He’s one of the most respected actors of his time, a teen heartthrob, an environmentalist, a producer, a three-time Golden Globe winner, and an Oscar winner. Leonardo DiCaprio has established himself as a big-screen legend over the course of his 30-year career as an actor, bringing numerous iconic characters to life to become known as one of the most iconic and consistently successful actors of his generation. This weekend he returns to the big screen to be part of his second Quentin Tarantino picture “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and considering that I not only grew up watching him on the big screen but also consider him one of my all-time favorite actors and activists, this felt like the perfect time to recognize his best works in cinema. These are my picks for the Top 10 Leonardo DiCaprio Performances.
For this list, I looked at all of DiCaprio’s big-screen roles and picked out ten that I felt were the most impressive, iconic, and memorable of his career. I did not include his work in documentaries, television or short films. While awards and nominations were heavily considered, this list is about which performances have stood the test of time and are memorable to me personally while also considering how well these performances and characters have resonated with the general public over the years.
This was one of the hardest lists I’ve ever put together considering that I am a huge fan of almost all of this actor’s great work. I selected a shortlist of 20 candidates from 28 feature-length films and cut that in half to make this list, leaving many notable roles on the cutting room floor so I’m sure some of you are bound to be disappointed that certain characters weren’t represented. With that said, please let me know your favorite Leonardo DiCaprio performances in the comments below and look for my review of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” this weekend.
10. Danny Archer, “Blood Diamond”
While not DiCaprio’s most notable work in pop culture, Danny Archer may be among his most impressive performances simply due to DiCaprio’s successful attempt to adapt the South African accent. Archer is a mercenary, gunrunner and diamond smuggler from Rhodesia who meets Djimon Hounsou’s Solomon Vandy, a fisherman who has come into the possession of a massive diamond. Archer seeks Vandy’s diamond to escape his life as a mercenary, trading his services to help Vandy save his family in return for the stone. What makes Archer so intriguing as a character is that he is very clearly working for himself while also having good intentions. You never know if he’s going to throw Vandy under the bus or commit to his side of the bargain. When he meets with an American journalist (played by Jennifer Connelly) seeking to document the diamond trade in the country things get even more complicated leading Archer to eventually face his past head-on. DiCaprio gives Archer amazing depth and manages to convey so much with so little every time he’s on screen. The performance was so perfect it earned DiCaprio nominations at the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
9. Frank Abagnale, Jr., “Catch Me If You Can”
Only DiCaprio, with his boyish looks and charm, could pull off a 16-year-old so convincingly at the age of 28. DiCaprio stars as real-life identity thief Frank Abagnale, Jr. in this 2002 Steven Spielberg gem portraying the maturing of a young man who turns to check fraud and false identities to survive after running away from his broken home. In a Golden Globe-nominated role DiCaprio successfully depicts Abagnale’s emotional struggle as he sees his parents’ marriage fall apart and then almost immediately depicts his character’s uncanny ability to adapt to situations flawlessly and learn from his mistakes without leaving a trace. DiCaprio proves to be amazingly charming and convincing not only to the audience but to the characters as well making us believe that the people he is swindling are genuinely fooled by his sleight of hand and falsified documents. It takes a focused performance and a lot of talent to present us with a character that is so convincingly confident but also innocent and insecure at the same time. Even with the immense talent of Tom Hanks playing the cop on Abagnale’s trail, without DiCaprio this real-life story just wouldn’t be the same.
