Towards a Unified Theory of Beard Acting – Leonardo Di Caprio

The following post comes from fellow RTF-er R. Colin Tait, who, in addition to slaving over this unified theory of beard acting, has recently started an excellent blog, ‘Watching with the Wife,’ where he provides his insight on the likes of Rachel Zoe. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I like it even more than Brad Pitt’s beard.

Okay, I’ve been promising Annie this post for more than a year, since the time I made an offhand comment about what I called Leonardo DiCaprio’s “beard acting.”

Since then I have been doing a ton of research on the subject – looking for historical precedents, visiting old libraries in Europe, consulting tomes on acting written by Stanislavski and Meyerhold…that kind of thing.

My findings are sometimes surprising, but in other ways only reinforce my previous conclusion, namely – a man with a beard is just deeper than a man without one. Likewise, an actor with a beard is even deeper than a normal person with a beard.

A beard says so much about a character’s age, social standing or state of mind, which is why it has been the Hollywood actor’s best friend since the era of the nickelodeon.

We have known since Robin Williams won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting that a beard can give an actor just that certain something that lends them weight. Gravitas, sorrow, worldliness. A beardless Robin Williams is wacky, insane and certainly can’t be taken seriously, whereas a bearded Robin Williams, well…

Robin Williams' Oscar winning beard.

A similar quandry faced Leonardo DiCaprio after coming out of the success of Titanic. Sure, he was the new heartthrob of everyone under twelve – one could say he was the Robert Pattinson of his day -  but no one was taking him seriously. He was the clean-shaven boy next door, People Magazine’s most “beautiful person,” certainly not what one would want to be considered when moving into your serious mid-twenties acting career.

His face is so beautiful and so smooth...

Obviously, in order to get taken seriously in Hollywood, he needed a new strategy, he needed to look like a man. A real man, like Brad Pitt.

With The Beach, he almost succeeded. One can almost detect the presence of a few stubbly patches set against his otherwise hairless body. In this film, he wasn’t so morally conflicted, so didn’t need the extra body mass or some facial hair as of yet. This would wait for his next role, where Leo and the beard clicked for good.

(a brief interlude)

Perhaps Leo was inspired by his competing multiplex heartthrob, Brad Pitt. In Legends of the Fall, Pitt attempted something brand new – playing a character who was so complex that he needed to be clean shaven in most scenes, but needed a beard for that extra actorly heft.

So when Pitt was the happy-go-lucky Tristan, he looked like this…


But when he’s really sad, later on in the movie, he looks like this instead…

Sad Tristan - he's so deep

See? Beard Acting!

As Legends of the Fall precedes Gangs of New York we can only guess whether Leo was influenced by Brad Pitt in his acting decisions. However, both participate in a larger trend by incorporating beards into their everyday lives as well as their performances, if only to prove how deep they are in everyday life too.

Gangs of New York – The Birth of a New Beard Actor

With Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York we finally see an entirely different Leo. Well…almost.

He’s still Leo, he’s still got that annoying forelock that insists on falling in front of is eyes,  but he has a beard. Who cares that he can only grow it in certain places? Clearly, this marks a new era of depth and weight for the actor.

Beard Acting, Star Persona and Johnny Depp

Which brings me to my main point. Annie has doubtless talked about the way that actors carry their star persona with them from movie to movie. We can certainly expect to hear the story of Johnny Depp’s bizarre cocktail of real-life figures which he mixes together to produce an entirely new character. For Jack Sparrow, he plays a gay Keith Richards. For Willy Wonka, Depp channels a gay, white Michael Jackson. For Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter he emulates Carol Channing.

Johnny Depp's startling transformation into the Mad Hatter

Today, Depp’s star persona overwhelms his characters. The recipe for his performances have become cliche where they were once exciting. It’s almost gotten as bad as Nicolas Cage, who has now gotten so idiosyncratic that people are beginning to like him again.

Nicolas Cage in the greatest performance of all time

I would say that same of Leo’s beard acting, which even more wedded to his star persona and acting technique than any choices he may make as a performer.  Leo has come to rely too much on his beard acting, to the point where it is actually interfering with his actual performances.

The worst part of all is – his beards are terrible. Clearly he can only grow it in certain places, resulting in characters that have beard flaws that are the same as the actor.

Case in point, Body of Lies…

Leo's terrible "neck beard." Yuck.

I’m even having trouble differentiating Leo’s characters from one another, as his identical beards in Inception and Shutter Island make me confused as to what happens when and to whom in either movie. Because he can only grow a particular kind of beard (one that he brought into style in the early 2000s) his characters exist in an anachronistic netherworld, neither belonging to their particular time and place, nor fully emerging from the present-day.

Scroll up – how is this look any different from Gangs of New York? Further still, how is this any different from Inception?

(Oh, wait, this one’s taken from another angle, I should hold my tongue!)

Where there was once an actor who took challenging roles without a beard (such as his Oscar nominated turn in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape)? I challenge you to name me a role that he has taken where he doesn’t have a beard anymore – that’s the one where he’ll earn his Oscar!

It’s gotten to the point where not even Martin Scorsese can say no to Leo’s beard acting, which speaks to the beards’ power over the actor, the powers-that-be and, heck, even Hollywood.

Granted, all of this bitterness may be borne of my begrudging having to shave in my everyday rule based life as a “joe lunchpail” grad student and “Johnny Punchclock” film instructor rather than living the Hollywood highlife where these flighty Hollywood types get to do whatever they want.

Who is this hobo?

Even worse, once you get the theory of beard acting in your mind, you’ll begin to see it everywhere and question everything you see…

Just like Inception.

(R. Colin Tait is considering growing a beard, if only to make him seem smarter)

5 Responses to “Towards a Unified Theory of Beard Acting – Leonardo Di Caprio”

  1. [...] chance yet, please check out my guest post on my good friend Annie Petersen’s blog: Towards a Unified Theory of Beard Acting. Annie’s blog (Celebrity Gossip: Academic Style) is pretty awesome, and she writes about [...]

  2. CSO says:

    The empirical research seems to agree with you:
    Guido et al, “Beardedness in advertising: effects on endorsers’ credibility and purchase intention.”
    http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a921058272

    (via Andrew Sullivan’s blog)

  3. Eric says:

    My favorite beard acting comes from the “I’m not the dude that was in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’” performance of Ashton Kutcher’s beard in “The Butterfly Effect.”

  4. [...] Jason Street (whose facial hair in this show connotes his evil, as per my theories of beard acting, elaborated here) [...]

  5. TPG says:

    I know this is an older piece, but when I stumbled across it, it reminded me of the debate about Burt Reynolds’ acting with and without his mustache. I can’t remember the critic’s name, but he suggested that Burt Reynolds is a better actor when he is clean-shaven than when he has the mustache and did a run-down of his films over the decades.