Historians Debate Which President Leonardo DiCaprio Should Play

The Oscar winner has Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant biopics lined up, and scholars are using everything from 'Hamilton' to toxic masculinity to make their pitches to the actor.
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images (Di Caprio); Photofest (Grant and Roosevelt)
From left: Ulysses S Grant, Leonardo DiCaprio, Teddy Roosevelt

Leonardo DiCaprio really wants to play a president. The question is which president? Ulysses S. Grant or Teddy Roosevelt?

The 2016 best actor Oscar winner for The Revenant (and overall six-time nominee) is attached to play Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, in a film to be directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he’s already done five movies (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Shutter Island, Gangs of New York and The Aviator). DiCaprio also is in talks to star in a biopic about Grant, the Civil War hero and the 18th president, to be directed by Steven Spielberg, with whom the actor collaborated on Catch Me If You Can.

The Hollywood Reporter enlisted several prominent American historians to offer Leo some advice on which president might make a better movie. Here’s what they had to say:

The Burden of Fame, 19th-Century Style
"I would urge Grant. Grant is a genuine nobody who became almost everything. His 'character' is much worth exploring.  The warrior will be hard to capture — he literally found himself in war and great bloodshed. But his presidency is equally interesting because of all the stumbles and failures. And Grant had enormous problems with fame."
— David W. Blight, Professor of History at Yale University, is the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and the forthcoming Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Oct. 1).

Take a Cue From Hamilton
"After watching the rap musical Hamilton unleash waves of public conversation on American history, I am nothing but enthusiastic about the prospect of Leonardo DiCaprio performing a similar service in drawing attention to Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. To give these two figures their deserved complexity and relevance, I hope that the film about President Grant will feature the wretched historical figure Ferdinand Ward, who drew Grant into the precedent-setting swamp of corruption and fraudulent investment. In the same spirit of an honest reckoning with the nation's history, I hope the film about President Roosevelt will grant him his full humanity by paying full attention to the tidal wave of grief he confronted with the closely timed deaths of his mother and his first wife, while refusing to fudge on his disturbing thoughts on the superiority of the white race. And it would be wondrous if the film could experiment, in the manner of Hamilton, with elements of 21st century popular culture in the cause of bringing these people of the past back into our lives."
Patricia Limerick, University of Colorado, is the author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.

Nobody Does Toxic Masculinity Like Scorsese
"I think the pairing of the directors with the subject matter here is telling. I mean, who does toxic masculinity better than Martin Scorsese! Personally, I’d like to see DiCaprio keep his string of masculinist projects with Scorsese going (The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, etc.). That’s some entertaining (if deeply problematic) cinema. Make the movie, then let the historians have their fun! And relative to the themes of the day, I think we could use a movie about a bloviating imperialist right about now. Spielberg on Grant strikes me as a movie that’s already going to take itself too seriously. And not necessarily in ways I’d appreciate. DiCaprio’s a great actor, but can he ever not be DiCaprio onscreen? That means a movie that should be about Reconstruction will wind up being about Leonardo DiCaprio."
— N.D.B. Connolly, Johns Hopkins University, co-hosts BackStory and is the author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.

TR Speaks to Today
"While I think we desperately need more films on the Reconstruction era, my personal preference would be the TR film. Its likely themes — the question of American 'greatness,' the fight over corporate power, the politics of immigration and nativism — would be quite relevant and, in Scorsese’s hands, surely riveting, too."
— Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University, is the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

Grant Speaks to Today
"If Leo wants to make a movie with contemporary relevance he should make the Grant film. A movie that emphasizes Grant’s brilliance on the battlefield would provide a necessary corrective to Lost Cause hagiography of Robert E. Lee. A movie about Reconstruction — and the degree to which Grant and his administration did or did not use federal power to protect the rights and bodies of African-Americans — helps to explain the roots of present-day inequality and violence. A movie that uses Grant’s life as a hook to draw viewers into a story about African-Americans and the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction would be best of all."
— Anne Sarah Rubin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the author of Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman's March in American Memory.

Leo and TR Actually Have a Lot in Common
"Roosevelt. Grant was a soldier, with the virtues and vices you’d expect, while TR was much more dramatically interesting — too interesting to ever be elected president in the ordinary course of events. He could be genuinely awful, in the terms of either his time or ours; he could also be remarkably generous, and even empathetic. Most of all, I’d say, there’s maybe a little of TR in DiCaprio: both men began life as physically slight specimens, and packed on a lot of muscle to play a part or two without ever completely burying the more vulnerable people they started out being."
— Eric Rauchway, University of California, Davis, is the author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America.

Scorsese Should Tackle Grant
"Grant was the more interesting figure, self-aware and morally complex. I think he's worth thinking about in our present moment, more so than Theodore Roosevelt, who turned the presidency into its modern cult of personality and celebrity, with its assertion of American global power. It might be hard to show cinematically what the problem with Roosevelt is, given that he initiated a number of progressive measures. Grant’s efforts to support civil rights and reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, the swirl of corruption and failures in his administration, his efforts to provide security for his family writing his memoirs all are both dramatic and real. Is the director a done deal? Scorsese seems the one with the better feel for this story."
— Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Hope in a Jar.

Go for the TR Few Know
"I’d vote for TR, precisely because we think we know him so well. Behind all the bluster and the big stick was a sick and weak little boy, a broken-hearted young widower, a machine politician and a prolific historian. Though even DiCaprio may have a hard time pulling off the younger TR, it would be fun to see him try. Nothing against Grant, but the general’s reputational trajectory is pointed toward hagiography and a movie seems unlikely to challenge that. TR, on the other hand, now seems ridiculous and I’d like a film that would challenge that."
— Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond, is the author of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, winner of this year’s Lincoln Prize and a co-host of BackStory

TR, Like Superman, Is a Contradiction
"A few years ago, a scholar writing about Superman observed, 'There is nothing more American than a contradiction.' If this is right, then, there is no one more American than TR. An outsider from the most inside of families. A Progressive pursuing segregation. A man of democratic sensibilities extending American imperialism. An early environmentalist that helped to capture nature. And these contradictions were just matters of policy, he was a man in private full of doubt and misgivings and awkward steps."
— Bryant Simon, Temple University, is the author of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives.

Grant’s Memoir Is Already a Great Script
"Since DiCaprio already played a white man encountering bears, indigenous peoples and frontier mythologies of individualism in The Revenant, I'm going with Grant. His memoirs happen to be the best in this genre: There is a good 'script' to work with. Given the current epidemic of toxic masculinity, do we really need to add more testosterone to the mix with a Teddy Roosevelt movie?"
— Brian Balogh, University of Virginia, co-hosts BackStory and is the author of The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century.

Neither
"Of all the American lives that need telling onscreen in 2018, Grant and TR wouldn’t make my top 500."
— Jill Lepore, Harvard University, is the author of These Truths: A History of the United States.

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