Nowadays he's known as a serious Oscar-nominated thespian who runs with folks like Marty Scorsese and invades people's brains (including yours and mine) in this week's Inception. But back in the day (i.e. the mid-'90s) Leonardo DiCaprio was a bona fide teen idol, the star of not one, but two love stories for the ages: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) and James Cameron's Titanic (1997).

Thanks to that swoon-inducing two-fer, DiCaprio (more specifically, the version of him that Peter Martin terms "Young Romantic Lead" DiCaprio) snuck his way into our collective subconscious a long time ago and has stayed there, buried beneath those subsequent years of critical acclaim and grown-up roles (Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, etc.) that pulled DiCaprio out of that Tiger Beat niche he apparently loathed.

But try as he might to bury the memory of his early 20s away in the ether of movie memories past, DiCaprio could never shake the specter, in my mind, of those early, dreamy, tragic-romantic heroes. The first time he truly dug his way into my young and impressionable consciousness was when he played Romeo, the ill-fated beach brawler with the face of an angel and a thing for the wrong girl in Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.



Romeo + Juliet was, to say the least, not your grandparents' brand of Shakespeare. DiCaprio's Romeo Montague was a favored son of Verona -- Verona Beach, that is, a sort of alternate-present cross between Venice Beach and East Los Angeles where the Montague boys rolled deep in beach cruisers and packed handguns instead of swords, where Romeo spent his days lit in perennially hazy sunsets, smoking cigarettes whilst mooning in iambic pentameter. Swoon!

And if the sight of DiCaprio pouting by himself on the beach writing poetry into his journal didn't do it for you right off the bat, you MUST have been converted by the time he spied Juliet (Claire Danes) through a fish tank at the Capulet mansion costume party. That meet cute, set to the sound of Des'ree's "Kissing You" (an excellent song in an all around solid soundtrack that was in heavy rotation in my mid- to late-'90s existence), remains the most romantic scene in movie history that takes place in a bathroom with a guy in the background at a urinal. It's also just a beautiful portrayal of love at first sight -- curiosity, surprise, sweetness, and attraction conveyed without a single line of dialogue, she in angel wings and he a knight in shining armor. (Aquarium scene at 5:30; see how Luhrmann did it here.)



The romance takes off from there, mostly in the way you might remember from high school English class -- the balcony scene, the "wherefore art thou Romeo" speech, the moonlit swimming pool kiss, the teen sex, the gospel choir covering Prince -- and DiCaprio brings Shakespeare's tragic teen paramour to pretty, emotional life (followed by sad, tragic, death). His Romeo is so distraught over the sight of his beloved in her tomb that he can't see her stirring back to life. IT'S SO TRAGIC! And the teary last gasps he takes before turning his face to die after one last kiss? Double swoon!

DiCaprio repeated that sort of sexy-tragic end the following year in a little period pic about two young lovers, almost as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, who meet on a ship in 1912. Titanic, of course, went on to become literally the biggest movie of all time, propelling DiCaprio further along into the celebrity stratosphere. Thirteen years later, I've found that Titanic doesn't quite hold up; ask anyone who saw it multiple times in the theater in 1997 (and there were a lot of us, don't lie) and today only the most fanatical of Titanic die-hards might take a bullet for the flick. Still, hearken back to wherever you were in December of 1997 and more than likely, your younger self thrilled at the sight of DiCaprio's impish Jack Dawson racing to the bow of the ship to scream "I'm the king of the world!"

For me, it was his class-defying love affair with Kate Winslet's Rose that made multiple viewings truly necessary. That first kiss ("I'm flying!")! The nude sketch scene! The sweaty handprint sliding down the window of their illicit automotive sex den! (See below.) Winslet's Rose may have been the one freezing in the water promising to never let go, but at the end of Titanic, we ALL lost Jack. (And in 2012, we can relive the waterlogged, blue-lipped tragedy in three dimensions!)

So go ahead, Leo. Keep avoiding the past. Steal people's subconscious secrets and play J. Edgar Hoover. We'll always have your dreamy bygone days in our hearts, and you can be sure that our hearts will go on.

(For your viewing pleasure, I present the infamous car scene from Titanic. Who else can't wait for that sex hand to thump the window in 3D??)