8. Jack Dawson, “Titanic”
It might seem odd that one of DiCaprio’s most well-known roles is this low on the list, but it’s also a statement to how accomplished he was in the 2000s and 2010s. DiCaprio actually played two heartthrob characters in back to back years, portraying Romeo in the modernized “Romeo + Juliet” film in 1996. But his 1997 role in the one-time highest-grossing film in the world and Best Picture winner is just a little more iconic. Jack Dawson is an artist who wins tickets onto the doomed vessel the Titanic in a game of chance. While onboard he meets Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet) and the two fall in love but are torn apart as a result of the Titanic’s eventual sinking. While this role did make DiCaprio a superstar, it is also a performance he himself is not proud of as he has since called Jack a low point of his acting career. Still, there’s no denying that without his charm and unique ability to bring out the best in Jack with what he had to work with he is a big part of why this film still works so well. While it makes this list for its iconic status alone, it’s far from DiCaprio’s worst work in a career filled with great performances. Also, while his performance was one of the few aspects not to earn an Oscar nomination it did earn him his second Golden Globe nomination.
7. Dom Cobb, “Inception”
While in his early years DiCaprio was known for his charm and boyish looks, in the 2000s and 2010s he started to take on more mature roles and embrace his talents as a leader on screen. Thus, we have Dom Cobb, the lead character in Christopher Nolan’s modern classic “Inception”. Not only is DiCaprio the leader of the group of dream thieves who set out to implant a memory in a target, but he also happens to be one of the most talented dream thieves in the world and his art has led him to suffer setbacks including the death of his wife. As a result Cobb is a wanted man and takes the job with the goal of clearing his name, but as the film plays out we find Cobb’s story is much more complex as his wife’s death has also torn him away from his children and taught him the terror that mixing dreams and reality can bring. DiCaprio presents us with a man who is emotionally broken, desperate, and yet still very confident in himself and what he is capable of. He wants nothing more than to be with his kids again and seems willing to do anything to get there but also keeps himself in check. This role remains one of DiCaprio’s most iconic from the 2010s and while it’s often overshadowed by performances still to come, we can’t forget it’s a big part of why “Inception” remains such a great feature.
6. William “Billy” Costigan, Jr., “The Departed”
One of three consecutive films DiCaprio starred in by director Martin Scorsese in the mid-2000s, “The Departed” sports many great performances from the likes of Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg, but DiCaprio plays the central character which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. DiCaprio plays an undercover cop named Billy Costigan who infiltrates the Irish mob while a mob mole (played by Matt Damon) plants himself in Costigan’s departments creating a cat-and-mouse game as each of them try to discover the other’s identity. While Damon’s performance is a bit more chaotic, DiCaprio’s shows more control as he dominates the film in terms of acting range and grit. While we’ve seen DiCaprio take on some pretty intense characters before, this is by far one of his most mature and gripping performances as he embraces the pressure and chaos that Costigan has to endure to hide his status as a police officer while also trying to keep control of situations he can’t possibly predict or manage on his own. It’s because of DiCaprio’s dedication to the role that made Costigan such an easy guy to root for that his surprise fate still remains a shocker to this day.
5. Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Another product of DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in this 2013 biographical comedy and won a Golden Globe. DiCaprio plays real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort and provides one of his most outrageous and entertaining performances to date through drug-fueled antics and insane attempts to screw over Wall Street. Whether it’s Belfort’s massive ego or his drug-induced insanity, DiCaprio loses himself in this role providing some spectacular moment of dry and black comedy. Who could forget that hilarious and intense quaalude scene which is so dry and simple yet so hilarious, thanks mainly to DiCaprio’s willingness to commit and pull it off? Even despite his demons, Belfort is just such a charming man it’s hard not to root for him even when we know he’s embellishing too much and getting too comfortable. Funny enough this was one of two movies starring DiCaprio in 2013 that involved a show-off flaunting his money but “The Great Gatsby” pails in comparison to “The Wolf of Wall Street” which remains a signature film in DiCaprio’s filmography from the 2010s and only seems to get better with age.
