| Kate Beckinsale and Leonardo DiCaprio at a screening of their film The Aviator last week in Los Angeles. (AP)
London, Dec. 6: For Leonardo DiCaprio, it was one of those moments when he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There he was, in a South American rainforest, studying the effects of mercury poisoning in the Amazon, when he was confronted by a group of naked Indians.
'They began pointing at me and saying 'Leonardo DiCaprio from Titanic',' he recalls with a helpless shrug. 'It was amazing. That film has broken so many cultural boundaries.' Although he has just turned 30, the boyishly handsome actor is resigned to the fact that he will always be linked to Titanic, the 1997 Oscar-winning film in which he and Kate Winslet played tragic lovers on the doomed ship.
It was his role in Titanic that confirmed his status as Hollywood's leading heartthrob and ushered in the surreal Beatle-like fan worship that became known as Leo-mania.
The attention and fan fever are likely to heighten with the release of The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's epic film about Howard Hughes. DiCaprio is being widely tipped for an Oscar nomination for his performance as Hughes, the eccentric tycoon who became a millionaire oilman, a successful filmmaker, a record-setting pilot, an aircraft designer and the founder of an international airline, before ending his life as an insane recluse, terrified of germs and the outside world.
Hughes is a man who has fascinated DiCaprio since he read a biography of him eight years ago and mentioned it to writer-director Michael Mann. Mann brought scriptwriter John Logan to the project and after much discussion they decided to concentrate on Hughes' life between 1927 and 1948, when he was a pioneering filmmaker and aviator.
Warren Beatty and others toyed for years with the idea of a film about Hughes, but none came off the drawing board. 'I think the reason no film has been done is because everyone has tried to focus on the older Howard Hughes, but it's not very cinematic because no matter how interesting he is, it's a man stuck in a hotel room for 15 years of his life with tissue boxes for shoes, talking on telephones,' says DiCaprio.
Michael Mann was exhausted and needed a break from directing, having just finished filming Ali, so DiCaprio took the idea to Martin Scorsese, with whom he had worked on Gangs of New York. Scorsese was riveted by Hughes' adventures and the story of greed, corruption and madness that surrounded them.
The Aviator begins shortly after Hughes' arrival in Hollywood to film Hell's Angels, which, at a cost of $4 million, was at the time by far the most expensive film ever made. It ends with Hughes' one and only flight at the controls of the Spruce Goose, the giant flying boat he designed and built.
In between, among other things, the film covers his love affair with Katharine Hepburn, a stormy romance with Ava Gardner, his flight around the world in a record-breaking four days, his purchase of Trans-World Airlines, his feuds with Pan-Am, his victory over a corrupt US Senator and his fight with film censors for the right to show Jane Russell's cleavage on screen.
His public exploits notwithstanding, Hughes was a man who valued his privacy.
'He was the last private man in America,' says DiCaprio. 'Despite his ambition, he had a strong need for solitude and I can definitely empathise with that.'
It is apparent to everyone but DiCaprio that there are other common denominators linking him and Hughes, apart from their love of privacy.
Both had a taste for beautiful women ' Hughes had affairs with Jean Peters, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and countless starlets. DiCaprio has romanced a slew of supermodels such as Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova and Amber Valetta, and he is currently involved with Gisele Bundchen.
Both men's romantic dalliances were regular fodder for the gossip columns, although the similarity seems lost on DiCaprio, who marvels at the thought of Hughes in his Hollywood heyday.
'Imagine being a billionaire at that time and being that good-looking and being a movie producer and a shy and private guy and so charming,' he says. 'It must have been a killer for the ladies. A killer.'
Another trait DiCaprio shares with Hughes is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hughes' compulsions eventually fuelled his descent into madness in later years while DiCaprio has a firm control of his mild symptoms, and used them to good effect while portraying Hughes. Not yet a recognised condition when Hughes was a sufferer, it increasingly took over his life, causing him to repeat phrases, continually wash his hands and break down at the sight of a spot on another man's suit.
'I think being obsessive-compulsive tied into his women, too,' said DiCaprio. 'He was never able to stay with one woman because he looked on them like aeroplanes: he literally wanted to get the faster, sleeker aeroplane with the bigger turbines.'