June 11th, 2003

Robert De Niro

He’s blown it so many times. His judgment has come to suck. He stiffed, literally, in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He’s mortgaged his reputation countless time, parodying the once-awesome De Niro screen persona in dire outings like Analyse That. And it’s not just the choice of films. Even in Tarantino’s excellent Jackie Brown, he’s barely noticeable, slouched extraneously on a couch like so much reduced thespian goods. The man has descended from Raging Bull (1980) to The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle (2000).

And yet, Robert De Niro is indisputably the most compelling screen actor of the last 30 years. Pacino’s great but he don’t even come close. Pesci’s a psychotic spark but a miniature besides the Man. His reputation doesn’t entirely rest on The Scorsese Years (1973-1983). He simmers with a new maturity and self-possession in Ronin, or face to face with Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat. He’s only half-bad in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables – a stuffed-up stock heavy as Capone but when he goes to work with the baseball bat, it’s one of cinema’s great sphincter-loosening moments. He’s a perfect sport in 1988’s underrated comedy Midnight Run, allowing his twitchy, self-contained persona to be tickled and teased by the brilliantly funny Charles Grodin. And don’t forget Goodfellas or Casino.


Generally, however, the De Niro legacy consists in a sequence of films including The Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Once Upon A Time In America and King Of Comedy. These were diverse roles. As Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, he’s a fidgety, blundering, volatile young street hood. In The Deer Hunter, he plays a Vietnam vet who, strengthened and saddened by wisdom, is the steadying moral anchor of the movie. In Raging Bull, he plays Jake LaMotta, a brutal middleweight whose body is a primed and bludgeoning weapon of relentless machismo. In King Of Comedy, he plays Rupert Pupkin, a gauche schmuck who’d probably come off second best in a slappy fight with Sandra Bernhard. In each case here, De Niro “became” the part, with a fervour legendarily instilled in him by his Method Acting background. He gained 60 pounds to play an ageing LaMotta. He spent hours learning to play sax for the part of Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York. Stories of abound of his time-consuming fastidiousness, his background research, his prowling flea markets for just the correct jacket.

And yet, as with Alec Guiness, to whom De Niro’s sometimes compared, he is versatile but not a chameleon. In his every performance, there’s a distinct De Niro-ness. That trademark grin, the way he cocks his head and holds a stare unnervingly, a smouldering interiority punctuated by occasional, surprise moments of action. It’s fine acting, it’s screen presence but it amounts to something more than method and skill. It’s something disquieting and inscrutable. For someone who considers himself solely a creature of his trade, those eyes of his, dead-eyed yet piercing, hint at something real, beyond cinema, beyond acting, that burns holes through the screen.

Critics have attempted vainly to fathom what this “something” is, searched for Oedipal clues in his background. Hey, his father was gay – maybe there’s something there. He always dates black women, what’s that about? Inarticulate in interviews, however, De Niro himself gives nothing away, disingenuously claims merely that he chose to be an actor rather than a personality. Yet De Niro’s best work leaves you feeling altered and somehow scourged – especially when in tandem with Scorsese. And what’s distinctive about his most memorable characters is that, while De Niro might have “transformed” himself to get into them, the characters themselves generally undergo no transformation during the course of the movies. They, learn nothing, aren’t themselves fundamentally changed by the experiences they undergo, although they perpetrate a helluva lot of change themselves. Whatever damage was done to Travis Bickle occurred long before Taxi Driver’s opening credits (in his case, in Vietnam). The macho rage of De Niro’s La Motta is preternatural. He’s no nice guy driven to desperate ends. The classic De Niro character is incorrigible, impervious, be it Rupert Pupkin, nodding away, little piggy eyes darting affirmatively as Jerry Lewis’s assistant tries to convey the reality of the situation to him but taking nothing in, or LaMotta, deaf to the pleading screams of those closest to him, set rock solid in his paranoid ways, combative to the final reel.

De Niro epitomises Cool – but he’s cooler than cool, a stone cold, almost psychotic force, tragically “strong”. Interestingly, it’s a force that cannot be softened by women, compromised by romance. In The Deer Hunter, there’s a hint that his Michael character may be a virgin. In Taxi Driver, his idea of a date is to take Cybill Shepherd to a porn movie. In Raging Bull, he has one sex scene with wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) in which he ice-packs his dick to prevent himself from coming, preserving his power for the ring – then spends the rest of the film slapping her around. Even in New York, New York, Doyle is too ridiculously insufferable to make for a plausible romantic lead.

All this is part of his latent appeal to men and repugnance to some women – especially the rape scene in Once Upon A Time In America. But there’s more to De Niro than this. The frightening, anti-heroic appeal of, say, a Travis Bickle chimes in with an overall sense first darkly intimated in the late, punk-driven Seventies that, despite the Aquarian optimism of the Sixties, things are now brutalised beyond repair. New York is fucked. America is fucked. Bickle is fucked. There’s no going back. All that remains is punishment. (This chimes in with Scorsese’s own Catholicism – he often deploys De Niro as an avenging angel – be it Bickle, come to wipe away the scum or later as Max Cady in Cape Fear, come to avenge Nick Nolte’s guilty liberal lawyer.) The classic De Niro character will never See The Light at the end of the movie because there’s no light to see. Bickle promised apocalypse and yet it’s Pupkin as Jerry Lewis’s stalker and kidnapper in the superb, often-dismissed King Of Comedy who anticipated the actual future, our own, terminally sick obsession with celebrity culture and Warholian fame.


Sure, De Niro has compromised his legacy with a string of dud appearances and MOR flicks. These he has done a) because as an actor he compulsively needs to act, b) he’s need to finance his own TriBeCa Film Center and c) Scorsese apart, few directors have really been able properly to exploit De Niro for the cinematic best. Tarantino signally failed in Jackie Brown. Tarantino’s no Scorsese. We can only hope that De Niro, far from being a spent force is keeping some of his powder dry. There’s one more big one in him yet.

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