De Niro, Robert (1943—)

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De Niro, Robert (1943—)

For approximately a decade from the mid-1970s, screen actor Robert De Niro came to embody the ethos of urban America—most particularly New York City, where he was born, raised, and educated—in a series of performances that demonstrated a profound and introspective intelligence, great power, and the paradigm skills of the acting technique known as the Method at its best.

In his gallery of violent or otherwise troubled men and social misfits, it is in his portrayal of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) that his image is likely to remain forever enshrined. As the disturbed, nervy, under-educated Vietnam vet who, through the skewed vision of his isolation and ignorance, sets out on a bloody crusade to cleanse society's ills, De Niro displayed an armory of personal gifts unmatched by any actor of his generation. The film itself was a seminal development in late-twentieth-century cinema, and it is not too fanciful to suggest that, without its influence, certain films in which De Niro excelled for other directors, notably Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), might not have existed—at least not in as uncompromising a form. It is impossible to catalogue or categorize De Niro's work without examining his significant actor-director relationship with Martin Scorsese, for, while the actor's substantial skills and the concentrated intensity of his persona were very much his own, it is to that symbiotic collaboration that much of his success could be credited. Scorsese explored, interpreted, and recorded the underbelly of Manhattan as no director before him—not even Francis Coppola—had done.

It was Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese's picture of small-time gangster life in New York's Little Italy, that focused major attention on De Niro, albeit his role as Johnny Boy, a brash, none-too-bright and volatile hustler, was secondary to that played by Harvey Keitel. De Niro had already appeared in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama (1970) and the unfunny Mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971) at the time of Mean Streets, and he soon became stamped as American cinema's most authoritative and interesting purveyor of criminals, large and small.

The son of an artist-poet father and an artist mother, Robert De Niro decided in his teens to become an actor and studied at several institutions, including the Stella Adler Studio and with Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York City. He worked in obscurity off-Broadway and in touring theater companies before Brian De Palma discovered him and used him in his first three little-seen films—The Wedding Party (1963, released 1969), Greetings (1968), and Hi Mom! (1969). In these, the young De Niro revealed an affinity with the anarchic, and, indeed, De Palma perhaps came closest to Scorsese in being, at that time, a natural director for De Niro. They worked together again almost twenty years later when De Niro, honed in cold villainy, enhanced The Untouchables (1989) as a mesmerizing Al Capone. It was his supporting role in Bloody Mama that brought De Niro meaningful attention, and several minor movies followed before Mean Streets and his first real mainstream appearance as the baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), which earned him the New York Critics Circle best actor award.

His rising reputation and compelling presence survived his somewhat uncomfortable inclusion in Bertolucci's Italian political epic 1900 and his blank, if elegant, performance in Elia Kazan's disastrous The Last Tycoon (both 1976). His Oscar-nominated Travis Bickle, followed by his Jimmy Doyle in Scorsese's New York, New York (1977) fortunately superseded both. The director's dark take on a musical genre of the 1940s was badly cut before its release and suffered accordingly. Underrated at the time and a commercial failure, it nonetheless brought plaudits for De Niro, essaying a saxophonist whose humor and vitality masks arrogance, egotism, and an inability to sustain his love affair with, and marriage to, Liza Minnelli's singer.

Next came The Deer Hunter, giving the actor a role unlike anything he had done before, albeit as essentially another loner. A somber treatment of male relationships, war, and heroism in which a bearded De Niro, voice and accent adjusted to the character, was as tough and tensile as the steel he forged in a small, bleak Pennsylvania town. His Michael is the authoritative leader of his pack of hunting and drinking buddies, a fearless survivor—and yet locked into a profound and unexpressed interior self, permitted only one immensely effective outbreak of overt emotion when confronted by the death wish of his buddy (Christopher Walken), which his own heroics are finally powerless to conquer.

De Niro began the 1980s with a triumphant achievement, shared with Scorsese. Raging Bull (1980), filmed in black-and-white, dealt with the rise, fall, and domestic crises of middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta, an Italian American who copes with his personal insecurities with braggadocio and bullying. It was known that De Niro went to lengths in preparing his roles, keeping faith with the letter and spirit of the Method in his search for authenticity. In preparing to play LaMotta, he trained in the ring, entering some amateur contests, and famously put on sixty pounds for the later-life sequences. It was a bravura performance in one of the best fight films ever made. The actor was garlanded with praise and awards, including the Best Actor Oscar, and nine years later the film was voted the best of the decade. It was a faultless achievement for both star and director.

Inexplicably, although widely acknowledged and admired as a great actor, De Niro, for all his achievements, was not proving a great movie star —a label that refers to marquee value and box office clout. It was to the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers that producers looked for big financial returns, which might account for some of De Niro's erratic choices during the 1980s. He was brilliant on familiar ground, aging thirty years as a gangster in Sergio Leone's epic Once upon a Time in America in 1983, the year of The King of Comedy for Scorsese. This superb collector's piece for the cognoscenti failed disastrously at the box office, despite De Niro's deathless portrayal of would-be comedian Rupert Pupkin, a pathetically disturbed misfit whose obsessional desire for public glory through television leads him to kidnap TV star Jerry Lewis and demand an appearance on his show as ransom. The film is cynical, its title ironic: tragedy lies at its heart. It lost a fortune, and director and star went their separate ways for seven years.

