On The Beach

For someone who hates reporters, Leonardo DiCaprio has certainly made their lives easy. There's always another bar fight, a public make-out session or a night out prowling with his gang, the tastefully named "pussy posse." The gossip machine followed the 25-year-old superstar all the way to Thailand last year, where he filmed "The Beach," which hits theaters Feb. 11. During production, local environmentalists accused the filmmakers of trashing the island where they were shooting, and protested by putting on Leo masks and bloody fangs. (The filmmakers said they left the beach better than they found it.) At the same time, rumors started flying about Leo and his costar Virginie Ledoyen--the most sensational was that he had gotten her pregnant. Both stars have denied having a relationship. But all the publicity has helped make "The Beach" one of the most highly anticipated movies of the season--so anticipated that Fox executives are getting nervous. Even though they shelled out $20 million for Leo (out of the movie's $50 million budget), they don't want anyone expecting "Titanic."

Based on Alex Garland's best-selling novel, and produced by the unsurpassingly hip "Trainspotting" team (director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald, screenwriter John Hodge), "The Beach" follows a Gen-X backpacker named Richard (DiCaprio) on his search for a secret island paradise he's only heard about. On the way, he falls for a woman named Francoise (Ledoyen), and she and her boyfriend join the quest. They finally reach the perfect beach after a series of cinematic adventures, including a jump off a 120-foot waterfall. They fish, they swim, they smoke a lot of pot. But before long, nirvana unravels; nightmarish violence ensues; "Road Rules" runs smack into "Lord of the Flies."

Garland's novel was hailed as a parable about rich, spoiled Westerners who defile the unspoiled Third World every chance they get, an ironic twist that haunted the eco-controversy surrounding the movie. In interviews, Leo has waxed on about the domination of Western culture, and how strongly he identified with Richard's desire to escape a world soaked in American pop culture, movies and television. As king of that world, he should know.

Always uncomfortable with the Tiger Beat hysteria that accompanied "Titanic," Leo took almost two years to settle on Boyle's movie--the only one, he's said, that wouldn't bore him. (He flirted briefly with "American Psycho.") "The Beach" harks back to Leo's arty, uncommercial days, when his films ("This Boy's Life," "Basketball Diaries") got good reviews and bad box office. Dark and visceral, "The Beach" is Leo's postadolesent rebellion against his preadolescent fans--a titanic kiss-off to Leomaniacs.

All of last year's PR headaches culminated in Leo's parting of the ways with his publicity firm, Baker Winokur Ryder. The story was that BWR had promised Vanity Fair that Leo would be its February cover boy. But in October, Leo overruled his publicist and opted to do the February cover of Miramax-owned Talk magazine instead. (A BWR spokesman says that this incident was not the cause of the split.) "I do whatever the hell I want to do," says Leo in the current Face magazine. "I'm not going to let anyone dictate how I should lead my life." His next film, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," focuses on gang warfare in the 1800s. Celine Dion won't be singing along to that one, either.