Nobody expected Titanic to work. In the months leading up to its release, the James Cameron epic was written off as a flop in waiting. Behind-the-scenes drama was densely reported, backlash against Cameron’s vanity project seemed more fervent than ever, and the notion of the guy who made Terminator movies trying his hand at a historical romance seemed like a joke from The Critic more than a sound investment. Of course, we know what actually happened.
$2.2 billion dollars at the box office. 14 Oscar nominations. 11 wins, including Best Picture. The Celine Dion earworm to end all earworms. Titanic has never truly commanded the respect it has easily earned since its gargantuan premiere. It’s a truly excellent film, maybe the most cohesive and emotionally dense thing that Cameron has ever made. It’s both technically staggering and truly heartfelt, a proud melodrama with true stakes that was endlessly copied but never truly replicated. One of the major reasons for that is the startling chemistry between its two young leads: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. While Titanic catapulted both of them into the upper echelons of fame, what DiCaprio experienced went well beyond mere celebrity. He was the idol of Leomania.
DiCaprio was hardly an unknown entity when he played the role of the roguish artist Jack Dawson. He was already an Oscar-nominated former child actor who had worked with the likes of Robert De Niro, a prodigy who seemed primed for the big time from an early age. The year before Titanic premiered, DiCaprio’s heartthrob status was secured by his dreamy turn in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Like Jack Dawson, his Romeo is an achingly appealing hero, ever-so wide-eyed and floppy-haired, defined by a hunger for love and sensitivity above all else. Audiences were primed for Titanic by this Shakespeare reimagining, and Leomania became inevitable.
It’s hard to talk about DiCaprio’s rise without discussing the indelible yet oft-dismissed power of the teenage girl. Adolescent women have immense clout when it comes to star-making, both culturally and financially. It’s not always a demographic the entertainment world eagerly panders to, even though the results are often spectacular. Titanic is frequently dinged for its melodrama, its cheesy lines, that sex scene, and its tear-jerking intent. Yet it’s that earnestness that makes it work. Cameron 100% believes in this story of young, fiery love in the face of social and natural disaster. While these characters may be archetypes (the bored rich girl, the charming working class boy, the snotty bully, etc.), they feel thoroughly lived-in thanks to their actors. DiCaprio is no exception, his Jack the sort of hero who would have been played by John Garfield 50 years prior.
His Jack is sincere but not humorless. He knows how to get out of a scrap and fake his way to the top, although his heart lies with that which he should not covet. He wants love above all else and he’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean rather than lose it. All that and he could dance. Essentially, he was Romeo with some initiative. DiCaprio would go onto bigger and flashier roles but the honesty of Jack Dawson has never been diluted. It’s no wonder he became a heartthrob, even without that fringe. It was catnip for girls and young women, the sort of non-threatening idol Lisa Simpson would love—and one you could take home to your mother.
In a pre-social media, pre-TMZ and Perez Hilton era, tabloids still dominated the gossip discourse. Narratives were carved out by the press and publicists, an ever-present and mutually beneficial relationship. While the days of the studio system were long gone, actors were still somewhat beholden to the whims of their makers. Many a rising star was molded by magazines, publicists and fan fury, whether they liked it or not. DiCaprio’s post-Titanic popularity was an explosion of this particular combination, and it wasn’t hard to make it happen. It’s not tough to push the star of the biggest film of all time as a Big Fucking Deal.
But unlike the boyband hotties or Jonathan Taylor Thomases of the ‘90s, DiCaprio had prestige. It’s not unheard of for the teen sex symbol of the time to also be a figure of acclaim (hello, DiCaprio’s immediate predecessor, River Phoenix.) Yet Leo still stood out amid his contemporaries, who were better known in more frivolous terms than an Oscar nominee. He pleased critics as much as the fangirls.
DiCaprio also had mystique. He didn’t do tons of tell-all interviews or talk about his personal life in the press. Even though his every move (including his slew of supermodel girlfriends) was documented by ravenous paparazzi, he remained remarkably unknown to the world. Journalists like Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote an infamous piece on DiCaprio’s friend circle for New York Magazine, tailed the actor and tried to figure him out. They were met with total stonewalling, typically from his loyal wolf pack (or pussy posse), that included Lukas Haas and Tobey Maguire. To this day, DiCaprio is a closed book, and there’s nothing that fuels a fan mania more than that limitless potential. You can project anything and everything onto a gorgeous blank slate, and Leomania milked that for all its worth.
In 2007, DiCaprio admitted that he had “no connection” with himself during the peaks of Leomania, and that he never again wanted to achieve that level of fame. Yet he’s never fallen from the peak of the A-List perch. Nowadays, DiCaprio remains that most enshrined of creatures, that increasingly rare phenomenon known as the movie star. He’s one of a tiny handful of actors who can headline a major non-franchise film, collect $20 million for the privilege, and catapult it to commercial success almost entirely by his name alone. He’s perhaps the last person in Hollywood who will ever sign up for a Marvel movie. He gets to work with only the biggest of directors, like Scorsese and Tarantino, and every project he does guarantees at least some sort of substantial awards buzz. In many ways, he is a star from another age, one out of time with today’s Hollywood restrictions, surpassed by nobody with the possible exception of Tom Cruise (and even he has his own action franchise.) Even as his love life has become a public joke thanks to his inability to date a woman older than 25, there’s still a massive amount of fan love and affection for DiCaprio. The mega-force of Leomania continues to cast a mighty shadow over the industry and his star appeal.
Nowadays, we’re besieged with Leo-esque celebrity idols who walk that fine line between mainstream sex appeal and artistic allure: From Timothee Chalamet to Harry Styles; Adam Driver to Oscar Isaac. Yet their level of obsession can never live up to what Leomania encapsulated. Billion-dollar blockbusters are ten a penny now, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever see a film be as truly huge as Titanic or a star as universally famous as young Leonardo DiCaprio in 1997. No Chris could ever rise to that stratosphere. It’s remarkable that DiCaprio has outlived Leomania, rather than being swapped out for next year’s model. He once was the face of all-consuming love, but now he’s The Last Movie Star, an actor better known for playing weirdos and jerks than lovers. Of course, audiences’ love for him never sank into the ocean. The longevity of Leomania might be the most enduring legacy of Titanic, a testament to the alchemy of talent, attractiveness, romance and high-stakes epic. Talk about a classic Hollywood happy-ever-after.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.