I’ve heard from reputable sources that Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s The Revenant (20th Century Fox, 12.25) is definitely the shit, and if that turns out to be true I’m betting that Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the lead role of 19th Century trapper Hugh Glass, may finally snag a Best Actor Oscar. He’s been Best Actor-nominated three times (The Aviator, Blood Diamond, The Wolf of Wall Street) so maybe this’ll finally be it, 22 years after he broke into features with This Boy’s Life. The guy’s paid his dues.

Leo has been a power-hitter and marquee headliner for nearly 18 years now, or since Titanic. Nobody can ever diminish or take away the killer performances he gave in The Departed, Inception, Revolutionary Road and The Wolf of Wall Street, but when I think of vintage DiCaprio I rewind back to that dynamic six-year period in the ’90s (’93 to ’98) when he was all about becoming and jumping off higher and higher cliffs — aflame, intense and panther-like in every performance he gave. I was reminded of this electric period this morning that I watched the above YouTube clip of DiCaprio in Woody Allen‘s Celebrity (’98).

I respected Leo’s performance in This Boy’s Life but I didn’t love it, and I felt the same kind of admiring distance with Arnie, his mentally handicpped younger brother role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, partly because he was kind of a whiny, nasally-voiced kid in both and…you know, good work but later. Excellent actor, didn’t care for the feisty-kid vibes. But a few months before Gilbert Grape opened I met DiCaprio for a Movieline interview at The Grill in Beverly Hills, and by that time he was taller and rail-thin and just shy of 20 years old. I was sitting in that booth and listening to him free-associate while saying to myself, “This kid’s got it…I can feel the current.”

Then came a torrent: a crazy gunslinger in Sam Raimi‘s The Quick and the Dead (’95), as the delicate Paul Verlaine in Total Eclipse (’95), as himself in the semi-improvised, black-and-white homey film that only me and a few others saw called Don’s Plum (’95), as the druggy Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (’95), as a wild, angry kid in Jerry Zak’s Marvin’s Room, opposite Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet, as Jack Dawson in Titanic and finally as a parody of himself in Woody’s Celebrity. Eight performances, and every one a kind of sparkler-firecracker thing.

Then Leo took what felt like a year and half to drink and party (two-thirds of ’98, a good portion of ’99), and during that phase he was in a Randall Wallace clunker called The Man in the Iron Mask, giving the first “what the fuck is this?” performance of his career. And when he returned in Danny Boyle‘s The Beach (which opened in February of ’00) he’d gone doughy or something. That snap-crackle thing felt watered down or less focused or whatever. I only know that when he came on-screen in The Beach I said to myself “wait…what’s going on?” His face looked a bit puffy, his longish hair had been shorn off and his manner seemed dodgy and oblique.

DiCaprio’s career has been what’s been over the last 15 years. He gives it hell every time at bat and sometimes he really connects. He has a lot to be proud of. But there was something wild and flame-throwery during that crackerjack period of the ’90s, and I still get off on it when I catch one of those eight films. My favorites are still The Basketball Diaries, Don’s Plum, Marvin Room and Titanic.

Are you sure Titanic came out almost 18 years ago? Good effing God.