Longer, deeper, wiser – just like The Godfather Part II.
De Niro’s women
A few months ago, Neil LaBute wrote a clever little piece in Esquire about De Niro’s conflicted relationship to women in films. Taking Bob’s multiple incarnations as a whole, he argued that one of the main traits of the De Niro-ean character is a certain awkwardness towards women, an impossibility to love or be loved. From Travis Bickle to Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America, De Niro’s characters have been the creepy type; most likely to take a date to a porn cinema and rape her in the car on the way home. I can’t think of any other Hollywood legend that had to play so many scenes of sexual assaults or brutality towards women: from Novecento to Cape Fear, the examples abound. There’s even a book entitled “Ten Bad Dates with De Niro”. Suddenly, the Bananarama song makes sense. Like Al Pacino, De Niro was neither handsome nor ugly, and his taste for hardcore physical transformations made it impossible for him to incarnate the classic American hunk, which was probably a good thing for Robert Redford’s career. From Jake La Motta the wife beater to the premature ejaculator of Mad Dog and Glory, Bobby has always struggled with the other sex on the big screen. Moreover, few actresses have managed to take the measure of De Niro’s excellence and reach his level, a reasonable explanation as to why most of the female leads crossing his path have been reduced to either victims or inconsequential love interest.
Let’s have a look at five iconic actresses who shared the screen with Bobby D. to complete the argument.
Diahnne Abbott (Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy)
No, I don’t mean the Labour MP, thank god. Diahnne Abbott was an extra in Taxi Driver (she’s the usher of the porn threatre) who incidently became De Niro’s first wife. She appears alongside her husband in New York, New York and The King Of Comedy for a couple of seconds each time and the reason I’m including her has obviously nothing to do with her quasi-nonexistent acting “career”. It has always been well-known, and much commented upon, that De Niro almost exclusively went out with black women in his private life, Diahnne Abbott being his first and longest serving spouse. Apart from the anecdote, I find this quite interesting as one other reccuring attribute of the De Niro-ean character is to embody (and sometimes caricature) the reactionary Italo-American male – the urban, racist, violent neighborhood type, the kind of bigot dissected by Spike Lee’s early joints. It also echoes the plot of the first movie directed by Robert De Niro himself: A Bronx Tale – an experience he’d reproduce almost 15 years later with the competent but bland spy saga The Good Shepherd. In this bildungsroman focusing on a teenager growing-up in Little Italy during the sixties, De Niro plays the honest dad, a decent bus driver trying to stir away his scion from mobsters and… black girls. De Niro’s working class hero doesn’t believe in interracial relationships, and it would be wrong to assume this is simply an autobiographical footnote (De Niro Sr., as we saw in Part 1 of this guide, was a bohemian bisexual painter who had barely any influence on his son’s upbringing). I still struggle to understand what De Niro was trying to achieve with this subplot. The entire film is baffling anyway and was probably meant to be a nostalgic elegy of the hood but ends up an unflattering, stereotypical take on Italianness. It’s still fascinating to observe that his most iconic roles, up to the character he chose for himself in his first directorial feature, are the perfect opposite of the liberal guy he seems to be in real life, the father of mixed-race kids and fervent Democrat supporter (he was particularly vocal during Obama’s campaign). Why such a dichotomy between his mythical self and his private persona, we’ll probably never know.
Meryl Streep ( Linda in The Deer Hunter)
Perhaps the greatest actress he shared the screen with. Their extremely ambiguous relationship in Michael Cimino’s epic is portrayed through subtle gestures from both actors – a sublime work of minimalist naturalism. It’s up to the viewer to catch the short, clumsy glances Michael (De Niro) exchanges with the bridesmaid during the wedding, his shyness and her blushing cheeks, culminating with the incredibly awkward “sex scene” (is it really sex?) in the motel, when a traumatized Michael takes the place of his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken) in Meryl Streep’s bed. Superb interpretation on both parts of two individuals crushed by the tragedies of their time – the war, the immigrant culture, the declining industry, etc. However, if you want my personal take on this, the true love story in The Deer Hunter is clearly between Mike and Nicki, as there’s a not-so-hidden homoerotic tension pervading the whole film. Is Mike looking at Linda (Meryl Streep) or Nicky during the ball? How deep is Michael’s declaration, “I love you Nick” before the fatal Russian roulette game? Why is Michael single when he’s clearly the leader of the pack, the alpha male? Perhaps the brusque “faggot” taunts of Stan (John Cazale) have some grounding in reality.
