Bright Wall/Dark Room.
3 years ago


by Andrew Root

The title of this post comes from the play Closer, written by Patrick Marber. You may be more familiar with the film version, in which the line is said by Julia Roberts to Jude Law during a photography session. She’s right, you know. Amateur behavioural psychologists (aka a few websites I went to) state that raised eyebrows generally convey a state of surprise or receptiveness to new information (this is generally spoken of in terms of survival instinct). Couple that openness with some challenging or aggressive dialogue, and you get the beautiful conflict of smugness.

Smugness is an inherently ironic state of being. Your body language is displaying surprise and weakness, but vocally you are projecting confidence. You are simultaneously in a state of fight and flight, and you are daring your opponent to make a swipe at you, so sanguine are you in your own rhetorical position. Being smug is an assumption that your own logic or position of power is entirely unassailable, and so you welcome all challengers. But we all know what happens when you assume; People think you’re a jackass.

I knew a guy when I was in university named RJ. We took a bunch of acting classes together and played opposite each other in a few plays (he was Edgar and I was Edmund in King Lear). Over the years of watching him work, I noticed that he had a few gimmicks that he used over and over again. The one that stands out the most to me is whenever his character made a joke, he would give a little two-beat chuckle directly afterwards. I think it was meant to indicate to the audience that there was in fact a joke present, but what it did was not only completely deflate the comedy of the situation, but pull back the veil that we were watching not RJ, but a completely different person on stage. In short, it ruined it. These little habits (dubbed “RJ-isms”) began to weigh on everyone that watched him, and we constantly implored him to take stock of what he was doing. I’m not claiming that I was not prone to the same syndrome; my performances were littered with Andrew-isms, but I tried my best to keep them under wraps. After all, what was the point of acting if all you were doing was constantly reminding the audience who you were in real life?

I first noticed Leonardo DiCaprio’s “look” in the trailer for Blood Diamond. It was on the line “You know in America it’s bling-bling. Out here it’s bling-bang,” a joke so corny that it never should have made it past the first draft, let alone into the trailer. But what made the line into such a monumentally bad moment was DiCaprio’s delivery. He knew it was a punch-line moment, something that could be used to sell the movie, and damned if he was going to lose that moment with even an ounce of subtlety. He was like a Muppet. It was blatant in every sense of the word. He was simply announcing to the world that he was Leonardo DiCaprio, and he was acting, and you should come and see him act in this new movie. Highlighting this lurid moment was incredible smugness of DiCaprio’s expression; his brow wrinkled, his eyes wide open, a tight-lipped smile glibly claiming the high ground. It was so irritating. 

Since that moment, I began to notice that same expression in other DiCaprio movies. Then I started to notice it in every single DiCaprio movie. In moments of smugness (moments which feature quite strongly in this actor’s filmography), DiCaprio has one expression and one expression only. It is his acting face, and boy does he work it. You can hear it in his voice when he’s about to bust it out, and inevitably it appears, the brow creasing as the eyebrows raise; the false tone of his voice becoming more detectable as you realize that he is not lost in the moment, but is instead reading unnatural words from a script. That’s when it comes out. It’s a tough look to give. I just tried it and my forehead feels all weird. I definitely can’t pull it off, so more power to him. Here, see for yourself:

Look how crazy I look! That does not get across the emotion that I was going for, but instead makes me look all kinds of manic. Slap some clown makeup on me and you get a Lovecraftian nightmare vision. But just because you can do something, does that mean that you should do it all the time?

Recently, I made the unfounded claim that DiCaprio makes this face in every single film that he is in. That was unfair of me, because I was making a broad generalization. So I figured, why not set out to prove it? I got my hands on a copy of every film that DiCaprio has done in the last ten years, from The Beach up to Inception, and lo and behold, the look was in every single film. I will admit that in the earlier films, he breaks it out a lot less often and it is used as part of a much broader palette, but as time marches steadily onward, he seems to rely on the look much more often. As you’ll see, it becomes cartoonish pretty quickly. Let’s reflect, shall we?

In this scene, DiCaprio’s young and adventurous traveller, Richard is listening to the unstable rantings of Robert Carlyle’s Daffy. At a pause in the raving, Richard looks this madman in the eye and says “No offence, but you’re fucked in the head, right?” Smug little bastard…

Don’s Plum was actually filmed in 1995-96, pre-Titanic, but wasn’t released until 2001. It’s a cinema verite kind of film, focussing on the nitty-gritty of so-called “real teenage life,” kind of like Kids, and DiCaprio plays a little shit punk asshole provocateur. As you can imagine, this give him all kinds of opportunities to bust out the look, but he only does it this once when he is confronted about his treatment of another member of the group. Oh, and that’s Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley sitting next to him.

