'l‘his Romeo And Juliet has transformed the
American film industry‘s attitude to Shakespeare in a way that Kenneth Branagh could only dream of. Teenagers queued round the block three or four times to watch
DiCaprio woo Claire Danes amid the riot of
noise and colour that marked Luhrmann‘s deliciously stylish updating of the action to the street gang rivalries of ‘Verona Beach‘. At its heart is a passionate love story ignited by a pair of young. sexy stars.
Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio — named when his German mother first felt her unborn son‘s kicks while looking at a da Vinci painting in Italy — grew up at the sleazier end of l.os Angeles‘s Sunset Boulevard. His parents divorced before his first birthday. but he has always kept in close contact with his father. an underground comic book publisher who was friendly with the likes of Robert Crumb and (‘harles Bukowski. During his formative years. young Leonardo would watch LA's hustlers and dealers from his mother’s balcony. storing up information for the angst- ridden adolescents that would populate his acting career.
'l‘all. stringy. and too cute to be called handsome. DiCaprio has embraced his new- found celebrity status with a vengeance — ‘fame is like a VIP pass wherever you want to go‘ is his attitude. During film shoots. he‘ll bring a posse of friends to the set and hang out with them as often as possible in nightclubs. In between takes. he mimics his fellow actors and clowns around in a way that wins over
some colleagues. but gets on the nerves of
Away from the movies. he throws himself
into an adrenaliii-pumping party lifestyle — driving fast cars. sniffing around LA fashion shows. taking up skydiving. bungee jumping and white water rafting. Although not attached for any length of time to one girlfriend. he’s
been spotted with Gwyneth Paltrow — now Brad Pitt’s fiancee — Liv Tyler. Roseanne‘s
Sara Gilbert and Alicia Silverstone. lt's as if he's consciously notehing a place for himself
on a roll-call that includes Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.
‘Hollywood thinks he‘s the new Brando.’ reckons director Luhrmann. ‘not just a Brad Pitt. in that he’s a great young movie star. but an actor who can and should do great things. Before this film. he never really opened a movie. He‘s shot tip into a level that‘s beyond everyone‘s wildest expectations.‘
Luhrmann is convinced that. for any version of Romeo And Juliet to work. the characters have to be relevant to different generations and. with DiCaprio. he had found the one actor who best symbolised his generation. He brought Leonardo to Australia to try ottt a series of workshops. getting acquainted with the language and text. and used video footage of this to convince 20th Century Fox studios in Hollywood to give the project the go—ahead. The decision has obviously paid off — not only has the film become a huge commercial hit. it also won DiCaprio the Best Actor Award at last month‘s Berlin Film Festival. In fact. on the phone from a hotel in Rome. Luhrmann seems happier about the actor‘s win than his own Directing Award or the fact that the film ran off with the Audience Prize.
"l‘he thing I hate most of all — and in art I think it is almost satanic — is artistic oppression or the idea of using a confidence trick on people and saying only certain kinds of actors can do Shakespeare.’ Luhrmann says. ‘That there‘s this invisible rule book that we all must serve. you know‘.’ Smashing those kinds of myths is really what this is about.‘
His hyped-up vision of the Shakespeare play certainly blows the dust from crumpled school editions. ‘The British myth of preciousness about Shakespeare is exactly that — an absolute myth.‘ Luhrmann continues emphatically. ‘Preciousness. carefulness. exclusive art has nothing whatsoever to do
'Hollywood thinks Leonardo is the new Brando. Before this film, he never really opened a movie. He's shot up into a level that’s beyond everyone's wildest expectations.’ Baz Luhrmann
with the environment from whence this material came. ln this piece there are huge eclectic jumps and starts: one moment you‘ve got stand-up comedy. then Shakespeare puts in a pop song. then he‘s got incredible violence. then high tragedy.
‘We know that he had an audience of 3()()() drunken punters. and he was competing with bear-baiting and prostitution. So as a player on the stage. as a storyteller. he was absolutely focused on affecting the audience. and there was nothing he wouldn't do to tell his story and capture their attention. And also be able to affect people from very diverse backgrounds. from the street—sweepers to the Queen of lingland.‘
Like DiCaprio, Luhrmann has also reaped immediate
benefits from the film‘s success. While the actor has a stream of diverse roles in the offing — as a romantic lead in James Cameron’s period epic Titanic. as the gay poet Rimbaud opposite David Thewlis‘s Verlaine in Total Eclipse. as the dashing title character in a new version of the swash-buckler The Man In The Iron Mask. as Meryl Streep‘s troubled son in Marvin 's Room — Luhrmann is enjoying his spoils a step away from Hollywood. A deal with 20th Century liox gives him a custom- built film studio at home in Sydney. something that will also benefit the Australian film industry at large.
‘In Australia we tend to do very well. but then we all go and join someone clse‘s culture because you just can‘t work at a big scale and stay at home.‘ he says. 'l think we‘re probably the first Aussie team to bring our winnings home in a sense. I think that we‘ve won artistic freedom. bttt I don‘t want to lose what gives us our energy.’
In channelling that antipodean energy into Romeo And Juliet. Luhrmann hasn‘t only made Shakespeare hip for the MTV generation. he‘s turned Leonardo DiCaprio into the screen icon of his age.
Romeo And Juliet goes on general release on Fri 28 Mar. See page 22 for review.
Be my Romeo: Leonardo DiCaprio and director Baz Luhrmann
21 Mar - 3Apt 1997THEUST7