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Woodrow Wilson biopic: Should Leonardo DiCaprio forsake period icons?

Sometimes it seems like Leonardo DiCaprio is just working his way backward through the 20th century.

After all, he played J. Edgar Hoover in 2011, starred as Jay Gatsby in May and now, per this Hollywood Reporter item, could tackle the role of Woodrow Wilson in a new film about the 28th president. (Throw in mid-century suburban ennui in “Revolutionary Road” and his modern-day real-life investor in the upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and the DiCaprio filmography looks a lot like a portrait of the last 100 years of American life.)

According to the story, the Wilson tale will be based on the new biography by A. Scott Berg, which hits particularly on several key moments, including Wilson's decision to enter World War I in 1917, his countrywide campaign for the U.S. to join the League of Nations in 1919 as well as his midterm marriage to Edith Galt.

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There’s something reassuring to studios about having DiCaprio in a movie like this--he’s still a youth-appealing A-lister capable of bringing in people who wouldn’t otherwise go to a fact-based period pic. And no doubt it’s meaty for any actor to take on real-life figures, with its many opportunities for historical research and nuanced mimicry. (Make that doubly true for Wilson, whose progressive politics laid the groundwork for what a modern-day Democrat like DiCaprio embraces.)

But let’s face it, Hoover and Gatsby were probably not DiCaprio's all-time finest performances, nor his most entertaining. DiCaprio seems at his best creating someone new that we didn’t already know from history or literature—the gleeful evil of Calvin Candie from “Django Unchained,” the confused investigator Teddy Daniels of “Shutter Island,” that signature steerage cat from that sinking boat movie, even--and, yes, I'll defend this one--desperate spy-hunter Roger Ferris in “Body of Lies.”

Would DiCaprio make a good Wilson?  The president was known for his soaring passion on pet subjects, and a certain intellectual fortitude. DiCaprio can certainly pull off both. 

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But this is as an actor who, in that sweet spot actorly age of 38 and with cachet to burn, could have his pick of roles. So maybe a different direction is called for. There’s something complicated, interesting, fun when DiCaprio is created a new indelible character, one not freighted by history. It would be nice for the next few DiCaprio roles to contain a little more pizzazz and a little less starch, a little more Jack Dawson and a little less Jay Gatsby.


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