By Jeff Labrecque
Updated October 26, 2011 at 01:00 PM EDT
Keith Bernstein

What Robert Redford was to the 1970s and Tom Cruise was to the ’90s, Leonardo DiCaprio has been to the 21st century. Sure, there’s Clooney and Pitt and Gosling and Will Smith, but DiCaprio is The Guy that audiences want to see star in the films that are most important to us. To his credit, he hasn’t always accommodated our whims, avoiding comic-book franchises, romantic comedies, and anything with an echo of Titanic. Instead, he’s chosen projects that speak to him first and foremost, and we’ve obediently followed him. To out of the way places like The Beach and Shutter Island, and, in November, to Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, where he plays the paranoid chief of the FBI over the span of half a century. For almost 15 years he’s been King of the World, but at 36, Leonardo DiCaprio is only just beginning to scratch the surface of his talents.

He was a prodigy from the start. If not on Growing Pains, then in This Boy’s Life, opposite Robert De Niro. Romeo + Juliet initially made him a international heartthrob, but recall that it was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that earned him his first Academy Award nomination, for playing the mentally-challenged younger brother of Johnny Depp. (Quick, can you name the two films that earned him his other two Oscar nods?) Titanic brought him worldwide fame and Hollywood knelt at his feet. And he essentially turned his back on it, following up the biggest movie of all-time with a Woody Allen cameo and Danny Boyle’s The Beach. He began his collaborative relationship with Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York, apprenticed with Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can, and blew audiences away with his role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (Oscar nom No. 2).

He helped Scorsese win his long-deserved Oscar for The Departed and his role as a conflicted African diamond smuggler in Blood Diamond earned him his third Oscar nomination. Then came a trio of husband films that couldn’t be more different in substance or style — Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, and Inception. For a long time, he had been the master of the art of dashingly handsome, as characters like Jack Dawson and Frank Abagnale. But underneath the charm, there had always been a sense that DiCaprio’s characters knew something we didn’t. They saw something we missed. In his Hurting Husband Trilogy, that sliver of concentrated darkness emerged, transitioning the actor into the world of weary men who’ve known pain and disappointment — men who see the world as it is and not as they wish it was. It sounds morbid, but for an actor, it’s a great place to be. J. Edgar might not ultimately be his greatest work to date, but Leonardo DiCaprio is in his prime, and it’s magnificent to watch.

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