What do a disillusioned cabbie, a delusional comedian and a great big shark have in common? They all have a mole on their cheekbone that belongs to Robert De Niro; that fine actor of Hollywood’s second bygone age. An actor who seems like he plays every role with one note, but hungrily hoards a range of emotions and expressions beneath the wrinkled veneer of his stalwart visage.
I cannot say that I have traced De Niro’s career like a hawk since his very first days, but I’ve kept in touch with his work, and have come to truly admire his craft as well as the dedication with which he forms characters, and delivers lines that seem to penetrate immediately to the very bottom of our souls. Even in The Godfather Part II (1974), when he spoke Italian, we felt as if we understood him. No interpreter needed. No subtitles. His messages transcend language.
How does he fare today? That’s what we’re finding out. This decade of remakes and sequels, of superheroism and reboots has just stepped over the halfway point. Do his films now move and inspire like they used to? De Niro traverses different ground now, as evidenced by his latest film, Dirty Grandpa, in which he plays an old man who is desperate for sex and overly fond of spilling vulgarities on half-naked, horny teenage girls. It is his worst performance and movie to date, in a career that has spanned the cinematic cosmos like an explorer out of time.
1970s – Birth Of Brilliance
It wasn’t till Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 follow-up to his hugely successful (and culturally immortal) The Godfather that Robert De Niro became known to a wide audience, winning the Academy Award for his role as the young Don of the Corleone Mafia family (played, as his older self, by Marlon Brando in the first film). He had appeared in a few other films before, notably Bang the Drum Slowly and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (both released in 1973), but The Godfather Part II was his first film to receive significant attention, and enjoy a healthy longevity after it rolled out of theatres onto home video.
This was the decade of De Niro’s genesis; the ten years that ensured his place in Hollywood’s pantheon. His Travis Bickle, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), is an American landmark, a counter-cultural renegade of disillusionment and fractured optimism. De Niro played him absolutely straight, complicated by intense paranoia and a desire to do good by himself, the people around him, and his beloved nation. No other De Niro character so closely scrutinised the American way, not even when Sgt. Mike Vronsky attempted to shoot his own brains out in Vietnam in Michael Cimino’s war epic, The Deer Hunter.
These were the years De Niro employed to stretch his legs and test his acting stamina. He appeared in thirteen films; all wonderful, all differently pitched. He didn’t step wrong, nor did he overplay the material. It seemed like a decade suited to his style, to his casual American ruggedness. Till this day, I can watch Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter and be moved right down to my bones, and it’s because De Niro understood the human tragedy at the centre of his characters. His partnership with Martin Scorsese birthed three of the thirteen pictures, but their best work together was yet to come.
1980s – Disco Is Out, De Niro Is In
De Niro and Scorsese made two films together during the 1980s; a decade rife with stories and characters that cut against the socio-political grain of an America still recovering from the Vietnam War. Among the twelve pictures De Niro appeared in, at least five featured strong characters who were at odds with the way the world moved against them.
Two of his more recognisable roles came from his Scorsese pictures: the hard-hitting boxer, Jake La Motta, from Raging Bull (1980); and good old Rupert Pupkin, a budding comedian from The King of Comedy (1983) who had no idea how painfully unfunny he was. Both were strong De Niro performances in subtly different ways – Jake was tough, gritty and passionate. Rupert was vacuous, guileless and blind. Yet they shared a determination that exceeded the capabilities of their personalities, and this, I think, is what paved the way for De Niro’s subsequent roles: the canny ability to weave opposing traits and emotions into a complex suit of character drama.
De Niro also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian critique, Brazil (1985), as a rebellious air-conditioner repairman; Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986), in which he played a Spanish slaver who found his morals; and as Al Capone in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), a man with absolutely no morals. This was a creatively exciting decade for De Niro. He had built his empire. Now he was living in it.
1990s – Before The New Century, The Greatness Within
It’s almost impossible to choose De Niro’s best film, performance, or decade in which he carried out his duties. He has remained so good for so long that many of his films have merged into a single lane of distinction.
If the 1970s and 1980s charted his birth and rise into the movie business, the 1990s held him firmly in the reality of the industry, allowing him to expand and contract at the same time, to explore new roles while cementing old ones.
