Petty Petitions, by Tyler Smith
When I was a teenager, I hated Leonardo DiCaprio. If you had asked me why at the time, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell you. I likely would’ve mumbled something about his being a bad actor who got by on his looks, or something to that effect. In retrospect, I realize that my distaste for him came first from a place of envy. My female classmates regularly swooned over the teen heartthrob, and I was deeply aware that he was everything I wasn’t (but desperately wished I could be). The fact that his highest profile films were romances likely played a part in this, as well. Whether it be the 1996 Romeo + Juliet or the smash 1997 hit Titanic, DiCaprio became popular primarily as a romantic lead. Being a typical 90s male teenager, I had no interest in watching romantic films; I was much more invested in crime pictures like Reservoir Dogs and Heat.
As time has gone on, I have come to regard Leonardo DiCaprio has quite possibly the best actor of his generation. His committed intensity has worked well in films like The Departed and The Revenant, while his movie star charm has helped to sell Catch Me if You Can and The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course, these films were made after his initial leap into stardom. But, as it happens, DiCaprio was turning in solid work back then, too, in films like This Boy’s Life, Total Eclipse, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Had I seen those films at the time, instead of his higher profile mainstream movies, it’s likely my attitude towards him might’ve been different.
My dismissal of DiCaprio in the mid-90s was brought to mind as I scrolled through social media reactions to the recent announcement that Robert Pattinson would be playing Batman in Matt Reeves’ upcoming film The Batman. The incredulity, the frustration, the white hot rage that accompanied this announcement was genuinely surprising to me. The number of people that dismissed Pattinson as “that guy from Twilight” and made jokes about a Batman who “sparkles” was overwhelming, ultimately culminating in not one, but several petitions on Change.org for Matt Reeves to recast the part.
These reactions resonated with me, because they seemed to come from the same place as my own opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio more than twenty years ago. And while I’m not quite so bold as to accuse these people (mostly guys) of simply being envious of Pattinson’s cultural appeal, I have no qualms at all in suggesting that the aggression with which people have responded to the casting announcement is rooted firmly in cinematic ignorance. Pattinson is best known for the Twilight films, which likely don’t appeal to the same audiences as any Batman movie. And so, if a Batman fan is aware of Pattinson solely as a function of these films, I suppose it is slightly understandable why he would be upset.
But I would suggest that, maybe, before overreacting to the news (and, yes, I think that starting an online petition could count as an overreaction), one must do his due diligence and investigate why exactly Pattinson may have been cast in the first place. Certainly, it may be to appeal to Twilight fans, but that seems unlikely. What is more probable is that Reeves saw Pattinson’s marvelous work in lesser known films like Cosmopolis, The Rover, Good Time, Damsel, and in the recent The Lighthouse, and based his decision on that, rather than the mainstream franchise that made Pattinson a household name. Only when one takes a performer’s larger filmography into account can one truly understand what a filmmaker might see in him.
Of course, I don’t expect everybody to have seen those Pattinson performances. They were smaller films with limited appeal. Films like Damsel went almost completely unnoticed even within the cinephile community. Nonetheless, Pattinson’s willingness to play complex characters with varying levels of likability (and intelligence) speaks to his maturity as an actor; a maturity that actually excites me about the recent casting announcement. With a character as overexposed as Batman, I sometimes wonder if there’s anything left to explore. But I am confident that, whatever there is left in the character, Pattinson will find it, and deliver to us a Batman that is more unstable, more unpredictable, and infinitely more emotionally complicated than what we’ve become accustomed to.
It is downright silly to judge an actor only on a single performance in a mainstream film franchise. And yet there appear to be several thousand people that are perfectly willing to do just that, completely unaware of Pattinson’s other achievements. And they are apparently eager to double down on that lack of awareness by rallying together to get the decision reversed. These are actions and attitudes born out of ignorance. I know this because I myself shared this ignorance when I dismissed Leonardo DiCaprio all those years ago. Since then, however, I’ve grown up. It seems unlikely that these petitioners ever will.
I didn’t watch his 90s movies (I think my mom rented “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” for Johnny Depp, but I didn’t watch the whole thing). I think the first movie starring him that I saw was Gangs of New York, and I still don’t think that’s a good film or a good performance. I kept making the joke “Only a director named Scorsese would cast an actor named DiCaprio as an Irishman”, which I thought was quite funny at the time. As time went on and I saw him in better movies, I did come to discount that one.
I’m surprised that you didn’t mention “High Life” as another auteurist film Pattinson has starred in recently. I’ve only seen him in Good Time, so I have only positive impressions of him.