There’s a happy-end to Bob and Meryl’s partnership though: in 1984 they were reunited for Falling In Love, a Christmassy romcom that nobody seems to have seen (I definitely haven’t) and that I won’t analyse since it may well destroy my whole thesis on Bobby and the second sex…
Cathy Moriarty (Vicky La Motta in Raging Bull)
Simply an iconic performance by Cathy Moriarty, which she unfortunately never managed to repeat. Her smooth legs paddling in the swimming pool, her ruby lips kissing Jake’s post-fight bruises, her defiant pout in the club as she’s surrounded by small-time mobsters – she’s the absolute ghetto Lolita, worshipped as much as brutalised, a staggering beauty perfectly captured by Michael Chapman’s sensual black and white photography. You almost understand her husband’s pathological jealousy. And she’s obviously the object of one of Bob’s greatest lines.
Sharon Stone (Ginger in Casino)
Undoubtedly Sharon Stone’s greatest achievement, and in my humble opinion the actress that gave De Niro his best workout. She’s close to stealing every scene she’s in– no mean feat when you’re surrounded by such scenery-chewers as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and James Woods. There’s something truly heartbreaking in this visceral story of unrequited love, something reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, but in the desert. You cannot help but feel for Ace Rothstein when he’s sitting in his car discussing his wife’s latest betrayal with Nicky Santoro (Pesci), repeating like a mantra between his clinched jaws “she drives me fucking crazy… she drives me fucking crazy!”. From the love at first sight moment filmed like a western gunfight foreshadowing what their life together will be (she’ll blow the money in the air, he’ll pay for the privilege of her company) to the paroxystic marital fights, it’s all acting greatness. And this time, you can’t fault Bob’s character – the poor sod just fell in love with the cruelest hooker ever. “Greedy bitch!”
Amy Brenneman (Eady in Heat)
Remember this folks, Bob De Niro doesn’t chat women up. That’s their job.
And of course, the 30 seconds rule… once again, the impossibility to love or be loved.
5 shades of evil
After this verbose passage of undergrad diarrhea, I thought I could nonchalantly throw your way a hastily made diagram of Bobby’s degrees of evilness, from devil to deviant. He did play his fair share of strangling-you-with-the-phone-cord gangsters and other jolly psychopaths, but here are the ones you definitely don’t want to fuck with:
5 great lines that are neither “you talking to me” nor “you fucked my wife”
“A mook? What’s a mook?[…] You can’t call me a mook.” – Mean Streets (1973)
“Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain’t something else. This is this. From now on, you’re on your own.” – The Deer Hunter (1978)
“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms, enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball!” – The Untouchables (1987)
“Mike, I don’t get laid. I make love.” – Mad Dog and Glory (1993)
“What have you been doin’ all these years? – I’ve been going to bed early.” – Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Alarming Movie Haircut: Jacknife
The unspeakable horror of the mullet and trucker hat combo.
