The Selling of Leonardo DiCaprio

Early in Mary Harron’s and Guinevere Turner’s script adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho , Patrick Bateman, the handsome 26-year-old yuppie serial killer, stares at his reflection in the bathroom mirror of his minimalist Manhattan apartment (Georg Baselitz painting hung upside down). Bateman, in voice-over, has just explained, in detail, his extensive morning hygiene regimen–deep pore cleanser, honey almond body scrub, Gel Appaisant–and as the camera depicts him peeling a mask from his model-class face, he offers a glimpse of what lies beneath all those well-maintained pores. “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory,” he says in voice-over. “I am simply not there.”

Leonardo DiCaprio could have been bringing more than his flawless skin to this scene. Like Patrick Bateman, the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio is also an abstraction, a grand illusion born with his role in 1996’s Romeo and Juliet and monstrously amplified by the success of Titanic , a film that has grossed more than $500 million in North America alone and remains among the top-10 box office earners six months after its release.

Mr. DiCaprio’s friends insist that the actor’s Titanic -inflated image has little to do with the actual him. “Leo lives his life. He does not live the perception of his life,” said one.

Still, Mr. DiCaprio, who cares enough about the public’s perception of him to employ two public relations firms–Ken Sunshine Consultants Inc. in New York and BWR in Los Angeles–is responsible for the care and maintenance of his image. And in May, while the actor was dating models and hanging out in Manhattan nightclubs and at the Mercer hotel, his handlers momentarily lost control of that image in the gale-force conditions of the Cannes Film Festival media frenzy.

It was there that news broke that Mr. DiCaprio was attached to star in American Psycho , based on a press release issued by one of the film’s producers, Lions Gate, that included a statement from Mr. DiCaprio’s manager, Rick Yorn, that said: “Leo is extremely excited about this script and has decided to make it a priority.” Two weeks later, Mr. Yorn and Mr. DiCaprio’s publicists, Ken Sunshine and Cindy Guagenti, resembled a Cirque du Soleil contortionist act as they writhed and backflipped bicoastally, announcing that their client had not signed to play to play Patrick Bateman.

What had prompted the about-face? One, a spate of bad press that suggested Mr. DiCaprio’s attachment had resulted in the ejection of Ms. Harron as the director and actor Christian Bale as Bateman. Two, that the $21 million that Lions Gate had offered him for a role in what was originally meant to be a $6 million film made a mockery of independent filmmaking. And three–most important to the keepers (and benefactees) of Leonardo’s image–that his portrayal of a yuppie monster who likes to torture and kill women would frighten off the massive fan base of teenage girls whose repeated viewing of Titanic has kept the movie alive at the box office.

Mr. DiCaprio’s handlers quickly moved to dispel those notions and let it be known that their client was not only not committed to the film, but that he was unaware of Ms. Harron’s and Mr. Bale’s displacement. In that brief moment when the actor’s camp did not have control of the situation, Mr. DiCaprio, who had turned himself into a formidable leading man via his performances in Romeo and Juliet and Titanic , suddenly looked his age. Which is all of 23.

Two weeks later, the gates are back down at the DiCaprio compound. Mr. Yorn did not return phone calls and Mr. Sunshine (who said that his client was unavailable for comment) was laying the groundwork for whatever script Mr. DiCaprio chose next. “Judge him on his body of work, not on one movie,” he said. Mr. Sunshine’s self-described role as “media consultant” for Mr. DiCaprio, which he has held for about two months, comes by way of Cuba and his friendship with Dana Giacchetto and Jeffrey Sachs, partners in the Cassandra Group, an investment company that helps grow the millions made by Mr. DiCaprio and other high-income earners. Apparently, Mr. DiCaprio was in the Cassandra Group’s offices when he spied a picture of Messrs. Sunshine and Sachs standing with Cuba’s jefe , Fidel Castro. The actor let it be known that he was interested in visiting the island. Two months later, Mr. Sunshine and friends had arranged for Mr. DiCaprio, along with a group that included his father George DiCaprio and singer Alanis Morrisette, to take part in a “cultural exchange.” Mr. Sunshine bonded with Papa DiCaprio and came on board.

Mr. DiCaprio is said to be considering American Psycho along with a number of other films, including an adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules . The Transom also hears that the young actor recently met with Gummo director Harmony Korine and his producer, Cary Woods, about their next untitled project. (Neither Mr. Korine nor Mr. Woods could be reached for comment.)

Mr. DiCaprio’s interest in American Psycho (and that he may be talking to Mr. Korine) suggests that he is interested in taking a role that’s far, far removed from Titanic ‘s Jack Dawson. Mr. Ellis, who said he does not know Mr. DiCaprio, nevertheless said that his “grapevine” tells him that “that’s definitely one of the reasons” that the actor is interested in the project. “I don’t think he’s ever cared what people thought about his role choices. I don’t think he’s someone who’s really grooming himself for a certain leading-man stardom.”

It is not a question of his acting talent, which is considerable, but rather some of Mr. DiCaprio’s eclectic project choices, such as his portrayal of Arthur Rimbaud in Eclipse .

“Will teenage girls be traumatized by this movie? It’s the unspoken question,” said Mr. Ellis. “I don’t think so.”

