Ty Burr studies the films of Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, and... Patrick Swayze? ... for clues to Leo's future

By Ty Burr
Updated February 09, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

What will ”The Beach” do for Leonardo DiCaprio’s career?

When ”The Beach” opens on Friday, it will represent more than just a new movie, or even a new Leo movie. Good, bad, or unwatchable, it will announce to the world Leonardo DiCaprio’s first major post-”Titanic” career statement. Does he want to maintain his status as the primo teen dream of adolescent girls and Hollywood studio execs? Does he need the world to know he’s a serious thespian? Will he try to straddle both camps?

Does he even care? Well, sure he does. He’s a working actor and a major star, and if he’s committed to either of those prospects, the choice of films he makes is a signal to his fans, the critics, and, above all, to posterity. And if DiCaprio’s not serious, it means he got a nice two-month vacation on the Pacific Rim and you didn’t.

Plenty of other young actors have been in the same boat. The way it works, usually, is this: struggling hunk hits it huge in a crowd-pleasing, critically approved hit. His next film tends to be one that was in the pipeline before the hit came along — i.e., ”The Man in the Iron Mask” — so certain allowances are made. The one after that, however, is the Career Statement, the movie that says ”THIS is the kind of actor I am, folks. Take it or leave it”.

In many cases, we leave it. At which point the actor fumbles along until his career jells again with another hit. Or until he tapers off into direct-to-video. It’s a crapshoot that has surprisingly little to do with acting skill. Consider these varied career paths as both illustration and (are you reading, Leo?) warning.

Marlon Brando
The Hit ”A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
The Follow-Up ”Viva Zapata!” (1952)
The Quickie Verdict Proof to the doubters that he’s an actor, not a mumbling thug
The Long-Term Verdict Brilliance and waste

Dustin Hoffman
The Hit ”The Graduate” (1967)
In the Pipeline ”Madigan’s Millions,” a crummy heist comedy
The Follow-Up ”Midnight Cowboy” (1969)
The Quickie Verdict He’s not a star, he’s a character actor!
The Long-Term Verdict Hold it, folks — he’s a character actor AND a star!

Sylvester Stallone
The Hit ”Rocky” (1976)
The Follow-Ups Depression-era drama ”Paradise Alley” (1977) and organized-labor saga ”F.I.S.T.” (1977)
The Quickie Verdict He’ll last, in his narrow but colorful niche.
The Long-Term Verdict A box office monster, then an action dinosaur

Harrison Ford
The Hit ”Star Wars” (1977)
In the Pipeline ”Heroes,” in which Ford backs up Henry Winkler as a Vietnam vet turned worm farmer
The Follow-Up WWII action flick ”Force 10 From Navarone” (1978)
The Quickie Verdict He’ll be a likable B-movie presence.
The Long-Term Verdict He’s a national treasure — but how about cracking a smile?

Mark Hamill
The Hit ”Star Wars” (1977)
The Follow-Up Hot-rod romance ”Corvette Summer” (1978)
The Quickie Verdict Just a temporary stumble.
The Long-Term Verdict Now appearing in a videogame near you.

John Travolta
The Hits ”Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and ”Grease” (1978)
The Follow-Up Woebegone romance ”Moment by Moment” (1978)
The Quickie Verdict A temporary stumble. The kid’s a star.
The Long-Term Verdict The guy’s a star, all right — but it took enough comebacks to prove it.

Tom Cruise
The Hit ”Risky Business” (1983)
In the Pipeline ”Losin’ It,” a smutty teen sex comedy
The Follow-Up Surreal faerie-fantasy bomb ”Legend” (1985)
The Quickie Verdict A lightweight. Write him off.
The Long-Term Verdict Oops, not so fast. 1986 brings the one-two critical/audience punch of ”The Color of Money” and ”Top Gun.”

Tom Hanks
The Hit ”Splash” (1984)
In the Pipeline Messy, raucous hit comedy ”Bachelor Party” (1984)
The Follow-Ups ”Volunteers” (1985), ”The Man With One Red Shoe” (1985)
The Quickie Verdict Paging ”Hollywood Squares”
The Long-Term Verdict Paging the Hollywood Hall of Fame

Kevin Costner
The Hit ”The Untouchables” (1987)
In the Pipeline ”No Way Out,” a savvy thriller
The Follow-Ups ”Bull Durham” (1989), ”Field of Dreams” (1989)
The Quickie Verdict Gary Cooper lives.
The Long-Term Verdict Even Gary Cooper couldn’t have saved ”Waterworld” and ”The Postman”.

Patrick Swayze
The Hit ”Dirty Dancing” (1987)
In the Pipeline Sci-fi ”Shane” clone ”Steel Dawn” (1987)
The Follow-Ups Junkie drama ”Tiger Warsaw” (1988) and brain-dead B flick ”Roadhouse” (1989)
The Quickie Verdict Destined for late-night HBO
The Long-Term Verdict ”Ghost” notwithstanding, destined for the USA Network

Leonardo DiCaprio
The Hit ”Titanic” (1997)
In the Pipeline ”The Man in the Iron Mask” (1998) — Cliff Notes via MTV
The Follow-Up ”The Beach.” Advance reviews have not been rosy.
The Quickie Verdict King of the World? King of Moomba and models, certainly.
The Long-Term Verdict Too early to call. The guy has the acting chops, but will he ever use them again? Maybe when the superstar thing fades, he’ll get back to work.

The Beach

  • Movie
  • R
  • 119 minutes
  • Danny Boyle