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Leonardo DiCaprio: Scorsese's Best?

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Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration sets the stage for the next and possibly deciding round of De Niro vs DiCaprio.

An integral part of the American New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, Martin Scorsese remains one of the most enduring and revered filmmakers of his generation. His early success was in part attributed to his fruitful collaboration with Robert De Niro, but the most recent decade of his illustrious career has been synonymous with another era-defining star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Having gone from King of the World to The Wolf of Wall Street, has DiCaprio finally pinched his predecessor's crown?

Wolf is the pair's fifth union, a milestone that Scorsese and De Niro reached with 1982's The King of Comedy. Scorsese and DiCaprio's first was Gangs of New York, a collaboration that was preordained by De Niro himself, who recommended the young actor to Scorsese after working with him on This Boy’s Life. The character De Niro would have played in place of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York was a father figure to DiCaprio’s character, and if the stars had aligned it would have been a case of life imitating art; De Niro playing mentor to his eventual successor.

Scorsese’s cinematic landscape is constructed from a diverse body of work that embraces a wide array of styles and genres. The two actors constitute two sides of the same coin, with clear-cut parallels that suggest similarities amongst what is at a glance a seemingly distinct set of characters.

Each man has done his tour of the mob mob world — for De Niro, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino; for DiCaprio, Gangs of New York and The Departed. Meanwhile Taxi Driver and Shutter Island saw both actor and director explore delusions of the heroic, while each has portrayed a real life figure twice under Scorsese — Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and Ace Rothstein in Casino for De Niro, and billionaire filmmaker Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street for DiCaprio. Shades of De Niro’s obsessive and vengeful Max Cady (Cape Fear), the obsessive and volatile Jimmy Doyle (New York, New York), and Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy) echo in DiCaprio’s incarnations of Amsterdam Vallon (Gangs of New York), Howard Hughes and Teddy Daniels (Shutter Island).

What is perhaps telling in their crime film roles is DiCaprio’s exclusive portrayal of the protagonist. While De Niro’s Ace Rothstein is best defined as a flawed protagonist, and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets has a brash, combative quality; Goodfellas' Jimmy Conway is one of the more shady members of Scorsese’s cinematic crime family. Through his direction of both actors, Scorsese has explored both the flawed protagonist and the amoral antagonist.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the apex of the DiCaprio/Scorsese spectrum. It is DiCaprio’s finest performance under Scorsese, the crowning jewel of their creative marriage. In the shadow of The Wolf of Wall Street their previous collaborations are cast as works in progress, albeit highly impressive ones.

1974 on the Mean Streets, and the first collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese was explosive — a volcanic fire hydrant floods the street as Johnny Boy stumbles around, his hand clamped to his neck to stymie the bleeding. It's an iconic moment succeeded by the equally iconic Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin. None of the first four of the five characters De Niro played under Scorsese’s stewardship were a work in progress. For each of these performances there is a singular moment that has seared itself into our collective memory, and which has evaded DiCaprio in the build-up to The Wolf of Wall Street.

There is, of course, a physicality to De Niro's performances, an ability to age and physically transform before our eyes that DiCaprio lacks. This is none more evident than in The Aviator, where DiCaprio displays a restraint that opposes the simmering tension that gave De Niro a transformative edge.

The Wolf of Wall Street has drawn extensive comparison to The King of Comedy, thus appearing to signal DiCaprio’s true arrival in this triangular relationship. It's a film that captures the raw energy and comedic kineticism of Scorsese’s underloved comedies, After Hours and The King of Comedy. One can see shades of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, while De Niro's smug and self-congratulatory pose on the DVD artwork for The King of Comedy is aped by DiCaprio’s equally self-satisfied pose on The Wolf of Wall Street artwork.

Wolf is DiCaprio’s Mean Streets, his Jordan Belfort is Johnny Boy. And yet, parallels and reference points aside, there's an overriding sense of more to come from DiCaprio and Scorsese. They still have three films to go before matching De Niro and Scorsese's eight film oeuvre, but the signs are already there that DiCaprio could be Scorsese's finest actor.

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