4. Calvin Candie, “Django Unchained”
DiCaprio’s first film with director Quentin Tarrantino and it’s his only straight-up villainous role on this list, the 2012 western “Django Unchained” sees DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, a slave owner who owns Django’s wife Broomhilda. He becomes the target of Django and his mentor Dr. King Schulz and proves to be a devious, dastardly, sick-minded and vicious man who has a way with words and believes that his position as a slave owner is part of the natural order of things. He’s as over the top as such a character can be without going too far and DiCaprio sells his villainy so well. While Christoph Waltz walked away with an Oscar for his role as Schultz, DiCaprio earned a Globe nomination beside Waltz (who eventually won) and cemented Candie as one of Tarantino’s best villains. If you need solid evidence that this role is one of DiCaprio’s best you only need to watch the blood smearing scene around the dinner table. It’s a well-known fact that DiCaprio actually cuts his hand when he smashes the glass, smearing his real blood all over Broomhilda actress Kerry Washington’s face. It’s that kind of commitment and ability to play the scene that makes DiCaprio such a respected actor.
3. Arnie Grape, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”
As DiCaprio’s breakout cinematic role and the first performance that earned him nominations for a Golden Globe and an Oscar, Arnie Grape was a very early example of what was still to come from this incredible performer. DiCaprio took on the daunting task of properly portraying a child with mental illness as the brother of Johnny Depp’s titular Gilbert. Described by some as his “career-defining” performance, DiCaprio’s Arnie Grape includes all the mannerisms and eccentricities you’d expect from such a child without going too far over the edge. In one heartbreaking performance DiCaprio proved that he was more than his “Growing Pains” days and that he could handle not only challenging roles but complex characters as well and do justice to traits that are hard to pull off for even the most committed actors in the business. Arnie serves as a jolt of optimism in a world of depression contrasting Depp’s downer performance perfectly to create the complete package. While Arnie Grape may be a rather dated character who probably wouldn’t fly today, he’s still one of DiCaprio’s best even over 25 years after his big-screen debut.
2. Howard Hughes, “The Aviator”
Earning DiCaprio his second Oscar nod and his first Golden Globe win, “The Aviator’s” Howard Hughes not only solidified DiCaprio as an award season favorite for years to come but also proved that while his young teen heartthrob years were behind him he could still own the big screen. The second in a trio of consecutive Martin Scorsese projects DiCaprio appeared in during the mid-2000s, “The Aviator” showcases Howard Hughes in all his complex glory as an aviation visionary with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Once again, we find a role where DiCaprio does justice to a real mental disorder while also perfectly capturing Hughes’ evolution as a billionaire. DiCaprio worked with a UCLA doctor to perfect his take on OCD and it shows with the actor capturing many of the quirks that come with the disorder. While we had seen DiCaprio mature into a more adult actor in years prior, this was the role that truly solidified him as a dedicated performer willing and able to go that extra mile to achieve authenticity in his work. The fact that he lost the Oscar still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. Thankfully he would go on to finally win that award with the best performance of his career over ten years later.
1. Hugh Glass, “The Revenant”
I absolutely love DiCaprio in this movie and I obviously wasn’t the only one as he finally earned the Oscar for Best Actor for this film in 2016 with a Golden Globe win to match. DiCaprio’s take on fur trader Hugh Glass in the fictionalized story of his legendary survival after a bear attack is possibly his most dedicated and layered role to date as the camera is squarely on him and he projects emotions ranging from fear and disgust to terror and aggression in nearly three-hour display of human survival at its most extreme. DiCaprio himself claimed the film included some of his most difficult work, but his commitment shows through every scene with very little dialogue and only his facial features and the action around him to help drive his story. “The Revenant” also helped further build DiCaprio’s drive for environmental awareness, an issue that he spoke about while accepting his Oscar, as the crew found it difficult to find properly snow-covered terrain to get the shots they needed. Anyhow, of all of DiCaprio’s roles, this is the one where he truly BECAME his character. Hugh Glass is his most sincere, gripping and believable performance to date and, even without the overwhelming fan demand for his recognition, it’s the performance that truly felt fitting to earn the actor his long-overdue Oscar gold.