Has Robert De Niro now been crap for longer than he was great… and does it matter?

Garry Marshall’s new film New Year’s Eve throws up a number of challenging questions. Among them; what is the biological nomenclature for that silky auburn thing atop Jon Bon Jovi’s bonce? Wouldn’t it be funny if Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges’ job was actually building ludicrous, architecturally unsound bridges instead of turning up in terrible films every couple of years? And – perhaps most painfully – does this syrupy boondoggle represent the once-great Robert De Niro’s lowest ebb?

Somewhat predictably, New Year’s Eve has gone down poorly with critics, who have described it variously as “[an] unfunny and heartless Hogmanay Horror” [1], “a depressing two-hour infomercial” [2] and, wonderfully, “soup made of rocks” [3]. But there’s a prevailing sense that it’s the famed, Oscar-winning method actor who – by dint of his presence in such awful rubbish – has really let the side down. De Niro snoozes [4] through the film as a dying patient who just wants to see in the new year in Times Square before he croaks. An outraged Peter Travers of Rolling Stone commented: “How desperate can he be to crush his career even more so by doing this?” while on Twitter, Total Film’s Emma Dibdin suggested that while De Niro has phoned in performances before, this time he was on speakerphone, and “not even near the handset, so very faint”. It’s a turn that’s prompted Cinemart’s Martyn Conterio to re-Christen him, cruelly yet brilliantly, “Robert Nadir-o”.

Sadly, none of this will come as a surprise to those who’ve followed the man’s career in the past few years, a panoply of mediocrity (and worse) so fundamentally uninspired that anyone with a mere entry-level interest in film culture could mistake him for a shabby, underpowered character actor who doesn’t really do “character”.

All of which brings us to the big question: has De Niro now been crap for longer than he was great?

To answer, we need to set up some parameters. Although he burst onto the scene in Brian de Palma’s appropriately titled Greetings in 1968, I’d argue that his first great role came in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough drama Mean Streets (1973). Shark-eyed and flashing that trademark shit-eating grin, his Johnny Boy was a discomfiting streak of negative energy made flesh, blowing up mailboxes, chiding his friends, and clearly bound for tragedy the second you laid eyes on him. He blew a more low-key Harvey Keitel (the film’s ostensible lead) off the screen, and fast-forwarding three years to his turn as deeply troubled Vietnam Vet Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver, it was no surprise to see Keitel playing second fiddle to De Niro.

A period of creative fecundity followed Mean Streets, with a large chunk of his great work produced in collaboration with partner-in-crime Martin Scorsese. Though he won his first Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather Part II (1974) and struck an early blow for mumblecore as the downbeat Michael Vronksy in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), his career high arguably arrived in 1980 with the Oscar-winning portrayal of bully-boy boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. 1983 saw him (in this writer’s personal favourite De Niro performance) utterly disappear into the of damaged psyche and awful suits of would-be stand up comic Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy; a chillingly prescient clarion call to the borderline-psychopathic inanity of modern popular culture [5].

Despite his penchant for intensity, De Niro also displayed an impressive aptitude for comic roles. Any young filmmaker setting out to make the next great buddy movie should check out Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988), that genre’s ur-text. His chemistry with a slippery, motormouthed accountant (Charles Grodin) is comic dynamite. Laughs were thin on the ground in 1990’s Goodfellas which represents, for me, the last time De Niro really scaled the heights of greatness. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of the twitchy, brutal and increasingly paranoid mob boss Jimmy Conway.

Although De Niro was Oscar nominated for his role as the deranged Max Cady in 91‘s Cape Fear (Scorsese again, and De Niro’s last Oscar nom to date), it would appear that 1995 is a key year for us in establishing the tipping point in de Niro’s career. His turn as Casino’s Ace Rothstein displayed a more romantic, softer side that was singularly absent from Jimmy Conway. It was an intriguing, solid and occasionally powerful performance, but a great one? I’d say not quite – it’s technically strong, but it’s Conway-lite, just as Casino, despite it’s epic sweep and grand hauteur, exists in the shadow of Goodfellas. Michael Mann’s Heat also arrived in 1995, bringing De Niro and his great contemporary Al Pacino together on screen for the first time. Heat’s a great film, no doubt, but De Niro’s portrayal of career criminal Neil McCauley, while understated and effective, is never spoken of in the same hushed tones as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta.

