear in DiCaprio, albeit briefly: a sequence on a campy variety show called Hullabaloo that required singing and dancing. "We were about to walk into dailies one evening, and it was about a week before he had to do the Hullabaloo scene where he sings. And he stopped me and he said, 'I'm not really a singer. How am I going to sing this in a week?' Cut to a week later, he was absolutely fearless. He just got up and did something out of his comfort zone."
Next up, DiCaprio is expected to reteam with Scorsese for Killers of the Flower Moon at Paramount. (Sources say salary and budget negotiations are at a critical juncture.) The film chronicles the FBI investigation into a series of 1920s murders in Oklahoma that likely were tied to oil deposits. In other words, it's a film that would probably never be made at the studio level without DiCaprio.
"I've admired the fact that throughout all of this fame, all of this success, he has maintained his friendships, his relationships, his closeness with his parents," says Gianopulos. "He is a truly lovely human being. Hollywood can change people, and it really hasn't changed Leo."
A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.