Mark Harris
February 11, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Is Leo DiCaprio or Matt Damon the smarter actor?

Remember Highlights for Children, that strange little kids’ magazine you used to read in the dentist’s office when you were growing up? My favorite feature was always ”Goofus and Gallant,” the cartoon tale of two brothers, one a model of good behavior, one a bad example in every way. The captions would always offer a one-two punch along the lines of ”Gallant shares his chocolate bar with a friend…. Goofus eats his with his mouth open, and doesn’t even wash his hands!”

”G&G” occurred to me while I was pondering the case of two of our brightest (in terms of talent, potential, and hair color) stars: Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. DiCaprio and Damon both broke big within weeks of each other in December of 1997, one with ”Titanic,” the other with ”Good Will Hunting.” A little more than two years later, with ”The Beach” about to open and ”The Talented Mr. Ripley” nearing the $80 million mark in theaters, it’s a little hard not to think of them as somehow joined. You know….

”Gallant wins a Best Screenplay Oscar, and goes right back to work…. Goofus spends all his time partying at Moomba!”

”Gallant has friends…. Goofus has a posse!”

”Gallant has made ”Rounders,” ”Dogma,” ”Saving Private Ryan,” and ”Ripley,” has ”All The Pretty Horses” and ”The Legend of Bagger Vance” in the can, and may make ”Minority Report” with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise…. Goofus went to the beach!”

Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair. But underneath it resides a lesson for young actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, one of our very best, probably hasn’t done himself any favors by waiting so long and working so little. DiCaprio’s reps would doubtless say he was waiting so long because he’s picky — and he has a right to be. Good roles don’t come along every day. (On the other hand, gimme a break — DiCaprio clearly had first crack at every good script with a role for a man between 15 and 40 in the last two years.)

The point is that he didn’t guarantee himself a better performance — or a better movie — by not working. Damon, Edward Norton, Jim Carrey — even less bankable actors like Wes Bentley, Giovanni Ribisi, Tobey Maguire, and Joaquin Phoenix — seem to have had little trouble finding roles that challenge them and their audiences lately. Not every choice they’ve made has been great, but their choice to do the job is pretty unarguable. (It’s not just a lesson for the young: Doesn’t everybody wish that Stanley Kubrick had gotten ”Eyes Wide Shut” out of his system around 1991 and moved on to something else?)

Which brings us to the opening of ”The Beach,” a movie that few expect will be a blockbuster but that’s being viewed as a test of DiCaprio’s post-”Titanic” drawing power. It’s a question that the actor doesn’t deserve to have to face — every actor has hits and flops, and no actor gets drummed out of Hollywood after one of the latter — but one that he’s brought on himself. Regardless of which column ”The Beach” falls in, it’s time for him to get to work, and not just once every two years. It’s not so hard: Do a comedy. Take a good supporting role. Work with a director you admire. Work with an actor you admire. Play someone ugly. Play someone ordinary. The options are limitless if you pay attention to them. That’s why DiCaprio’s next big decision will be his most important: Goofuses dither. Gallants act. Which one does he want to be?

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