Robert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.
Over on Go-Go-Rama in the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. His career, as most cinephiles know, has had its up and downs. From 1973, when he burst on the scene in two films, Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, to the early ’80s, when he chalked up four Oscar nominations, he was part of the new Hollywood, a young firebrand, the heir to Brando (he even played the younger version of Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II).
But then his career went into decline. He did make what I think is one of his greatest performances, King of Comedy, in 1983, but then took projects seemingly without reading the script. We get marginal stuff like Angel Heart, The Mission (it did get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but he was miscast), True Confessions, and the turkey Falling in Love, with Meryl Streep. I liked Midnight Run and his amusing turn in The Untouchables, but We’re No Angels? Stanley and Iris? (I can still hear his plea to Jane Fonda–“Teach me how to read!”).
His career picked up, thanks to Scorsese again, with Goodfellas in 1990, though interestingly his role was the least flamboyant. He followed that with two more Oscar nominations: Awakenings, and the way-over-the-top Cape Fear (which has become iconic–if you hear somebody laughing way too loud in a movie theater, you will think of De Niro in that film).
Then he went into the wilderness awhile, with some good films, like Heat, Casino, and Wag the Dog, and some terrible ones, like The Fan. He worked a lot, probably too much to keep his legacy from streak marks. Some projects seemed promising–playing The Creature in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a re-imagining of Great Expectations by Alfonso Cuaron, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but weren’t his best work.
It was in 1999 that De Niro made a jump to comedy. Nobody thought of him associated with comedy, but Billy Crystal invited him to play a mobster in Analyze This, and De Niro’s career changed, not entirely for the better. In the Film Comment interview, De Niro says that he was always been comfortable with comedy–his first two films, Hi Mom! and Greetings were both comedies, but after Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and then Raging Bull especially, branded him as an intense dramatic actor.
Analyze This was okay, and Meet the Parents was okay, but there is no reckoning for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Showtime with Eddie Murphy, or his latest outrage, Bad Grandpa.
Interspersed with those films has been good work in smaller films. David O. Russell seems to have made a mission of resurrecting De Niro’s good name with Silver Lining’s Playbook (his most recent Oscar nomination), American Hustle, and Joy. Other than those films, he has made an astounding 40 films this century, most of them forgettable. Will anybody remember The Intern? Hands of Stone? The Comedian? Killing Season? The Family? Being Flynn? De Niro seems to have succumbed to the inability to say no to any script that ends up in his in-box.
But De Niro, despite tarnishing his legacy with these films, is still one of America’s greatest actors. If he had stopped with, say, Wag the Dog, it would be almost unparalleled. He, along with Jack Nicholson, is the greatest American actor of the last quarter of the 20th century. His performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull will be remembered as long as we have movies. “You talkin’ to me?” (which he improvised) is one of the most iconic lines in film history.
What about De Niro made him so great? He’s hard to pinpoint. He’s a bit of a chameleon–his weight gain for Raging Bull is famous, he shaved his head into a mohawk for Taxi Driver, he seemed to look different in every film. He was not a matinée idol, but I’ve talked to women who find him very sexy. His rage and intensity are what he is best known for: the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, his profane battles with Joe Pesci in Raging Bull, his baseball-bat wielding in The Untouchables, his psychopathy in Cape Fear (“Come out, come out, wherever you are”), his brutal stomping of a man in Goodfellas, but De Niro has also played roles that are quietly intense, such as Heat (I don’t believe he ever raises his voice in that role, he lets Pacino do the screaming), most of The Deerhunter, and young Vito in The Godfather, Part II, in which he builds his empire with little more than whispers.
It’s a shame that the phrase “a new Robert De Niro film” means almost nothing these days, compared to what it did forty years ago, but we’ve got the means to see this great stuff, anytime we want.
Please share your favorite De Niro role in the comments.