On a night packed to the brim with the brightest stars in the Hollywood universe, none of them shone brighter than Leonardo DiCaprio. After two decades and four near-misses, the film icon finally reeled in his first Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards for his hypothermia-inducing, raw-liver-eating portrayal of a rugged 1820s fur trapper in the brutal Alejandro González Inarritu epic The Revenant. It was a long time coming, but the Internet’s favorite Oscar-losing meme didn’t take the time to gloat. Instead, he used the glare of his big moment to shine a much-needed light on climate change and environmental conservation.
Bear-maulings and brutal filming conditions aside, The Revenant is far from the first acting masterclass Leonardo DiCaprio has turned in through his two and a half decades in show business. In fact, arguably his greatest acting performance came in one of his earliest roles. DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nomination at age 19 for his powerful performance as Arnie Grape, the mentally disabled brother of the titular protagonist in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Following his role as Jack Dawson in the 1997 record-breaker Titanic, the world got its first taste of Leo-Mania, as DiCaprio instantly became one of the most recognizable faces in the world of entertainment.
After a string of duds and a tumultuous run as America’s newest teen heartthrob, Leo again proved his acting chops with a riveting performance in Gangs of New York, only to be overshadowed in the same film by Daniel Day-Lewis. He followed that up with a pair of critically-acclaimed roles in The Aviator and Blood Diamond, both of which resulted in failed Oscar nominations. His work as jet-setting stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street earned him yet another nomination from the Academy in 2014, where he fell short to Matthew McConaughey at the peak of his McConaissance.
It may have taken far too long for some, but in the end, the Oscar drought was worth the wait. Leonardo DiCaprio took home his long-awaited trophy for a tremendously powerful performance, but not before putting on another strong performance on stage. Leo seized the opportunity to call out for urgent action against what he called “the most urgent threat facing our species.” Urging his audience to step up support for leaders who stood against corporate pollution and greed, DiCaprio stressed the importance of working together to speak for the underprivileged people whose voices are seldom heard.
While it sparked no small degree of controversy, Leo’s Oscars speech shouldn’t have come as a surprise. DiCaprio has long been a vocal proponent of environmental conservation, clean energy and other related causes, tracing his activist roots at least back to 1998, when a meeting with Al Gore, then the Vice President of the United States, prompted the young actor to establish the Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation. Through his foundation and other charitable efforts, DiCaprio has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund, SavingSpecies and dozens of other programs to further environmental causes.
Over the years, Leo DiCaprio has used his tremendous worldwide celebrity as a very visible and far-reaching platform for environmental, climate and energy issues. His activism has earned him prestigious awards from the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum as well as a role as a UN Peace Messenger, which he’s used to promote collective global action on the issue of climate change. He’s joined a long list of powerful figures calling for a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy – a goal that the United States, which currently gets about 10 percent of its annually consumed energy from renewable sources according to Direct Energy, is presently far from reaching.
In addition to his speeches, charitable donations and foundation work, DiCaprio often lends his talents to environmental causes in other ways as well. He’s served as a producer and narrator for documentaries such as The 11th Hour, Carbon, and Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, and his newest project aspires to an even bigger scope. In a multi-year partnership with Netflix, DiCaprio and his production company are slated to produce a string of documentaries tackling environmental issues. Film has long been an avenue for delivering strong environmental and political messages, including no less than the granddaddy of all movie monsters, Godzilla, but DiCaprio has taken his powerful and overt efforts a step further than most.
Leonardo DiCaprio has made millions of dollars playing timeless, larger-than-life characters on the big screen, and he’s become one of the most influential and recognizable faces in the world as a result. However, it’s his dedicated work as an advocate for a cleaner, greener Earth that may prove to be his greatest lasting legacy. His Oscar night speech may have been his most visible appearance yet as an environmental activist, but fittingly for the man who owes his fame partly to the timeless classic Titanic, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.