Leonardo DiCaprio will be seen wearing many different faces when the decades-spanning biopic J. Edgar opens wide this Friday. But there’s one face we knew was coming long before Clint Eastwood ever said “action.” As Slate movie critic Dana Stevens pointed out in her review of Shutter Island, DiCaprio has taken more serious roles in recent years, and this new seriousness has been accompanied by the frequent appearance of his signature pucker face. She describes the countenance thusly: “All his features migrate to the middle of his face and just sort of crouch there.” Seeing DiCaprio scrunch so determinedly, no viewer could question the difficulty of the role, or the actor’s efforts to fulfill its demands.
DiCaprio hasn’t always gone around wearing this grumpy expression. If you watch him as Luke Brower in Growing Pains (1991-1992) or as the Kid in The Quick and the Dead (1995), you’ll find more boyish charm than glowering determination in his physiognomy. Sure, DiCaprio sported a few scowls in The Basketball Diaries (1995) and Romeo + Juliet (1996), but even on the Titanic (1997) his face was more likely to display carefree nonchalance than a fretting furrow.
But DiCaprio’s unscrunched boyishness seems to have gone down with the ship. “Leo-Mania” set in, and the 23-year-old actor became known less as a young talent than a teen heartthrob. In an apparent reaction to this disconcerting development, DiCaprio reemerged in Gangs of New York (2002) as the anti-Jack Dawson: the hulking, goateed Amsterdam, a street-hardened (and scrunchy-faced) gang leader. This Scorsese collaboration was the first of many, and he’s gone pinchy-faced in nearly every role since.
In the following gallery of the three-time Oscar nominee’s most intense scrunchy faces, you’ll see a still of one of DiCaprio’s performances, and a rating of its scrunchiness. In gathering these images, it became clear that there is a often a correlation between the pinchiness of his expressions and the seriousness of his ambitions. A Zwick-helmed actioner like Blood Diamond (2006)? Mild scrunchiness. J. Edgar? A face that looks like it’s just sucked the sourest of lemons.
Correction, Nov. 10 2011: This piece originally misspelled Martin Scorsese's last name.