Until then, and for much of the 1990s, De Niro's career had no discernible pattern. Desirous of expanding his repertoire on the one hand, and seeming bored with the ease of his own facility on the other, he appeared in numerous middle-of-the-road entertainments which had little need of him, nor he of them. After King of Comedy, he went into Falling in Love (1984) with Meryl Streep, about an abortive affair between two married commuters, largely perceived as a contemporary American reworking of Brief Encounter. The result was a disappointment and a box-office failure. Variety accurately noted that "The effect of this talented pair acting in such a lightweight vehicle is akin to having Horowitz and Rubinstein improvise a duet on the theme of 'Chopsticks."'

Other attempts to break the mold between 1985 and 1999 included a Jesuit priest in The Mission (1986), worthy but desperately dull; his good-natured bounty hunter in Midnight Run (1988), entertaining but unimportant; an illiterate cook in Stanley and Iris (1990), a film version of the novel Union Street that verged on the embarrass-ingly sentimental; Guilty by Suspicion (1991) an earnest but uncompelling attempt to revisit the McCarthy era in which De Niro played a film director investigated by the HUAC—the list is endless.

On the credit side, among the plethora of undistinguished or otherwise unworthy vehicles and performances delivered on automatic pilot, De Niro met a major challenge in Penny Marshall's Awakenings (1990), earning an Academy Award nomination for his moving portrayal of a patient awakened from a twenty-year sleep by the drug L-dopa; he did all that could have been expected of him in the politicalsatire Wag the Dog (1997); and he gave an accomplished character performance in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997). Almost unrecognizable as a shambling wreck of an ex-con, he seemed initially disconcertingly blank, but this proved deceptive as, in one of the film's best moments, he revealed the chilling hole where a man's heart would normally reside.

It was, however, three more films with Scorsese that made public noise. Their long separation was broken by GoodFellas (1990), a brilliant and violent evocation of the Mafia hierarchy, but while De Niro shared in the accolades and acquitted himself with the expertise that was only to be expected, he was in a sense retreading familiar ground. The same was true of the over-long and less successful Casino (1995). In between, he scored his biggest success as Max Cady, the vengeful psychopath in Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991). Threateningly tattooed, the actor broke the bounds of any conventional villainy to come up with a character so evilly repellent as almost, but not quite, to flirt with parody. The film, and his uncompromising performance, raised up his star profile once more, only for it to dissipate in the run of largely unmemorable films.

An intensely private man, Robert De Niro has eschewed publicity over the years and been notoriously uncooperative with journalists. His unconventional private life has been noted but caused barely a ripple of gossip. Married from 1975 to 1978 to Diahnne Abbott, by whom he had a son, he fathered twins by a surrogate mother for his former girlfriend Toukie Smith, and he married Grace Hightower in 1997. He seemed to grow restless during these years of often passionless performances, seeking somehow to reinvent himself and broaden the horizons of his ambition. In 1988 he bought an eight-story building in downtown Manhattan and set up his TriBeCa Film Center. Aside from postproduction facilities and offices, it housed De Niro's Tribeca restaurant, the sought-after and exclusive haunt of New York's media glitterati.

It was from there that De Niro launched himself as a player on the other side of the camera, producing some dozen films between 1992 and 1999. One of these, A Bronx Tale (1993), marked his directing debut. Choosing a familiar milieu, he cast himself as the good guy, a bus driver attempting to keep his young son free of the seemingly glamorous influence of the local Mafia as embodied by Chazz Palminteri—a role that he once would have played himself.

After attempting to regain the acting high ground as a tough loner in John Frankenheimer's ambiguous thriller Ronin (1998)—material inadequate to the purpose—De Niro began displaying a new willingness to talk about himself. What emerged was a restated ambition to turn his energy to directing because, as he told the respectable British broadsheet The Guardian in a long interview during the fall of 1998, "directing makes one think a lot more and I have to involve myself—make my own decisions, my own mistakes. It's more consuming. The actor is the one who has to grovel in the mud and jump through hoops."

His words had the ring of a man who had exhausted his own possibilities and was searching for a new commitment, but whatever the outcome, Robert De Niro's achievements had long assured his place in twentieth-century American cultural history.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Dougan, Andy. Untouchable—A Biography of Robert De Niro. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.

Friedman, Lawrence S. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. New York, Continuum, 1997.

Le Fanu, Mark. "Robert De Niro." The Movie Stars Story. Edited by Robyn Karney. New York, Crescent Books, 1986.

——. "Robert De Niro." Who's Who in Hollywood. Edited by Robyn Karney. New York, Continuum, 1994.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

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De Niro, Robert (1943—)

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