Before Titanic made him a household name, Leonardo DiCaprio was known more for his roles as a troubled youth than as a dreamy drifter or obsessive eccentric. The actor’s movie career took off in 1993, when he starred as a mentally challenged teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It was a performance that earned him worldwide acclaim, and one that would eventually lead to leading roles in Romeo + Juliet, The Basketball Diaries, and Total Eclipse.
In 1996, DiCaprio starred alongside Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton in Marvin’s Room, directed by Jerry Zaks. As he did in Gilbert three years earlier, the actor once again stepped into the role of a disturbed teen, albeit one struggling with external family dynamics, rather than any intrinsic physical disabilities. As it turns out, his character isn’t even as troubled as he leads others to believe, which makes DiCaprio’s performance all the more impressive. In playing the role of Hank, DiCaprio is forced to act as someone who, on some level, is himself putting on an act.
This multi-layered feat garnered praise from critics at the time, leading Roger Ebert to herald the budding star as “one of the best young actors we have,” though DiCaprio’s achievement was soon overshadowed by the higher-profile films he went on to headline. Just one year after the release of Marvin’s Room, he became “king of the world.”
For a glimpse at DiCaprio’s early career, check out the clip below. Here, Lee (Meryl Streep) comes to retrieve her son, Hank, from a mental institution, and to relay some tragic news.