Post ’95, De Niro was gamely against type – if inessential – in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and mildly amusing in Analyze This, but by this point the laziness had taken root. James Mangold’s Copland was a veritable conference call of a movie with heavyweights (including De Niro, Keitel and to a lesser extent Ray Liotta) all dialling in to see how the hammy Sylvester Stallone would cope with a meaty role. The rest makes for painful reading. The Score? The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinklle? Meet The Fockers? Righteous Kill? Killer Elite (billed underneath Jason Statham)? And now New Year’s Eve? Enough – as they say – said.

So, by my calculations, this all means that Robert De Niro was great for 17 years, then pretty good – but flirting with mediocrity – for around five, then finally crap for the next 16. Even if De Niro hasn’t quite been crap for as long as he was great, it doesn’t appear it’ll take long for him to overtake himself, judging by his current form.

*     *     *     *     *

De Niro co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002

The next question is one that I rarely hear asked. Does De Niro’s decline really matter?

Perhaps we should be shifting our perceptions of what De Niro stands for now. Despite his lack of impact in front of the screen, it’s not as though he’s been profligate with his time behind the scenes. In 2002, he co-founded the (increasingly popular) TriBeCa film festival as both a new cinema showcase and a project of local economic regeneration in response to the devastation of the New York districts in the 9/11 attacks. He’s also busied himself with opening a number of restaurants including Nobu and TriBeCa grill, and even the Greenwich Hotel, within which lies another restaurant. As well as the business projects, De Niro has turned his hand to the time-consuming process of directing with the follow-up to ’93 debut A Bronx Tale, The Good Shepherd (2006) an underrated – if stodgy – drama.

At his peak, acting was his first job, just like many of us have one main source of income. Thusly, it could justifiably be argued that rather than being a lazy actor, De Niro is in fact now a different proposition; a successful, multivalent businessman (with capital earned from his own creatively popular endeavours) who dabbles in a pastime now and again at his well-earned leisure. Why should we begrudge him that?

Another angle: Perhaps the effect of his onscreen mediocrity feels more pronounced because of a crisis of masculinity on our screens, and we miss his (and before him, Marlon Brando’s) brand of untrammelled, occasionally psychotic virility. De Niro’s decline, in this writer’s opinion, has coincided with a collective unconscious longing for on-screen *masculinity*, as the very definition of the term has grown increasingly, yet not unappealingly, amorphous [6]. All this in a climate in which the blockbuster market has been saturated by CGI. Where are the real stars in recent films like Transformers, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Hugo, Avatar, Captain America and Super 8?

Over the last couple of decades, where have the great leading men (in their physical and performative prime) really been? Denzel probably reached his peak with Malcolm X (1992), despite the Oscar win for Training Day. Day-Lewis is a MAN, no doubt, but his movies come along every five years, which is roughly the amount of time it takes him to digest all the scenery he’s chewed up from his last acting job. Brad Pitt, so impressive as a hard-but-sensitive bastard dad in The Tree of Life, is starting to show manly promise. The intriguing Christian Bale continues to champ at the bit. Perhaps the real heir to De Niro’s throne – finally – is the chameleonic, chiselled Michael Fassbender who, as evidenced by his stunning turn in Steve McQueen’s Shame, can make a spot of light rimming resemble a transcendentally traumatic experience. Really, It’s not De Niro’s fault he left such a void. [7]

Another thing that De Niro hasn’t done is renege on a promise, or, as the popular maxim goes, “sell out” – well, no more so than the legions of actors to pop up in commercials down the years, anyway. Unlike Brando, De Niro was never especially political in his pomp, and unlike – say – Iggy Pop, the “Godfather Of Punk” – now known to a younger generation as “that oddly muscular lady from all the car insurance ads” – he never came from a position of radical counterculturalism, and thus can’t be seen to be debasing his own legacy from an ideological point of view. Rather, De Niro’s capitulation to laziness represents him figuratively urinating upon audiences’ projection of him as a countercultural icon; a post-Watergate totem of muscular anti-heroism who explored the dark heart of the American dream in his string of untouchable performances.

