Holy Hell! Man in the Iron Mask Turns 20

Holy Hell! Man in the Iron Mask Turns 20

A fun time capsule you’ll want to seek out, if only to question whether there was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t the golden boy.

After Titanic swept the Oscars in 1998, securing 11 awards and making its leads A-listers, many asked what teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio would do next. The young man’s face adorned the walls of many a teenage girl and after getting off the deck of the Titanic, and it was assumed he could write his own ticket. So what better way to follow up that swoony romance, one of the highest grossing films ever made, than by playing a dual role in an opulent period adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ incredibly French novel, The Man in the Iron Mask. Nothing says “teen girl swoon” better than putting their icon in wiglets and having him sound kingly, right?

In case you’ve yet to read Dumas’ novel, and I won’t blame you if you haven’t, The Man in the Iron Mask follows the older Three Musketeers as they attempt to right the crumbling French monarchy by replacing the despotic King Louis with his doppleganger, and by extension better, brother, Phillippe. Much of Dumas’ novel is based on conjecture surrounding the mysterious “man in the iron mask” who lived and died in the Bastille, with many theorizing he was Louis’ twin although this has since been all but disproven.

Upon release in 1998, The Man in the Iron Mask threatened to derail DiCaprio’s career, with many questioning whether he was a flash in the pan. His incredibly American acting in Titanic worked for the character of Jack Dawson, but playing the roles of King Louis XIV of France and his mysterious twin brother, Phillippe was immediately seen as a stretch. You can say DiCaprio was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t regarding the accent, and that’s true. He certainly leans into some type of performance here. He certainly has more fun playing King Louis, who saunters around, swathed in tights and tails, seducing whatever woman he wants. In a way, playing Louis was the door opening on the man we now know as Leonardo DiCaprio; the man who has a new model on his arm every month and generally locks himself away until a movie is released.

There are shades of Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Lestat from Interview with a Vampire that resonate here. DiCaprio lacks any personality that could be construed as French, but he’s fun. He may be the only character in The Man in the Iron Mask who knows the movie is doomed and refuses to take it seriously. There’s something hilarious and appropriate about hearing him scream to Phillippe that he’ll “wear the mask until you love it” that never fails to induce giggles.

When the action switches to Phillippe, after the Musketeers have rescued him and attempt to teach him all the ways to pass himself off as king, the actors around DiCaprio carry the weight. This is probably because DiCaprio has no clue how to play Louis’ meek brother. For starters, he looks perpetually scared and that works well for the character, but DiCaprio must be a man who never knows fear because it generally results in him looking like he needs to pee. Post-Man in the Iron Mask DiCaprio shied away from ever playing weak men. Yes, some of the characters may not be tough guys, but they all have an inner determination to them, so it’s possible to say DiCaprio knew this character wasn’t in his wheelhouse. When Phillippe makes his big attempt at passing himself off as Louis he fails because he’s just too nice, stooping down to help a fallen woman. Again, DiCaprio has never played a character you’d call polite, so these scenes always ring false. Give us more, Louis!

With DiCaprio pulling double duty in a role that is pretty much a gimmick, the rest of the cast has to be top-notch to actually tell the story. Thankfully, The Man in the Iron Mask stars every major thespian we could think of in 1998. Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Gerard Depardieu play D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, respectively. Outside of Depardieu, whose job revolves around little more than farting and being obnoxious – not sure if that’s a stretch – the rest of the trio act serious and showcase the Musketeers as old dads just looking for use again. In the case of Byrne, he’s stuck making goo-goo eyes at the Queen and being the true hero of the movie. Irons is the pious one, and Malkovich is auditioning for Taken about a decade too early as he seeks to avenge the death of his son (played by a baby Peter Sarsgaard).

And yet, for all the problems The Man in the Iron Mask has, I enjoy it. It’s cheese-tastic and it’s probably Leo’s worst film – actually, it’s not – but it has a charm that could have only worked in 1998. It’s a fun time capsule you’ll want to seek out, if only to question whether there was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t the golden boy.

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