Deconstructing Leo

What the men don't get, the teen girls understand

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Thanks in large part, it is said, to the patronage of teenage girls, Leonardo DiCaprio recently pulled off the unprecedented feat of starring in two films virtually tied for No. 1 at the box office, Titanic and his just released The Man in the Iron Mask. Leo, as the 23-year-old is known to friends and true fans, is also the subject of four quickie books currently on various New York Times best-seller lists. Explains Bari Nan Cohen, who as entertainment editor of YM is well-versed in teen idoldom: "A lot of girls would go see Leo open a paper bag right now." If you want to understand why this is so, go see The Man in the Iron Mask yourself and one answer will be readily apparent: he is not his co-star Gerard Depardieu.

Hulking and knob-muscled, Depardieu farts, belches and wenches his way through his role as the aging musketeer Porthos. He pronounces the word nipple as "neeple." He is a figure of masculinity not so much past its prime as grotesque and overripened, the kind of colossus Rodin might have come up with if he worked in old Camembert instead of bronze. In short, Depardieu is just the kind of male to frighten an adolescent girl off the gender altogether. In this filmic universe he is the anti-Leo.

Enter Leo. Slender, smooth, cupid-lipped, his refined looks suggest a dewier Brad Pitt--a Brad Pitt crossed with Natalie Portman, say. As a screen lover he is more chipper than smoldering, too boyish to be androgynous but too androgynous to be sexy in any threatening, carnal, actual sort of way. The Man in the Iron Mask plays this up perhaps too much, outfitting DiCaprio in 17th century blouses and wigs falling halfway down his back. In his butchier Titanic incarnation--where, of course, he has the added advantage of getting to die dreamily in the presence of his beloved, as he also did in his breakthrough movie, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet--he is an ideal first crush: not too hot, not too cold, just right. Leonardo DiCaprio: A Biography expands on this point: "The woman that does capture Leo's heart will be in for some special romantic time with Leo... 'I'll definitely say that when I'm alone with a girl, I'm doing the baby voices, all that stuff, rubbing noses, the teddy bear thing.' (That's the kind of behavior our dreams are made of, Leo!)"

None of this is new, of course--Elvis claimed he wanted to be your teddy bear too. Teen idols have always served as erotic learner's permits, from those who went on to transcend the role like Frank Sinatra, James Dean, the Beatles and John Travolta, to more disposable incarnations like David Cassidy and New Kids on the Block. Michael Jackson, having never allowed himself to develop secondary sex characteristics, is like a teen-idol experiment gone horribly, tragically awry. But that is the kind of icky, confusing story that has no place in what publisher Nancy Pines of Archway Books, which brought you Leonardo DiCaprio: A Biography, refers to as Leoland. "I can't think of any other teen idol with this kind of staying power," says Nina Malkin, deputy editor of Teen magazine. "This is approaching Hanson range," agrees Pines. Hanson range. There you go.

--With reporting by David E. Thigpen/New York