I remember the first time I saw him. He was wearing a billowy silk shirt and a sly smile. His slick blond hair was pushed back to reveal his striking blue eyes. He was beautiful, a tousled-hair dream boy. He waxed poetic like he hadn't a care in the world, or maybe he had too many cares, and that’s why he couldn’t stop talking. I remember it so clearly -- his laugh, his smile, the way he walked into a room like he only had eyes for you. It’s a distinct memory burned into my brain.
Then again, everyone remembers the first time they met Leo.
Leonardo DiCaprio has been the object of our collective affections since the '90s after his breakout role in Baz Luhrmann's glitzy, modern Romeo + Juliet. Just like that, Leo went from that talented kid in What's Eating Gilbert Grape to the ultimate heartthrob with slick industry cred. His next role as Jack Dawson in James Cameron's seminal film Titanic catapulted him into superstardom -- and onto the walls of thousands of teen girls' bedrooms.
We all carried a torch for Jack Dawson, the self-proclaimed King of the World and duly knighted King of Our Hearts. Even now, when I watch Titanic on a random Sunday afternoon it's hard not to come down with a dizzying bout of Leomania.
In many ways, that Leo -- '90s Leo -- still exists. Teenage girls still find themselves swooning over Romeo Montague and Jack Dawson nearly two decades later. This heartthrob persona of Leo has managed to exist parallel to his meteoric Hollywood career. With every new Martin Scorsese project under his belt and every hopeful bid for the Oscar, '90s Leo has existed unto himself, online and in our hearts, like a beautiful, blue-eyed artifice.
Leo's duality never truly hit me until I saw The Revenant, a film that, in all likelihood, will finally score DiCaprio his first Oscar. Chances are, you've probably heard of it, or at least you've heard Leo talk about the grueling experience of making it. In the last few months, Leo has spoken about these conditions at an exhaustive length. He fought off hypothermia, crawled into a real animal carcass, and ate raw bison liver for the sake of his art.
Admittedly, this didn't sound like a movie for me. It wasn't the bison liver and frozen tundra that initially turned me off; it was the entire premise, in which Leo plays a grizzled, half-starved, near-dead fur trapper who will do anything, cross land and sea, to get his revenge on Tom Hardy. It's a gritty, graphic tale of survival, they said. (Yeah, OK.)
Despite myself, and Leo's braggadocious press tour, I still saw The Revenant, and Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic tale of survival lived up to its reviews: It was an an arduous journey for everyone involved, including myself. It was a beautiful film that, in all honesty, was not for me. So, why did I see it? Sure, there's a part of me, like anyone who enjoys film, that ravenously consumes cinema -- but there's an even bigger part of my subconscious that will follow Leo wherever he goes, deep into the depths of the the Atlantic or even down a dark, desolate chasm of misery.
Of course, I'm not alone; reportedly, 31 percent of moviegoers who saw the The Revenant cited Leo as the main draw. His star power is indomitable.
However, sitting there, watching Leo take shelter in a bloodied, rotted horse carcass in the middle of nowhere, that's when I realized it might be time to let Leo go. He wasn't our Leo anymore, the fresh-faced young man with a boyish grin from Chippewa Falls. He hasn't been that Leo in a very long time. And the truth is, he doesn't want to be that Leo anymore.
"My post-Titanic experience was a very empty existence," Leo told The New York Times in 2002. "You’re suddenly defined in the media as a cutie-pie."
These days, Leo doesn't need to be the heartthrob. He's arguably one of the finest actors of our generation, constantly taking on roles that challenge him and his audience. He's tried everything he can to shake his pretty-boy image with grittier roles in Gangs of New York, The Departed, Django Unchained, and The Wolf of Wall Street. I can only imagine Leo taking on The Revenant with the intention of hammering that final nail in '90s Leo's coffin. "He was a beautiful man with an empty existence," the epitaph reads.
Does loving '90s Leo, or this idea of who Leo was during his freewheeling Pussy Posse days, somehow negate all of the work Leo's done in the two decades since he took his fateful plunge? I've been wrestling with this idea that I have somehow turned my back on Leo by harboring this schoolgirl crush on who he was, this charming boyish artifice. After all, I have no interest in his off-screen exploits -- his serial modelizer ways or save-the-planet bravado. To each his own, you know?
Yet, in an era where most Internet boyfriends have a short shelf life before they're replaced by someone even more swoon-worthy, Leo has outlasted them all, a testament to his longevity. "You jump, I jump, remember?" still sends a tingle down my spine. It's this version of Leo that I can't seem to let go of, and maybe that's OK.
At this point, '90s Leo and Today's Leo are two distinct beings, each existing in a separate universe. That tousled-hair dream boy I remember so fondly is still there. He lives on the Tumblr pages of teens who, like me, fell in love with a boy in a floral silk shirt, and in the hearts of twentysomethings who cling to the idea that every woman deserves her own Jack Dawson, a man who will embolden her to make her own choices -- regardless of how selfish and damning those choices are.
We'll never let that Leo go, no matter how hard that other Leo tries to shake us.