By Stephanie DuBois
"These are the things that change boys to men..."
- New Edition
Sounds like Leonardo DiCaprio has traversed the trials, tribulations and trappings of his generation's version of tinsel town - and that which did not kill him, made him stronger.
"Leo seems to have gone through whatever he's gone through in the last 10 years with a kind of perspective and grace," says 7th Heaven" regular Stephen Collins, who's featured in the upcoming film, "Blood Diamond" with DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou.
DiCaprio's transformation is all the more amazing in light of the fact that just a few short years ago, he seemed intent on earning his place on the tabloid's top ten list of party animals. Of course, Leomania at its post-"Titanic" height would have been a hard burden for even Elvis to carry.
"That kind of success either ruins people and sends them spinning or it makes them more whole," notes Collins. "And I think in his case, he's just a person of extraordinary integrity. I think he deserves everything he gets."
When DiCaprio turned 30, the actor, who began his career at age five, was quoted as saying "I kind of feel like the same person except more time has gone by. I hate to say that I feel like an adult now. I have to admit I wish I was still 18. After all, even through the time while I was representing that wild kid, I really wasn't. I was just living my life. I was just not making movies at the time."
That changed in 2002 when he once again focused on showing the world he was still an actor to be reckoned with in "Catch Me if You Can," directed by Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."
"You learn after you've been in the business for a while that it's not getting your face recognized that's the payoff," he told a reporter of his shifting priorities. "It's having your film remembered."
Indeed, DiCaprio's reteaming with Scorsese in "The Aviator" garnered an Oscar nomination for his role as late, billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.
And he's made strides towards being taken more seriously off screen as well. Always a lover of the sea and its animals, DiCaprio has in recent years become an outspoken advocate of environmental conservation. During John Kerry's 2004 campaign, the actor traveled to several states giving speeches on the Bush administration's poor handling of environmental causes.
DiCaprio has said he's come to the conclusion, "You can either be a vain movie star, or you can try to shed some light on different aspects of the human condition."
Once "Good Will Hunting" put Ben Affleck on Hollywood's radar, the one-time child lead of the PBS kids' series, "The Voyage of Mimi," went on to star in the big-screen blockbuster, "Armageddon," with Bruce Willis. Then he had subsequent starring roles in a series of high profile films that were hit and miss at the box-office such as "Forces of Nature," "Pearl Harbor," "Changing Lanes" and "Daredevil."
Affleck seemed to slip into the abyss of seeking celebrity and in 2001, he entered the Promises Rehabilitation Center in Malibu, California for alcohol abuse.
Throughout it all, he became more and more famous for his high-profile relationships with such leading ladies as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez. After becoming engaged to marry Lopez in 2002, the couple seemed more interested in jet setting and PDAs (public displays of affection) than anything else. However, a public satiated with all things Bennifer caused more strain than their love could bear and a backlash at the box-office for Affleck's films "Surviving Christmas" and "Gigli," which co-starred Lopez.
Perhaps wiser the second Jennifer around, Affleck and lady love Jennifer Garner played their relationship much closer to the chest. The couple survived tabloid scrutiny, and ended up marrying and having a baby last year. He even reportedly quite smoking for baby Violet.
In the meantime, the 33-year old Affleck took the focus off of Ben, the celebrity, and put it on Ben, the political activist, by actively campaigning for Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. "I've lived this sort of strange, sometimes unpleasant, but mostly very lucky life that's involved lately a lot of media attention. And one of the things that feels good to me to do is to try to steer that in a direction of something more significant," he said, dropping hints that a future in politics might be in store.
And for the first time in a while, people are once again focused on Ben, the actor. His critically acclaimed performance as the late "Superman" series star, George Reeves, in the recently-released film noir feature, "Hollywoodland" garnered him the Golden Lion prize for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.
Other one-time child stars who've made it from boys to men through whatever saving grace include Joaquin Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Elijah Wood.
Phoenix managed to sidestep the fate of his brother, River Phoenix, who overdosed outside Hollywood's Viper Room nightclub back in 1993. The trauma of River's death, which he reported to 911 that night, turned Joaquin, then known as Leaf Phoenix, away from acting for awhile. But since becoming a critic's fave in the 1995 film, "To Die For," with Nicole Kidman, Phoenix has more than risen from the ashes. "Gladiator" cemented his star status and his recent turn as Johnny Cash in the big-screen biopic, "Walk the Line" garnered an Oscar nomination.
There've been down times; the 30-year-old reportedly entered himself into a rehab program for alcoholism in Spring 2005.
He's kept his liaisons low profile except for his three-year relationship with Liv Tyler. A committed vegan (beginning at age three), he eschews all things harmful to animals including wearing leather goods. He's also a spokesman for PETA.
"Crossing Jordan" star Jerry O'Connell, number 70 on VH1's "100 Greatest Kid Stars" last year, also bypassed the fate of River Phoenix, with whom he co-starred in the 1986 "Stand By Me." The seemingly ever affable 32-year-old O'Connell has also managed to avoid the occupational and recreational hazards that have plagued Tara Reid and Macaulay Culkin, his classmates from the Professional Children's School in New York City. From "Sliders" to "Jerry Maguire" to his current show, O'Connell's grown into an accomplished issue-free actor. And now he's ready to settle down with lady love, Rebecca Romijn, to whom he is engaged.
Elijah Wood, the youngest of the bunch at 24, went from his first major part in the 1990 "Avalon" and such films as "Paradise," "Radio Flyer" and "The Good Son" to star in Hollywood's biggest movie project ever, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. And Wood - rated one of E!'s "50 Most Cutest Child Stars All Grown-up" last year - steadily rose to the top while maintaining a low profile before, during and after. The actor has also been concentrating on a singing career and began his own record label in 2005. He has said of the impact of celebrity on his life, "I won't change and my perspective won't change. I want to continue my life the way I live it, and I'm not going to let anything stop me from doing that. It isn't all about acting. There's a lot more to life than Hollywood."
These are the things that change boys to men, indeed.