"They were always betting on who would blow up first," says the actor friend. "Tobey was into more of a Tom Hanks track. Leo was modeling his career after Nicholson and De Niro." ("Portraying emotionally ill characters gives me the chance to really act," DiCaprio said in the best-selling Leonardo DiCaprio Album, which also recounts an early Leo memory -- killing a pigeon -- as well as the time his father, George, a "bohemian" comic-book trader, urged his son to go off and lose his virginity. Leo, then 6, declined.)
As the years went by, however, Leo was always the one getting the best parts, the best reviews, the most heat in the teen magazines. And now this. "The Titanic stuff has caused this big identity crisis. Some of them have completely lost their careers," the young actor says. "All they do now is hang out with Leo. If Leo wants to go to Paris, it's let's go to Paris. Las Vegas? No problem." DiCaprio was heard exclaiming to his table at Tomoe on Oscar night, "Let's rent a plane! I want to go to India!" "The people closest to him have Leomania worse than anyone," the actor says.
"They're like, 'How come he's getting all the attention and no one's paying attention to me?' " says another member of the group who's observed their "sibling rivalry" -- which he says Leomania has made chronic. "They want to be with Leo like 24-7."
Some posse members even accompany DiCaprio on movie sets. In New York, they act as unofficial bodyguards, although it's unclear sometimes whether this is for his benefit or for theirs. "They get off on protecting him -- they're always ready to start yelling and swinging," grouses paparazzo John Barrett, who admits to having chased Leo around town on several occasions. "They were rushing me outside Moomba" on the night of James Toback's after-party for the premiere of Two Girls and a Guy, says the photographer, sighing, "Here I am at my age dealing with a pack of little brats like that."
The posse even carries Leo's cash. Earlier this year, when DiCaprio rented a house in South Beach, "he trusted his entourage of friends to deal with his expenses, not carrying any money himself," confides The Leonardo DiCaprio Album. "According to his pal Ethan Suplee, 'Leo's cheap. . . . He'll look for a place in the street to park rather than use valet parking.'"
"I'm the cheapest bastard in the world," the ever-frank DiCaprio has said. "You never know, I may go bankrupt, or lose my career, or have a Hugh Grant situation."
Leo Takes New York
Leo discovered New York in 1994, when he came here to shoot The Basketball Diaries. In New York, "you could sit in a corner all day and probably have a more fulfilling time than traveling all over L.A. and seeing all the sights," said DiCaprio. How true. But Leo hardly sat watching the city pass him by; he jumped right in, and the press followed, naturally. "He hits Manhattan clubs . . . and brawls with the locals," said Rolling Stone. "He seldom sleeps, so intense is his partying," Liz Smith wrote.
"We don't have gossip columns in L.A. watching everybody's every move," complains DiCaprio's publicist, Cindy Guagenti. "If people want to know something, they call the publicist."
"He started acting like an idiot," says one highly placed New York publicist (who wouldn't allow me to use her name because, she says, "everyone fears his power" -- as if Leo were Louis XIV, whom he recently played). "He made a joke out of it, going to everything all over the place. He was like Sylvia Miles, except young and beautiful and talented."
"New York is like Leo's playground, his Disneyland," says an aspiring director who says he's frequented strip joints with Leo's posse in L.A. "They used to set off stink bombs at Sky Bar. But Leo's not going to act up out here now. Anyone in the of course, movie industry could be sitting at the next table. No one in the industry cares what he does in New York."
"They're kids. They act like kids," the redheaded hostess at Moomba told me, with a curling little frown. At Spy, where Leo has become what Liza once was to Studio 54, or Henny Youngman was to the Carnegie Deli, the French bartender griped, "He does not teep! He gets his friends go to the bar for his drinks. He was in here with Julie Delpy -- I could not understand it. She's a very nice girl -- French. He is cheap."
Leo worries about his image: "I don't want to be thought of as a party animal," he has said. Most of what gets reported about him hardly rates as Rat Pack behavior, however; it's more like Romper Room (which he appeared on at the age of 5). This March, Leo and the posse reportedly bombarded paparazzi with grapes from upstairs at the Mercer Hotel. ("That doesn't sound like Leonardo," Guagenti told the Daily News. "Does it?" asked the paper.) And Leo was spotted throwing litter off the Brooklyn Promenade onto cars traveling below on the BQE ("before speeding away in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes," said the New York Post). In April, Leo was seen sporting a shiner. "He got it horsing around with his friends," said a beleaguered-sounding Guagenti.
But DiCaprio's reputation as a true bad boy has become widespread enough for it to be made a joke of: Two weeks ago at the MTV Movie Awards, DiCaprio accepted his honor for Best Male Performance by video; the spoof that followed featured a crew swaddled in bandages, all saying DiCaprio had freaked out and assaulted them. Uh, ha, ha. And DiCaprio has said that in Celebrity, the next Woody Allen movie (where art always mocks life), he plays "a cocky young Hollywood actor, the stereotype of what a disgusting young actor should be."
The currently suppressed indie film Don's Plum -- originally called Saturday Night Club -- may provide an inadvertent glimpse behind the curtain shrouding the secret society of Leo and his friends, mostly because it was made and largely ad-libbed by Leo and his friends. The characters "sit around, smoke, talk, say 'bro' a lot, insult the waitress, try to have sex with girls in the back room, fight," says one person who has seen it.
Don's Plum was directed by former posse member R. D. Robb -- also a former child actor -- who has recently been "expelled" from the group, according to someone still inside it, for attempting to spin the film's straw into the Leo gold of a commercial release. DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, who in 1995 put up a scant amount of money to get the movie made, said no way.