Ty Burr speculates on the It Boy's acting future with Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas

By Ty Burr
Updated June 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What makes Leo DiCaprio tick?

“I’m the king of the Mob!”

Judging by the item that ran in the Hollywood Reporter this week, we might just hear Leonardo DiCaprio utter those words someday. Then again, probably not. Still, it’s intriguing at best and baffling at worst to hear that ”Titanic”’s overexposed It Boy has reportedly been talking to director Francis Ford Coppola and writer Mario Puzo about the possibility of playing the young Sonny Corleone in the as-yet-unscripted ”Godfather IV.” Coppola’s camp denies the report entirely, while DiCaprio’s folks are only slightly more coy, insisting that ”it’s all very premature.”

Now, why Coppola would want to return to the franchise that made his name is actually understandable, even given the qualified artistic fiasco of 1990’s ”Godfather III.” Since that film, the hubristic, mega-talented director (he makes good wine too) has been tailing off into creative senescence. The overwrought but entertaining ”Dracula” (1992) was followed by the embarrassingly squishy ”Jack” (1996), which was followed by 1997’s ”The Rainmaker” — a piece of proficient hackwork that gives no clue that its maker was once responsible for the greatest movie ever made (you heard me, and no arguments). Coppola’s still busy as a bee when it comes to producing films, but surely the chance to return to his signature property — if only to make amends for the flawed ”Part III” — must be tempting?

What’s in it for DiCaprio? The chance to prove his artistic chops once and for all, probably. Given his taste for appearing in difficult movies (”The Basketball Diaries,” ”Total Eclipse”) and challenging roles (”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” ”Marvin’s Room”), surely being both adored and loathed as the teenybopper idol of his generation must rankle the guy. Put it this way: I doubt he’d agree to star in ”The Man in the Iron Mask” if it came his way right now.

Instead, DiCaprio is going for more actorly stuff: His next movie, ”The Beach,” is adapted from Alex Garland’s highly regarded novel, and he’s been in serious talks with Martin Scorsese about starring in a film version of Herbert Asbury’s amazing nonfiction account of 18th-century thugs, ”The Gangs of New York” (the book’s out of print, but, trust me, it’s well worth scaring up a copy). Then there are all those web rumors about our Leo playing Anakin Skywalker in the next installment of ”Star Wars.”

Hmmmm. Scorsese. Lucas. Coppola. Sense a pattern here? Either DiCaprio is allying himself with three of the prime auteurs of modern Hollywood — about the only director missing here is St. Steven himself (the actor’s already done his de rigeur Woody Allen cameo) — or it’s the wishful thinking of the media, the fans, and the whole gossip gestalt that he do so. If the latter, the ”Godfather IV” rumors represent a fascinating example of the way super-celebrities quickly become cultural common currency, images to be projected where and how we desire. If the former — well, DiCaprio’s no different from any in-demand actor, checking out all the possible projects with the understanding that only a few of them will eventually hit the screen. But since he’s the most in-demand of all, he gets slotted, however tentatively, into any Major Role hanging out there in the breeze. And young Sonny Corleone certainly counts.

So consider this ”casting” as just a place-holder. And pray that Sofia Coppola’s got other plans when shooting starts.