Brow Beat

Was Leonardo DiCaprio Actually a Star Before Titanic?

An intra–Slate Gen X debate.

Leonardo DiCaprio at the 1997 premiere of Titanic.
Dec. 14, 1997. The Hollywood premiere of Titanic. Was Leonardo DiCaprio (left) a little-known actor? Or was he already a huge star, like Billy Zane (center)?
Tiziana Sorge/Getty Images

The biggest argument in recent Slate history started innocuously, with someone posting to Slack a fun Vox interview with Céline Sciamma, in which the Portrait of a Lady on Fire director/genius compares her own movie with Titanic. The greatest love stories, Sciamma asserts, aren’t about “eternal possession” but about “emancipation.” She also gloriously queers the archetypically hetero coupling at the center of Titanic, noting:

Leonardo DiCaprio was totally androgynous at the time. DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were both not known—not stars—so there was no power dynamic between them. Like, if you look at the sex scene in Titanic, she’s on top. He’s the one who’s being totally fragile and insecure.

But almost instantly, discussion broke out on one of Sciamma’s points: that DiCaprio was not yet a star in 1997, the year Titanic was released. Was he, in fact, an enormous star? Was he a teen star? What is a movie star, actually?! Does the Young Hollywood issue count!?!? Slate’s Gen Xers nearly came to blows. The debate brought work at the magazine to a halt with the terrible force of an iceberg to the starboard side. Tom Scocca and I will never speak again. But it was worth it. Read on and decide for yourself.

faith.smith: I’m sorry but Leo was famous well before Titanic

sam.adams: Gilbert Grape erasure

faith.smith: Growing Pains!

gabriel.roth: The Beach! (edit: turns out this was after Titanic) (edited)

willa.paskin: Oh that’s so funny because the scene where they are drawing each other in Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks exactly like the Titanic scene where Leo draws Kate. Heloise’s pose is the same. And in my mind I was bitchily like, “This is Titanic!” But it was on purpose!

willa.paskin: Leo wasn’t really famous before Titanic

willa.paskin: He was like a Teen Beat pinup

willa.paskin: After that he was famous famous

sam.adams: he was nominated for an Oscar

gabriel.roth: he starred in Romeo + Juliet

willa.paskin: Céline is correct that so much of Titanic’s appeal was that it was not two hugely known entities

gabriel.roth: but yeah i think it’s fair to say they didn’t go in with a huge difference in their Q rating

faith.smith: It says “not known” and that’s bull

dan.kois: the vast majority of adult moviegoers did not know Leonardo DiCaprio before Titanic came out

faith.smith: Y’all are crazy. He was on a popular prime-time TV show, in a huge movie, on tons of magazine covers.

dan.kois: (however, he was more famous than Kate Winslet)

tom.scocca: Yeah what no no no

sam.adams: The Pussy Posse stories lead me to question the “androgynous” part. But I support this attempt to queer the most normie of blockbusters, even if is not historically accurate

benjamin.frisch: Romeo + Juliet was huuuuuge with teenage girls

dan.kois: yes! but adults did not care about R+J and here is how many people saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Oscar nom or no:

Gilbert Grape's lifetime box office of $10 million.

tom.scocca: Romeo + Juliet was No. 1 at the box office

dan.kois: yes, it made a lot of money! but I believe it was resolutely a young-person phenomenon

tom.scocca: Leo was incredibly famous

tom.scocca: He was a movie star

faith.smith: Gah thank you, Tom. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills

tom.scocca: Titanic was a star vehicle for the famous Leonardo DiCaprio

dan.kois: what?! they made him audition!

dan.kois: an incredibly famous movie star does not audition against Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey!

dan.kois: I’m not saying he was an unknown. Winslet was an unknown. But he had NOTHING like the level of fame he had post-Titanic. He was very popular with teenage girls, he had some acting cred with cinephiles, but the vast majority of the movie-ticket-buying audience didn’t know or care who he was.

tom.scocca: He was super famous!!

tom.scocca: It’s like River Phoenix. River Phoenix’s filmography also doesn’t look like he was a top-tier star. But he was!

dan.kois: but then how do you define a top-tier star?

dan.kois: by hollywood standards River Phoenix certainly was not

dan.kois: he never once opened a movie big

tom.scocca: You know ‘em when you see ‘em

dan.kois: ldjhfkjdhfklajshdflksjadhf

gabriel.roth: feel like this could be one of those things where it looks different if you’re right in the middle of the demo

willa.paskin: this is really retconning leo’s fame

tom.scocca: It’s really not!

tom.scocca: I can’t believe I’m being gaslighted by a room full of children

tom.scocca: I was a fully grown-ass adult and movie reviewer before Titanic

dan.kois: Tom, we’re all basically the same age as you

sam.adams: He was obviously more famous after Titanic, the biggest movie in the history of movies. But he was famous before it

willa.paskin: he was not that famous before it

faith.smith: Willa!

willa.paskin: he had a supporting role on a dying sitcom

willa.paskin: and was famous with teens

tom.scocca: It’s not a retcon!

sam.adams: is “famous with teens” not famous?

sam.adams: I thought that basically was famous

dan.kois: it’s not the same as being a movie star

benjamin.frisch: He was on the cover of TIME in 1996!

forrest.wickman: Note: It was the international edition, in a story about the popularity of … William Shakespeare.

forrest.wickman: I think we’re just arguing about different wattages of stardom, teen star vs. megawatt four-quadrant star.

tom.scocca: Look as I have written, being a Movie Star is not actually traceable to being in big successful movies

faith.smith: How many lead roles in movies to be a freaking movie star?

willa.paskin: he opened a whole shitty mask movie right AFTER Titanic

willa.paskin: like, that made money because he had been in Titanic

willa.paskin: and couldn’t even get released before it

benjamin.frisch: Also on the cover of Vanity Fair in ’96

willa.paskin: if it’s the Young Hollywood issue it doesn’t count

dan.kois: Tim Roth was on the cover alongside Leonardo DiCaprio

dan.kois: famed movie star Tim Roth

tom.scocca: It’s important to look at the cover:

Vanity Fair's 1996 Young Hollywood issue.
Vanity Fair

tom.scocca: To say he was in a group shot with Tim Roth is not really an accurate reading of the visual presentation there

willa.paskin: he was obviously an up-and-comer

willa.paskin: not saying movie reviewers and editors didn’t know who he was

tom.scocca: Here is Vanity Fair’s blowout January 1998 cover story about the famous young movie star Leo DiCaprio coming into his own, published as a PREVIEW OF THE UPCOMING STAR VEHICLE TITANIC

dan.kois: Yes, when has Vanity Fair ever puffed up a subject’s level of fame

laura.bennett: Leo himself has said Titanic was his big break. Important data point!

tom.scocca: Fame has changed a lot in the past couple of decades but I feel like one point of reference might be Timothée Chalamet? Like if Timothée Chalamet landed a role in an all-devouring blockbuster movie right now, nobody would try to argue, as Céline Sciamma did, that he was an unknown figure to the audience

tom.scocca: But Leo was much, much bigger than Timothée Chalamet is now.

dan.kois: Roughly the same proportion of the moviegoing audience knows who Timothée Chalamet is now as knew who Leonardo DiCaprio was in 1997. And I maintain it’s not a very high proportion.

dan.kois: I wonder if the boring answer is that in France, where presumably a 19-year-old Céline Sciamma saw Titanic, no one knew who Leonardo DiCaprio was

lowen.liu: I think we should open this up to the readers to weigh in.

dan.kois: I am happy to compile this Slack debate and edit it in a way that makes it clear I’m right.

dan.kois: OK, done