September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The best of Leonardo DiCaprio on video

The taste of teenage girls can be baffling. White toenail polish? Hanson? But every decade or so the girls get it right. They saw the virtues of blue jeans when everyone else was writing them off as work clothes. They saw the brilliance of the Beatles when even the cocky John Lennon had doubts. Recently, they’ve proclaimed 23-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio the greatest actor of their generation. And, astonishingly, they’re correct.

It has been a long, rocky road to Titanic, spotted with self-made disasters. (Was DiCaprio clapped into manacles and forced to make The Man in the Iron Mask?) Still, looking at the best of his earlier performances on video, no one could now deny this kid can act.

Audiences saw it first in This Boy’s Life, Michael Caton-Jones’ 1993 adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s memoir. Watch how in his scenes with Robert De Niro — the vicious stepfather who knows ”a thing or two about a thing or two” — he drops all subtlety. DiCaprio doesn’t wipe De Niro off the screen. But he fights this war of actors to an honorable draw, something few performers, and no other teenager, could do.

After This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio moved unpredictably on, playing Johnny Depp’s retarded kid brother in Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), a teenage junkie in Scott Kalvert’s The Basketball Diaries (1995), a tragic hero in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996), and a raging delinquent in Marvin’s Room (1996), before getting on board Titanic. Every role seemed like a fresh and risky choice, yet most follow a classic formula, a kind of Lord Byron Goes to the Mall. DiCaprio’s hero is often a tormented artist (the poet in Basketball Diaries; another poet, Arthur Rimbaud, in Agnieszka Holland’s 1995 film Total Eclipse; the portraitist in Titanic). He likes girls, but since there are rarely any around, he’ll huddle with boys too (This Boy’s Life, Total Eclipse, Basketball Diaries). On the rare occasions he has a girlfriend, she tends to be smart and very sincere, and just the imperfect type (the plain Claire Danes of Romeo & Juliet, the nicely upholstered Kate Winslet of Titanic) that middle-school fans can identify with. And when the invariably bittersweet ending comes, there isn’t a face in the theater unstreaked by Maybelline.

Titanic fulfills all these criteria, which is why armies of young girls went to see it repeatedly. Although in some way Titanic was the ultimate teen-Leo movie, in one way it was an important departure: This film made money. Few of DiCaprio’s other pictures have, with some of them sinking faster than that blue diamond pendant. The actor, in fact, had such a knack for signing on to flops, you almost had to wonder whether, for all his cleverness, some petulant teen part of him wanted to fail. No other budding sex symbol would have jumped to play the bisexual, absinthe-swilling Rimbaud in Total Eclipse.

Of course, for the longest time, signing on for James Cameron’s Titanic seemed like the worst sort of bet, too. That it succeeded, and established DiCaprio as a genuine movie star, is a good thing for everybody — because although teenage girls might like DiCaprio for skin-deep reasons, they’re right about his talent, which seems likely to linger long after his downy-cheeked pinup years are over. This Boy’s Life: A Gilbert Grape: B+ Basketball Diaries: C Romeo & Juliet: B+ Marvin’s Room: B

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