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Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet: Which ‘Titanic’ Star Has the Better Career?

Fifteen years after the blockbuster movie, Ramin Setoodeh talks to Hollywood insiders about whether Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio has the better career.

Everett Collection (2); Getty Images (2)

Fifteen years ago, director James Cameron cast a wide—and deep—net, looking for two stars to anchor his movie about an unsinkable ship.

Cameron originally wanted Gwyneth Paltrow to play his leading lady, Rose DeWitt, but she turned it down for Sliding Doors. He considered Jared Leto for the marquee role of Jack Dawson, but the My-So Called Life star refused to audition, a source close to the production recently told me.

Instead, the director found Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. They saved the movie from drowning, and became the new Bogart and Bacall. Titanic was the Gone With the Wind of its time. It also was a relic of old Hollywood because (unlike Cameron’s subsequent Avatar) it turned its two lead actors into major international stars. With Titanic 3D opening this week, we asked insiders to weigh in on Kate’s and Leo’s careers and crown the ultimate “King of the World”:

Box Office

Titanic was—and will always be—the biggest commercial success for either actor. It grossed $600 million at the domestic box office, a figure that will only climb with the rerelease.

DiCaprio has made five other films that have crossed $100 million in the United States: Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and Inception (his biggest non-Titanic hit to date, at $293 million). In all, his 21 films have landed him a significant career gross of $1.8 billion, according to Box Office Mojo. That puts him behind Matt Damon ($2.5 billion) and Brad Pitt ($2.2 billion) but ahead of George Clooney ($1.6 billion) and Ben Affleck ($1.5 billion).

Winslet is a big movie star, too, but she’s not the kind of actress who can open a movie. (Few are anymore.) She followed Titanic with five indie films, including Quills and Iris, each of which grossed less than $10 million. Overall, her 23 films have grossed $1.1 billion, a figure that becomes less impressive when you consider Titanic makes up 55 percent of all tickets sold to Kate Winslet movies. Her second biggest hit, last year’s Contagion ($76 million), was an ensemble buoyed up by Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Jude Law. Her other 2011 film, Carnage, grossed $2.5 million.

The winner: Leo.


Let’s start with Hollywood’s most debauched honor. DiCaprio has been nominated for eight Golden Globes, and he won for The Aviator in 2005. Winslet has nine nominations, and she’s won three times (The Reader and Revolutionary Road in 2009, and HBO’s Mildred Pierce this year). Her performance in Mildred Pierce also landed her an Emmy. DiCaprio has no Emmys.

But we all know that the only trophy that really matters in Hollywood is the Oscar. Winslet has been nominated six times: Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, and The Reader, for which she finally took home the statuette. DiCaprio was snubbed for some of his best performances, among them Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, and J. Edgar. He had one pre-Titanic nomination (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and two that came after (The Aviator and Blood Diamond), making him a three-time Oscar nominee—and three-time loser! “The one thing that has kept Leo back,” says a veteran publicist who handles Oscar campaigns, “is his unwillingness to work at an awards campaign. At a time when even Meryl Streep is showing up and sitting down with bloggers, Leo has kept a distance from it. He’s never out there to say—‘I care about winning an award. Look at my body of work!’”

The winner: Kate.

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The Hollywood insiders we talked to acknowledged that both actors have a similar work ethic. “I think both of them are people who choose material over what they perceive to be commercial success,” says a producer of one of the biggest-grossing movies of last year. To that end, both Kate and Leo have worked with some of the most accomplished directors in Hollywood.

In her corner, Winslet has Charlie Kaufman, Marc Forster, Todd Field, Stephen Daldry, Nancy Meyers, her ex-husband Sam Mendes, Roman Polanski, Todd Field, and Steven Soderbergh. “I think she’s doing great,” our producer raves. “I think of her as a one-generation-younger Meryl Streep.”

DiCaprio’s list includes Scorsese, Scorsese, and more Scorsese (they’ve teamed together four times, with a fifth project on the way) as well as Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg, Edward Zwick, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Clint Eastwood

The winner: It’s a tie.


After Titanic, DiCaprio tried to distance himself from the pretty-boy heartthrob image. He may have overdone it—making movies that were so dark and tortured, his character rarely survived the closing credits. (His only “light” role was a decade ago, in Catch Me If You Can.) Working with Scorsese so many times also meant that he essentially abandoned the demographic that turned him into a star in the first place: female moviegoers. “Stop with these edgy movies!” says another established Hollywood producer. “He should do an action-comedy. He can do five dark movies if he does one big action-adventure thriller. That’s what I would tell him.” Our other producer suggests that he try to find his inner Cary Grant, with more comedies. “I would love to see him spread his wings a little,” the insider says.

DiCaprio seems to want to be the Robert De Niro of his generation, but it might be better for him to take a page from a different Bob—Robert Downey Jr. DiCaprio has made it clear that he doesn’t want to do a superhero movie, but given the pedigree of the latest Batman and Spider-Man franchises, he could do worse than trying on a pair of tights.

On the other hand, there isn’t anything that Winslet can’t do. Working with Nancy Meyers in The Holiday might not have garnered critical success, but it allowed her a chance at slapstick comedy. She’s done TV (including a hilarious cameo on Extras). And there’s buzz about a possible stage debut with David Hare. Our panel echoed each other in the sentiment that “Kate is one of the greatest actors in Hollywood.”

The winner: Kate

Sex Appeal

The thought of DiCaprio could once make an arena of tween girls quake like a Justin Bieber concert. Not anymore. The turning point, perhaps, was seeing DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes locked up in his bedroom alone—with jars of his own urine. By contrast, Winslet’s characters seem to be oozing sex (or sexual frustration.) In Little Children, Patrick Wilson can’t keep his paws off her and she can’t keep her clothes on, a common occurrence in Kate Winslet movies.

The winner: Kate

Up Next

For DiCaprio, 2012 is a big year. He plays Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a villain in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and he starts filming another Scorsese movie, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Winslet starts filming Labor Day directed by Jason Reitman, and Kenneth Branagh’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. That title alone gives the edge to …

The winner: Leo

What the Internet Says

She gives annoying acceptance speeches at awards shows.

He’s aloof. But what’s really unforgivable: he refused to attend the Titanic 3D premiere.

Winner: Kate

Overall scores:

Kate: 5; Leo: 3

Winner: Kate Winslet is the ultimate TitanicKing of the World.”