He continued his faithful and lucrative partnership with Martin Scorsese, who cast De Niro in three films: the evergreen Goodfellas (1990); the eerie psychological thriller, Cape Fear (1991); and perhaps my personal favourite, Casino (1995). Goodfellas is a stellar gangster film, among the best, but Casino, like so many Scorsese films, watches helplessly as its greedy, unreliable characters rush headlong into disaster, and it is a spectacularly well-made film. Goodfellas, too, watches helplessly, but its characters wilfully destroy themselves.
Outside of the Scorsese bubble, De Niro appeared in another stellar movie, this time playing a sad victim of a rare disease that left its targets in a state of suspended animation. Directed by Penny Marshall, Awakenings (1990) was a gentle, moving film, built around two outstanding performances (Robin Williams shared leading responsibilities with De Niro).
Like I said, De Niro’s work is De Niro’s work. To pick a best is like trying to pick a raindrop from a shower. We can only sit back and observe this man’s legacy, which has grown into something ethereal and rich. Sadly, though, as the century turned, with his legacy clearly established, he let go of the reins and became more experimental.
2000s – The Beginning Of The End
I’ve only seen two of De Niro’s 2000s’ movies. He relinquished his pursuit in this decade, deciding, perhaps misguidedly, to explore faces of himself he never got to before. Why “misguidedly”? Because it marked the beginning of his end. No, I’m not saying he should have starred in gangster pictures till his legs fell off, neither am I saying his career is dead, but his venture into the tricky world of comedy, while strong at the start, soon became a long, drawn-out series of poor career decisions.
His best film in this decade was Meet the Parents (2000), the Ben Stiller vehicle that exposed me to De Niro’s comedic nature for the very first time. Completely unamused by anything or anyone outside his affluent family, his Jack Byrnes was a terror, the kind of patriarch boyfriends everywhere feared meeting. He played opposite Stiller, and effectively stole every scene right out from under his feet.
He also dabbled in animation, lending his voice to a big fish in Shark Tale (2004), playing, no doubt, the head of a Mafia family. De Niro is a skilled actor and provides first-rate vocal talent, but looking at his collection of work, surely one must feel a quiet disappointment with his decision to relax in the face of unbridled success. Actors continue to push personal boundaries well into their seventies and eighties. Look at Max Von Sydow, who grew old and then stopped aging. Only last year he appeared famously, albeit briefly, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, currently the third-highest grossing movie of all time.
De Niro, conversely, has slowed down, despite being more prolific. Maybe the vast spotlights of the ‘70s and ‘80s have finally blinded his artistic drive. In the years following 2009, the movies he’s appeared in have only gotten worse.
Now – Uphill From Here
We’ve come, at last, to the present. To the years of CGI and franchise reboots. To an era of endless superhero movies. The cinematic landscape is so different now. It’s hostile. Unforgiving. There’s no room for gangster pictures like The Godfather and Goodfellas, or even great psychological police procedurals like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), because audiences have seen them all and want new material they can digest in new ways.
Maybe this accounts for the decline in quality of De Niro’s contemporary pictures. Something is missing from his equation. Where Von Sydow continues to be selective, De Niro seems to have given up picking and choosing roles his fans want to see him in, opting instead to appear in sporadic cameos. He’s reached that point in the timeline of his artistic creativity where each new professional choice carries less weight.
That’s why he’s able to get away with commercial and critical disasters like Machete (2010), Killer Elite (2011), Limitless (2011), New Year’s Eve (2011), Killing Season (2013), Grudge Match (2013), and this year’s Dirty Grandpa, without dire consequences. It is a remarkable thing, how De Niro continues to astound in ways contrary to popular expectation. As much as I want to speculate and conceive plausible explanations for this man’s wickedly perpendicular choices, there’s no refuting his imprint on the driveway of America’s cinematic history. He is, irrevocably, one of Hollywood’s finest actors, and will remain so because his past simply cannot be vandalised or erased. I am sceptical now, because of Dirty Grandpa, but at least I’ll always have Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Casino to go back to.
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films, United International Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and United Artists