I have been with this most intense of actors since 1981, the year I was exposed to his portrayal of Jake La Motta in the film Raging Bull. It wasn’t the fact that he had gotten inside the boxer’s skin and replicated his character perfectly, it was that here was the most realised portrait of maleness I had ever witnessed. In Raging Bull, De Niro exposes so many sides of the male psyche it is, at times, shocking. Here he is tender, brutal, mocking, brooding, absolutely unreasonable, a strutting, macho tyrant hiding a little boy consumed by his sins. He is in love yet he acts with hate. It is, I would argue, his most consummate performance, delivered in one of director Martin Scorsese’s greatest films to date.
This heroic Oscar winning portrayal (the actor famously trained as a boxer for a year and then gained sixty pounds in weight to portray La Motta in middle age) brought to a climax the first period of De Niro’s lengthy and successful career. In that time, 1973 to 1980, the actor produced an extraordinary run of work that remains unparalleled in its scope, energy and intensity. In films such as The Godfather Part 11, Taxi Driver, New York New York, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, 1900 and King Of Comedy, he outstripped everyone, past and present.
His absolute dedication to his craft helped create a new American cinema, one that sought to examine life truthfully, that threw away conceived notions of entertainment and opted instead to explore issues such as betrayal, violence, loyalty and redemption. Most of all, De Niro gave a voice to all the outsiders, the ones who inhabit either physically or emotionally, the margins of society. Some of De Niro’s greatest moments are located in his work here – Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Raging Bull’s Jake la Motta, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and King Of Comedy’s, Rupert Pumpkin. These were the men that Hollywood had ignored and whom De Niro would render memorable. Although the films mentioned were never blockbusters, from them he picked up an audience that would remain hugely loyal to him. Most of them, I bet, were Catholics. Like myself.
Guilt, sin, guilt, fear of rejection, guilt, the search for meaning, isolation, and guilt again, these are the emotional tangents we respond to as we watch De Niro trying to make sense of the world, the square peg in the round hole. Meanwhile, we marvelled at the lengths of his dedication – learning the saxophone for New York, New York, living in Sicily to learn not only Italian but the specific the dialect of his character in The Godfather 11, training as a boxer for the first half of Raging Bull and then eating his way around Italy to portray La Motta in middle age.
Of course, this is film we are talking about here, a wonderland fully unable to replicate the world or worlds we live in. Yet in examining his uneasy relationship with the media, De Niro appears just as volatile and guarded as the characters he plays. In the media, he has become as famous for his inarticulate speech of the heart, as anything else. In a recent interview – which we will come too later - he was asked, ‘Do you like rock music?’ He replied. ‘I don’t know. You will have to ask someone else that.’ This is either the funniest reply ever or someone seriously paranoid about committing themselves. In interview after interview, he is the same, nervous, worried, sometimes insisting on meeting journalists for hours before a tape can be turned on and then pulling out at the last minute to scurry back to the shadows of his own making. Even in the lengthy Playboy interview he granted in the mid ‘80’s didn’t tell us much bar the facts.
To some such behaviour is intolerable. For me and a thousand others it only makes us want him more. Stardom, he seemed to be saying at the time, is unnecessary, gets in the way of the work. Questions of a personal nature are never tolerated and his technique – apart from offering cryptic clues about watching insects – rarely revealed. It is as if without a role to play, he retreats inside like a crab, silent, waiting for the next piece of action.
But in the ‘80’s, De Niro began to change, started to scale down the intensity of his work although not his talent. His portrayal of Noodles in Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In America was brilliant whilst his cameo in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart was riveting. Similarly, his brief take on Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables left you wishing the film had centred on him and not Kevin Costner.
Yet for a man who was said to agonize over every script before committing, a lot of puzzling decisions were made. I speak of Stanley and Iris, Jackknife and the terrible, We’re No Angels. Whilst his friend Harvey Keitel sought the challenge of films such as Bad Lieutenant, De Niro seemed to lose his all consuming passion, his total commitment. Even so, there were still great performances for us to thrill over.
His Max Cady in Scorsese’s flawed remake of Cape Fear, (he was said to have actually smoked dope in the film’s most powerful scene with Juliet Lewis) his participation in Scorsese’s brilliant 90s answer to Coppola’s Godfather films, Goodfellas and the neglected Casino, had us riveted again by his powers. Yet there was also his role in films I doubt he would have even thought about in earlier days such as Mad Dog and Glory or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and it is this trend that he has chosen to pursue in recent years. Actually, it is not a trend he has pursued, it is money. Big money. To do so, the outsider has now entered the Hollywood building.
Apart from wasting himself in execrable films such as Fifteen Minutes or Ronin, or being upstaged by Ed Norton in The Score, De Niro has turned to comedy, lightweight comedy. His roles in Meet The Parents and Analyze This have been so successful that he has been paid millions for the sequels. Plus, his production company is involved so he also shares in their profits. He has shares in a number of restaurants in America and London and he recently appeared onstage in London to publicize his financial involvement in the Queen musical, We Will Rock You. It was surreal to turn on the TV and see Robert De Niro holding a guitar with three mullet haired grizzled musicians and posing for the cameras. Worse than that, it was the kind of publicity stunt that a man of his stature should never have taken part in. What would have Johnny Boy thought?
If De Niro were to answer these criticisms he would no doubt say, don’t be so dam stupid. Johnny Boy was years ago, Johnny Boy doesn’t exist inside of me anymore. Sod you. I have done my bit for art, for acting, for cinema. Now I am a player. It’s my chosen role and you have absolutely no right to criticize me. I am beholden to no-one. Never have been, never will. Haven’t you learnt anything form my work.
I can’t argue against such reasoning. Nor would I want to. In the end, it is unreasonable to heap such criticism upon him or expect anymore from a man who has given me so much.Still, I would have hoped that Tribeca, given his past status, would have produced much more than sure-fire hits such as About A Boy or Meet The Parents. Still, I hope that De Niro will spring just one more cracker of a performance, the kind that I witnessed back in 1981 and made me walk from Warren Street to Archway in an absolute daze.
Maybe he will do it as a director. His skill as one was evident in his only attempt at the art, A Bronx Tale from 1993. His guarded comments at the time about the role of the financial backers in the making of that film is perhaps a clue as to why he has not gone down that path since. The irony, of course, is that now he is the money man.
Robert De Niro once said that he poured so much of himself into his work because films survive and long after he is gone he wants to be remembered in great artistic terms. And he will be. He is a fantastic actor whose work in film has produced everlasting classics. And despite everything, I remain a fan, intrigued and as interested in his work and enigmatic character, as ever.
After all, if my house was on fire the one thing I would probably want to rescue above all, is my treasured signed photo of him. It’s just that ten years ago, the word probably would never have been in that last sentence. Words Paolo Hewit