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The Great Gatsby didn’t take down Iron Man 3 at the box office, but its $51.1 opening weekend was significantly higher than analysts predicted. Audiences — heavily adult and female — were likely drawn to Baz Luhrmann’s surrealistic re-imagination of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel and the film’s hip anachronistic soundtrack, but it’s no secret what really sold this movie: “Three little letters,” said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. head of domestic distribution. “L-E-O.”

Gatsby‘s strong debut was a reminder that Leonardo DiCaprio is a Hollywood superhero — even if he’s never played one on the silver screen. Calling DiCaprio a movie star might seem as self-evident as calling him handsome, but DiCaprio, 38, is unusual among his peers, a throwback actually. In February, when Mark Harris wrote an essential essay in GQ about “The New and Improved Leading Man,” he examined how the rise of Channing Tatum and fall of Taylor Kitsch illustrated the modern paradigm for Hollywood “movie stars.” Harris referenced Clooney and Depp, Cruise and Pitt, Bale and Gosling; but in nearly 6,000 words, he neglected to mention DiCaprio even once.

It’s not that Harris doesn’t consider DiCaprio a star (I presume); it’s just that the Titanic star continues to abide by a different set of rules. Not only does he not own his own blockbuster franchise, the lifeblood that feeds today’s modern Hollywood, but he also has a more formal old-school approach to selling his films that now seems contrarian. He’s never pretended to engage in a long-running feud with Jimmy Kimmel, read Internet memes about himself for journalists, or danced with a Spanish-language weather girl. He’s never even taken the celebrity rite of passage that is hosting Saturday Night Live. As a result, even though he pops up at Los Angeles Lakers games and the tabloids obsess over whom he’s dating, DiCaprio’s risk of overexposure is about even with the odds of him getting cast as Quasimodo.

The lack of a franchise is a more perplexing — if refreshing — matter. He has been an elite box-office star for more than 15 years, and there’s no doubt that DiCaprio has been the very first phone call for several of the tent-poles that went on to become billion-dollar properties, from his early conversations with George Lucas to play Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels to reports that he was one of the actors who passed on The Matrix.

When recently asked by MTV about that anomaly on his resume, DiCaprio coolly replied, “It’s never really a conscious effort [to avoid franchises] and it’s not something I’d be closed off to do. It’s always a matter of how good the material is, and to tell you the truth … it always comes down to how well-written the project is and whether it moves me and whether subconsciously I gravitate towards that character or have a connection with it. That’s just kind of been my philosophy, and it’s been a real simple one.”

There has always been a passionate public fascination with DiCaprio, but especially since his first collaboration with Luhrmann in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, and he seems to have recognized at an early age the value of that mystique. Moreover, his early pairings with legends like Robert DeNiro (This Boy’s Life) and Gene Hackman (The Quick and the Dead), as well as an iconoclast like Johnny Depp (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), may have given him a greater appreciation for preserving elements of his private life rather than treating it like a commodity. In a recent profile in Esquire, DiCaprio’s longtime agent Rick Yorn recounted the advice Hollywood legend Lew Wasserman game him regarding his young client: “He said, ‘Only let them see him in a dark room.’ It took me a minute to figure it out. But what he meant was only let people see him in the movie theater.”

DiCaprio is just entering his prime as a leading man, as an artist, and as someone who knows what he wants and has the juice to get it made. Paul Newman was 38 when Hud came out, Robert Redford was 39 for All the President’s Men, and Warren Beatty was 37 for Shampoo. There could be more noble failures like J. Edgar, but playing Jay Gatsby was a sure thing, one of the most natural casting choices that DiCaprio has ever tackled. If Redford was the Gatsby of the 1970s, then DiCaprio is the fair-haired heir to that mantle in 2013. There’s a mystery to the character. And there will be no sequel.

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The Great Gatsby
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