Americans, however, are still queasy about seeing their big screen-idol men as psycho killers (neither Mr. Caine nor Mr. Hopkins was overwhelmed with romantic lead roles when they took their chances with those two films). While Mr. DiCaprio had not ruled out American Psycho as his next film at press time, industry oddsmakers predicted that Mr. DiCaprio would not make the film.

While it does contain some scenes that mix sex and violence–including one where Bateman bloodies himself as he performs oral sex on a woman–the script to American Psycho , a copy of which the Transom obtained, is hardly the torturefest that Mr. Ellis’ book was. (One of Bateman’s sexual conquests does get it with a chain saw, however, after seeing a couple of skinned women in the bachelor’s closet.)

Instead, Ms. Harron and her writing partner have streamlined the movie as a social satire of Manhattan in the killer 80’s, one that pays particular attention to the sadomasochistic rituals of dining at restaurants-of-the-moment that serve vertical food. Designer labels (Valentino, Giorgio Armani) and odd food combinations (“swordfish meatloaf with onion marmalade,” “goat cheese profiteroles”) abound, as does Bateman’s love of bad music: Phil Collins-era Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News, Kenny G. And, in one scene, Bateman is driven to rage when his brand-new business cards turn out to be chopped liver compared to those of his yuppie colleagues. (Guess who his next victim is?)

While much of the violence is implied, Bateman’s character does get to spout some misogynistic dialogue. “You are a fucking ugly bitch; I want to stab to death and then play around with your blood,” he says to one bartender who has angered him. To his pals, he quotes the serial killer Ed Gein (whom one friend mistakenly thinks is the maître d’ at Canal Bar): “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out and talk to her and be real nice and sweet and treat her right,” he says. “The other part wonders what her head would look like on a stick.”

Then there is a scene in which Bateman masturbates while making crank calls. Getting one woman on the phone, he shouts. “I’m a corporate raider. I orchestrate hostile takeovers. What do you think of that? (makes disgusting sucking noises and grunts) Huh, bitch?”

That Mr. DiCaprio was drawn to Ms. Harron’s and Ms. Turner’s script is interesting on two accounts. For one, the dialogue, while presented in the framework of a satire, sounds awfully similar to the largely improvised dialogue that Mr. DiCaprio spouts in Don’s Plum , an experimental picture that he made with some friends about three years before Titanic . (Sample: “Get out of here, you slut bitch!”, “I’ll fucking throw a bottle at your face, you goddamn whore!”) The film, which The Transom has seen, is damn near unreleasable, and a $10 million lawsuit filed in Los Angeles charges that Mr. DiCaprio and another actor are trying to block distribution of the film. Replied Mr. Sunshine: “Of all the preposterous things that I encounter vis-à-vis Mr. DiCaprio, this ranks right at the top of the list.

Bret Easton Ellis could certainly impart to Mr. DiCaprio what the consequences could be if the actor decides to take the American Psycho role. Simon & Schuster, the original publisher of the novel, dropped the book when it and its author were assailed by Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups. “It was not fun,” said Mr. Ellis, who for several years suffered a subsequent dent in his literary career.

That Mr. DiCaprio would even consider American Psycho , while Titanic is still playing in theaters, is “a really great subplot in this narrative,” said Mr. Ellis. “They expect him to be doing Titanic II .… Of all that people that might want to commit to something like [ American Psycho ], it’s him.”

A decision to play Patrick Bateman could certainly be spun as a brave choice on Mr. DiCaprio’s part. But that will be harder in the wake of all the waffling that followed Lion’s Gate’s announcement. There is a saying that he who hesitates is lost. Regardless of who was making the decisions in Mr. DiCaprio’s camp, in that moment of hesitation, the actor’s heretofore seamless image of quiet confidence veered into self-consciousness.

And this is not the first time Mr. DiCaprio has hesitated. At one point he was slated to play Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights , but dropped out about two months before filming began and the role went to his Basketball Diaries co-star Mark Wahlberg. Most recently, when he dragged his feet about taking the lead role in the film adaptation of All the Pretty Horses , directed by Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon’s agents grabbed the role for their client.

In the wake of the brouhaha over whether Mr. DiCaprio was committed to American Psycho , it is interesting to note that none of the producers involved with the project–producers hoping to still seal a deal with Mr. DiCaprio–would discuss for the record what happened. It is a measure of Mr. DiCaprio’s considerable power in the business. If only that power could have been wielded better in advance. Mr. Yorn is respected as a savvy operator in his industry, and some observers said this could have happened to anyone. Others wondered if he is being stretched thin by his star client. “You can’t talk to anyone else at that agency [Industry Entertainment] about Leo,” said one source close to the negotiations for American Psycho . “If you’ve got one guy dealing with this onslaught, I feel sorry for him. I think Rick is just scrambling. He’s overwhelmed by some of the most amazing offers in the history of the film business.”

Mr. Sunshine said of Mr. Yorn, “I couldn’t have hoped for the quarterback of our team to be functioning any better.”

Another independent film player casts his sympathy vote for Mr. DiCaprio. “There’s no level of paranoia that could protect him from the insanity that exists out there.”

Then again, Mr. DiCaprio can take comfort in what one industry observer who has followed the actor’s career calls the rule of threes. “After you have one big success, you’re allowed to do three of anything,” said the source. “Three bad films. Three money-losers.” Added this person: “He could do two American Psycho s and still have a buffer.”