This is a slightly different twist on the look. In Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, he is taking pity on an upset young nurse (played by Amy Adams). This isn’t smugness, so much as condescension. She is crying because she feels like she can’t do anything right at her job, and he gives her an impossibly easy task to complete. When she successfully manages to check a patient’s file, he congratulates her with the look. What a good little girl! Way to be marginally competent!

Here we get into some outright passive-aggression. DiCaprio has a few films in which he feigns bemusement before going in for the kill, but none so prominently as Gangs of New York. DiCaprio’s Amsterdam has just been insulted by the bald-pated fellow you see above, and before he enters into fisticuffs (the most hilarious of all fighting styles), he questions the merit of the insult he has been dealt. What a smug thing to do…

DiCaprio really spreads his wings in The Aviator (holy shit, I didn’t even mean for that to be a pun). After watching ten years worth of his film performances, I can definitively say that his portrayal of Howard Hughes is at - if not near - the top of the heap when it comes to pure acting chops. He only uses the look once or twice, but each time is when he is putting forth some radical new idea to a confused, oppositional subordinate. He is daring them to challenge his track record and his influence. Really if anyone deserved to be smug it was Howard Hughes, so more power to him.

Ok, now we’re starting to get goofy. 2006 was host to two of the most blatant uses of the look in DiCaprio’s entire filmography. This scene from the Academy Award-winning The Departed, in which DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan confronts his absentee uncle’s false sympathy for his dying sister rang so false in delivery that the end result is as cartoonish as the picture above suggests. Just look at his smug, googily eyes.

This is the one that started it all off. God, just look at that face. So much smugness; so much condescension. You just want to punch him right in his stupid accent, huh?

DiCaprio looks weird with brown eyes. They make his expression all the beadier, which again heightens the smug-factor. In this scene he is tied to a table, awaiting televised torture at the hands of extreme Islamists. What better time to cop a shit attitude, right? God! SO SMUG!

In a film which centres around a passive-agressive, dispassionate marriage you need all the smugness you can get. The look only makes its appearance once in this film, but it’s a biggie. To his credit, DiCaprio pushes himself past the boundaries of simple moral superiority later in the film, but when the look makes its presence known within the first five minutes, it’s hard to get on board with him as a character, and not as an actor playing with the same tricks over and over.

God, he’s just straight up being a dick here. This photo would do well in a caption contest. Look at him lean the look into the camera. It’s completely inescapable. There is no subtlety here, but then the rest of the film isn’t very subtle either.

The look makes a few appearances in Inception, mainly because DiCaprio’s character is nearly always in the position of having to explain something SUPER IMPORTANT to someone else. This is the first time it appears, when he is talking to his father. The irritating thing is that he has no reason to be smug in this scene, yet there is the tone. There is the look.

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of our generations most successful actors; it simply can’t be argued. His films have earned billions of dollars and countless awards and acclaim; acclaim that he has used to fund philanthropic enterprises and raise funds and awareness for downtrodden people all over the world. So who the hell am I to call into question the tools of his trade? I’ve been paid to act once in a community theatre production. I have a minor in theatre arts from a tiny engineering university in Northern Ontario. I will probably never work with Christopher Nolan (much to my chagrin). I sincerely hope that this essay doesn’t come across as though I’m trying to build myself up morally by tearing someone else’s career down, but I do admit to being a bit of an idealist. I would like to think of someone of Leonardo DiCaprio’s status as being motivated by artistic ambition, and I don’t think an artist should ever rest on their laurels. Simple as that. If that makes me smug, then so be it.

Andrew Root is a writer and teacher currently living in England.  He tumbls here

  1. missedthekickoff reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
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  3. auliahaznan reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
  4. kimscape reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom and added:
    this is funny. It might shed more light into why you don’t think he’s very good.
  5. zerlocked reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
  6. caliconotes reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
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  8. laureneli reblogged this from sometimesagreatnotion and added:
    Even a Leo fan has to say….oh yeah, wow, I guess that’s true
  9. sometimesagreatnotion reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom and added:
    Is it possible to read Andrew’s brilliant essay on DiCaprio’s go-to facial expressions without laughing profusely? No,...
  10. sunlitreflection reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
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  14. kawaiimon reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom and added:
    omg lol, I’m not going to be able to watch a Leo film again without giggling when I see him make this face. XD
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