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The Greats: Robert De Niro

December 4, 2013  |  1:09pm
The Greats: Robert De Niro

Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

By any metric, Robert De Niro is one of the most important actors of the last 40 years. Two Academy Awards, a collection of hit movies, a long-running collaboration with a celebrated American director, the man responsible for the much-parodied “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver: De Niro is iconic, revered, influential. And yet there seems to be a permanent disappointment associated with his legacy—a sense that he somehow let us down along the way. It’s a perception that’s both understandable but also a little unfair. Do we honor him for the first 25 years or so of his career and ignore/rationalize the rest? Or do we allow them to coexist?

Born in August 1943, De Niro was raised in New York City by his parents, who were both painters. He was named after his father, Robert De Niro Sr., to whom he was never very close. (His mom and dad separated when he was young.) “I was living with my mother and I would see him every few weeks,” he recalled to Newsweek in 2012, “or sometimes I’d run into him in the street and we’d talk. We had a connection, but it was not one of going out and playing baseball together. He was an artist and lived on his own. He did take me to the movies, like King Kong and other black-and-white films at the arthouses on 42nd Street. He even tried to paint me many times when I was younger, but I wouldn’t sit still.” When his father died in 1993 of cancer, The New York Times obituary mentioned that the Abstract Expressionist painter’s work “was defined by an arresting physical confidence and a quality of natural talent that was widely acknowledged, even by critics who felt that his efforts could sometimes have an unfinished or impatient quality.” That description, both its positives and negatives, could apply to the son’s acting style, as well.

De Niro had the performing bug from an early age. At 10, he appeared in a production of The Wizard of Oz. He played the Cowardly Lion, fitting for an actor whose physicality and oversized emotions have always been integral to his characters. By 17, he had decided he wanted to act for a living. (“Acting is a cheap way to do things that you would never dare to do yourself,” he has said.) He studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Actors Studio, he did dinner theater and got roles in low-budget movies from the likes of Roger Corman and Brian De Palma.

But 1973 proved to be his breakthrough, first with the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly and then, more crucially, with Mean Streets. The latter film was his first with director Martin Scorsese, whom he met at a Christmas dinner party in 1972, the two men realizing that they had known each other as kids from running in the same circles. De Niro wasn’t the lead in Mean Streets—that was Harvey Keitel, as the tortured Charlie—but it was De Niro’s Johnny Boy that drew your attention—that funny, violent, immature screw-up who will probably get everybody killed but is too damn fun to be around. The role announced De Niro’s twitchy, incorrigible energy—although it wasn’t the part he initially wanted. Scorsese had offered him his pick of characters in Mean Streets, and De Niro took a shine to several others—it was Keitel who sold De Niro on Johnny Boy, and it was De Niro’s good fortune to listen to him. “I couldn’t see Johnny Boy [for me] at first, but in a way that was a good thing,” he later told biographer Andy Dougan. “When you play a role you don’t see yourself doing at first, you can get things from yourself that you ordinarily wouldn’t get.”

In quick succession after Mean Streets, he worked for major directors like Francis Ford Coppola (his Oscar-winning role in The Godfather Part II), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon) and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, which earned him a Best Actor nomination). But his collaborations with Scorsese were the highlight, shifting from the paranoid loner of Taxi Driver to the reckless musician of New York, New York to the supremely tormented prizefighter Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a performance that won him his second Oscar. These are many of De Niro’s pantheon highlights, such obvious benchmarks that we can take them for granted, reducing them to a rote reciting of notable credits. But that would be a disservice to the towering force he brought to these roles. Whether playing the dangerous Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or the more soulful Michael of The Deer Hunter, De Niro seemed bracingly alive—an actor who poured everything into his performances. It was fitting that he had played a younger version of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II: It seemed like a passing of the baton from one frighteningly dedicated actor to another. (Something else they share: a reluctance to talk about their craft. “Marlon and I never talked about our performances in The Godfather,” De Niro said in 2011. “What was he going to say? We knew each other. I spent time on his island with him. But you don’t talk about acting. You talk about anything but acting. I guess the admiration is unspoken.”)