Bobby D’s films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t
Coming up with a list of De Niro’s worst films is pretty damn straightforward: simply copy his IMDb list of credits from 1995 onwards (still make an exception for Jackie Brown as we mentioned earlier) and paste it into your blog. Almost every single film is downright horrendous (yes, even the self-indulgent method acting seminar that is Copland, who’s unique raison d’être is to prove Stallone could get fat – honestly, who gives a fuck?). The man should be ashamed of himself. If he hadn’t done anything prior to this watershed year (a landmark for the worse if you will), I’d even be tempted to state that someone like let’s say Matthew McConaughey (always a pain in the ass to spell his name) had a more fulfilling, intellectually challenging career. Seriously, take a random pick and you may end up watching such embarrassing flops as Showtime with Eddie Murphy, Analyse This or That (when I recall that because of the similarity in pitches HBO almost cancelled the first season of The Sopranos, I shake in dread), or even the atrocious Hide and Seek, loosely based on shreds of Stephen King’s primary school drafts. And don’t get me started on the flipping Fockers trilogy. No, no, no it would be too easy (I’m still keeping some bullets for Righteous Kill though, see below), as Bob has put a staggering amount of energy in undoing the impressive unity of his oeuvre, selling out to the last drop his artistic integrity. A cynical spirit would almost wish that for legend’s sake, he’d had a meteoric lifespan a la John Cazale (who still boasts the best film resume ever). Conclusion: aging sucks. The challenge here was to find bad and obscure films pre-1995, plus Righteous Kill, which simply couldn’t be ignored.
We’re No Angels (1989)
A disconcerting first attempt at comedy by Neil Jordan, We’re No Angels, based on a stage play that’s as cheesy as it’s dumbly religious, is merely a pretext for a grimace contest between Bobby and an effete Sean Penn, playing two fugitives disguised as priests. Even the orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose displays a more considered acting technique.
Certainly looking for another Oscar to improve on the decoration of his living room, De Niro pulls the oldest trick in the book by choosing to play an handicapped person with a huge heart, in an inspiring real-life story of course. Thanks to the bravery he displays in front of his illness (some kind of catatonic state mixed with frenetic bursts of madness), the good patient teaches a series of heartwarming life lessons to his good doctor (Robin Williams). Bob got indeed nominated by the Academy, but with Daniel Day-Lewis and Dustin Hoffman having successfully used the same tactic the two preceding years (in My Left Foot and Rain Man respectively), he went home empty-ended. It was starting to become too obvious. In fairness, the film is not that awful in the “hospital” genre, but it’s more Grey’s Anatomy than ER…
Stanley & Iris (1990)
Tacky, well-meaning melodramatic take on illiteracy and its social consequences, starring the hard-to-stomach romantic pairing of Bob and… Jane Fonda. Patronising, sloppy and more somniferous than a Tarkovsky marathon (without the feel-good factor of having your cultural broccoli), Stanley & Iris – check the nauseating use of “&” – reeks of straight-to-VHS release. As you can see, the turn of the decade was pretty tough for De Niro, thankfully Goodfellas came along to save the year.
Righteous Kill (2008)
De Niro / Pacino, Round Two (or three, if you count The Godfather II). And who’s there to referee this gigantic face-off? 50 Cent and his creatine-enhanced performing skills. Jesus-titty-fucking Christ. However, it would be extremely harsh to blame Mr. Cent for this shambles. Bob and Al’s joint performance in this rote thrill-less thriller is as dignified as two senile old men with piss stains on their trousers trying to grop Carla Gugino’s breasts through her turtleneck sweaters. De Niro is as grimacing as ever, constantly pulling a face between profound disgust and three-days constipation, while Pacino, left-alone to his madness, is in full-on “she’s got a grrrrrrreat ass” mode for the entire duration of the film. The plot rehashes for the umpteenth time the dowdy big-reveal twist of the schizophrenic psychopath, expecting us to care whether De Niro or Pacino is the lame ass vigilante perpetrating the “righteous kills”. I’ll save you a couple of hours: it’s Bob. There. I said it. Now let’s burn all the copies of this monstrosity and watch Heat again.
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And there we have it, ladies and gents, the career of Robert De Niro in a rather large, two-part nutshell. What did we miss? What did you agree with? Do you share our author’s disgust at the great man’s post-1995 output? Let us know!
Great read Guillaume. I watched about 10 minutes of We’re No Angels once and had to switch it off, and I’ll avoid Righteous Kill like the plague.
There is one really odd Bobby D performance missing here – have you seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil? He plays a plucky plumber – weird casting but it works. Def due a re-watch
I love Brazil too – it’s such an oddity. I just couldn’t think of a way to mention it!
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Crap article. I didn’t see the point at all. He’s the greatest actor ever. It’s acting.
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