NEW YORK – You thought he looked tough in Gangs of New York.
Now Leo DiCaprio is taking on three foes who pack an even meaner punch than Bill the Butcher: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell and Jim Carrey.
All three are hard at work on movies that directly compete with some of DiCaprio's pet projects.
Just last week, Cruise optioned the rights to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a best-selling history of America's first known serial killer.
But DiCaprio also has a thriller of his own in the works about suave and wealthy physician H.H. Holmes, who preyed on women at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, luring them to a nearby hotel he owned, and eventually murdering 27 people. DiCaprio's tale focuses on both the killer and the detective who's hot on his trail.
"Leo could play either of those roles," says DiCaprio's manager, Cynthia Biamon.
That's provided he can find the time.
Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann has cast DiCaprio as the lead in a massive epic about the bisexual Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, which would co-star Nicole Kidman as Alexander's mother.
But wait -- Oliver Stone has already started pre-production on his own Alexander the Great movie starring "it" actor Colin Farrell.
Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese, who directed DiCaprio in Gangs, has lined Leo up for The Aviator, a biopic about the eccentric billionaire and germophobe Howard Hughes.
Audiences will get to see who's a more convincing Hughes -- DiCaprio or Carrey, who is set to play Hughes in a movie directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento).
Hollywood hasn't seen such a gunfight since 1994, when Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell shot it out with Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, respectively.
(For the record, Tombstone earned $56.5 million at the box office, while Earp pulled in a measly $25 million.)
"It's almost unheard of for two films with overlapping characters to come out around the same time," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations which tracks box-office numbers.
"In a situation like that, only one of the two films makes money -- usually the one which comes out first."
So it's a race to the finish line for all three DiCaprio projects.
The Aviator is one likely winner: Scorsese and DiCaprio will begin shooting in L.A. on May 12, aiming for a fall 2004 release.
Those connected to the Nolan/Carrey version hope their movie will be different enough that both will find an audience.
"They're about completely different Howards," says Richard Hack, author of the biography Carrey's movie is based on.
Carrey will play the old and crazy Hughes, while DiCaprio's movie focuses on the mogul in his youth, when he was a dashing playboy wooing Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
But while DiCaprio works on Aviator, he's losing the edge on the Alexander movie.
Stone already has done some shooting in the Himalayas on Farrell's Alexander pic, while Luhrmann spent Friday in Los Angeles, meeting with the film's producer, Dino DeLaurentiis.
DiCaprio may not even get around to making "Alexander," admits his spokesman, Ken Sunshine.
"Right now, The Aviator is the only definite," Sunshine says.
As for the serial killer movie, DiCaprio's manager says she expects to see a first draft before the end of the month -- adding it's in the very early stages, along with about 10 other projects DiCaprio has bought for his production company, Appian Way.
"It doesn't matter what anyone else is doing," says Sunshine.
"If Leo feels strongly about this movie, or anything else, he's going to do it. Everyone should have Leo's problems."
Leonardo DiCaprio wants to play three famous faces from the past, but so do other leading men. Who's got the edge?
Subject: Bizarre billionaire Howard Hughes
Rival: Jim Carrey
Expert opinion: "Carrey's good, because he's such a demented character himself," says historian Richard Hack.
Subject: Macho Macedonian Alexander the Great
Rival: Colin Farrell
Expert opinion: "I asked the girls in my class this question, and they were way more into Colin Farrell," says Wellesley College classics professor and Alexander expert Guy Rogers.
Subject: Debonair serial killer H.H. Holmes
Rival: Tom Cruise
Expert opinion: "Neither. I'd rather have someone with an edge, like Harvey Keitel," says Russell Lewis, director of collections for the Chicago Historical Society.