More terrific performances followed in the 1980s—Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil and The Mission—but it’s unwise to overlook his turn in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which can be seen as a black-comedy twist on Taxi Driver, with De Niro’s pathetically talentless comic Rupert Pupkin a barely more endearing (and only slightly less frightening) character than Bickle. As in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it’s a portrayal that risks repelling the viewer, but it’s all the more compelling because of the skill and courage that’s evident.

The largeness of his performances was stunning, but it also painted him into a corner. For every Goodfellas or Casino or Heat—models of precise craft—there were movies like The Untouchables or Frankenstein or Cape Fear: hammy, showy portrayals that seemed to operate in their own universes independent of the story being told. A performer routinely in the “best actor of his generation” conversation, De Niro hadn’t lost his way, but he was in some ways a victim of his own success: The startling ferocity of his early work wasn’t nearly as startling when audiences came to expect it.

It wasn’t that De Niro wasn’t in potential blockbusters before the mid-’90s—The Untouchables was one of 1987’s highest grossers—but since then he’s appeared in more of them, and they’ve been some of weakest movies of his career. Misfires like The Fan, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Score and Showtime seemed to augur a disappointing future in which he would focus on paychecks more than quality. And while he’s been able to cultivate a new audience as a comically angry everyman in Midnight Run, Analyze This and the original Meet the Parents, it has lost some of its appeal thanks to the horrendous Fockers sequels and pitiful mainstream comedies such as The Big Wedding and New Year’s Eve. (Explaining his decision to be in the latter film, De Niro told The Wall Street Journal, “It paid well and I found myself in a situation where I had to weigh whether to do this or to do that, and I like [director] Garry Marshall.” This is not the most inspiring reason to do a film.)

As with any major actor who launched onto the scene with seemingly limitless potential, De Niro has had to contend with the weight of expectations he helped create. Some might choose to be selective in their roles for fear of tarnishing their legacy, but De Niro has been the opposite. In 2013, he has been in five films—each of the previous three years, he’s been in three. Is it creative drive, financial necessity, or a combination of the two? “Time is precious,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I have to do all these movies I want to do. I can’t really put them off for two years. … I mean, you want to be able to stand up when you make a movie.”

Between all those movies, he’s also been busy with other work. He’s directed two fine films, 1993’s A Bronx Tale and 2006’s The Good Shepherd, which contains one of Matt Damon’s most underrated performances. His production company, Tribeca Productions, has been responsible for movies as different as About a Boy and Public Enemies. But perhaps De Niro’s most important contribution to the culture in the new century is the Tribeca Film Festival, which was started in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks with his Tribeca Productions partner Jane Rosenthal. (“Bob felt personally insulted by what happened down here,” Harvey Weinstein told New York, “and it’s Jane’s tenacity that has made the festival happen. She got it done.”) While it still lacks the clout of other North American festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Telluride or the New York Film Festival, Tribeca has slowly begun to establish its bona fides, signaled by the fact that in 2009 it lured Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore away to become chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises.

De Niro can still deliver a superb performance. His turn in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook at first seemed like a riff on his harried-father routine we’ve seen from Meet the Parents. But a second viewing shows how much feeling there is in De Niro’s portrayal as the gambling father who has never been able to connect with his mentally unstable son. It doesn’t wow you the way his early performances did—it’s small and sad and resigned. But the craft is still there. That run in the ’70s and ’80s will be difficult to replicate for anyone—expecting an older De Niro to do it is simply asking too much.

The few times De Niro gives interviews, he seems unconcerned about his standing. “When you get older you have a different attitude about certain stuff,” he said at the end of last year about acting. “You realize that you don’t have to expend all that energy to get where you want to get. You relax and back off a little and you might actually get more of what you’re looking for with less effort.” The younger De Niro might have rolled his eyes at that. It’s quite possible the older De Niro wouldn’t care.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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