De Niro piled on 60lbs to play the older Jake LaMotta in 1980

It’s also worth mentioning that while De Niro’s performances have become increasingly somnambulant, at least he hasn’t opted for the psychotic, self-parodic self-abasement favoured by Pacino, who’s gone miles in the opposite direction, often dementedly so. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “With bizarre commitment, Pacino endures one indignity after another — as himself, as Richard III and as Don Quixote. Why? You start to wonder if they drugged him”. In the new Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill, Pacino inexplicably attacks his role as a potential suitor for Jill (that’s Adam Sandler in drag, by the way) like a RADA graduate auditioning for the part of Hamlet. Frankly, it’s all a bit embarrassing.

Clearly, we must address the question of age. Robert De Niro is now 68 years old. This part of the argument doesn’t really legislate for his dismal output in the late 90s and early 2000s, but certainly carries weight in the here and now. De Niro is famous for the intensity that he brought to his earlier roles, as well as a dedication to the method. But let’s face it, if he tried to put on 60 pounds now (as he did for Raging Bull), his heart would explode. And how many great leading roles have there been in recent time for actors of his age in Hollywood? Christopher Plummer shone recently in Beginners, and Jeff Bridges (seven years De Niro’s junior) has, with Crazy Heart and True Grit, experienced a late-career blossom of rare dimension. But that’s about it. Lots of performers win plaudits for acting up in age (Di Caprio in J Edgar, Pitt in …Benjamin Button, Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) but how often can you think of actors who have played down in age? Brad Pitt as a crinkly CGI baby Button doesn’t count, by the way. Therefore, De Niro’s opportunities to shine in major roles have been limited by his age. And as we’ve established, he’s a busy man – so why would he expend much energy by actively searching out such roles? We just have to cross our fingers and hope that the right part comes to him. 2012’s brilliantly titled Another Bullshit Night In Suck City looks as though it might reverse the trend.

So, even if De Niro has [almost] been crap for longer than he was great, let’s not get too bent out of shape about it. It’s a crass point to make, but it’s one often repeated; sometimes it’s only death that spares our greatest talents from making embarrassing career choices or fading into irrelevance. Can you imagine if The Beatles were still going now? Try not to self-immolate at the thought of them backing Olly Murs through a sprightly, autotuned version of Octopus’ Garden on The X-Factor. It’s only because De Niro was so very special in his prime that we’re so acutely disappointed by his decline.

Let us instead walk slowly and calmly away from New Year’s Eve with our palms in the air, be thankful that Bobby D is fit and healthy, and fondly recall the man at his best. Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Jake LaMotta, Noodles Aaronson, Jimmy Conway, Jack Walsh, Al Capone, Johnny Boy, Michael Vronsky, the young Vito Corleone. All brought to you by one man in his peak. We have DVDs. We have the internet. Some of us still have VHS. Let’s use them to remember and celebrate, and let De Niro get on with his old age.

*     *     *     *     *

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/dec/08/new-years-eve-film-review
2. http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/movies/garry-marshalls-star-filled-new-years-eve-review.html?ref=movies
3. http://www.npr.org/2011/12/08/143058008/on-new-years-eve-a-whole-lot-of-nothing-going-on
4. According to a recent article, De Niro actually fell asleep during the shooting of one scene with Hilary Swank http://www.starpulse.com/news/Fred_Topel/2011/12/08/robert_deniro_fell_asleep_during_a_sce
5. The New York Times carried an excellent piece about the rapidly changing nature of fame and celebrity in a 1983 review of The King of Comedy, and Bob Fosse’s harrowing Star 80: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9901EFDA103BF934A15752C1A965948260
6. In a post-Queer Eye For The Straight Guy world, a Google search for ‘Ryan+Gosling+man+crush’ yields “about 292,000 results”. Furthermore, as we can see from this article, even Bradley Cooper agrees: Ryan Gosling is one sexy man! http://hollywoodcrush.mtv.com/2011/12/05/bradley-cooper-ryan-gosling-sexiest-man-alive/
7. Slightly at a tangent, but fascinating nonetheless, is this article from Bill Simmons’ Grantland website, which goes into great detail the nature of modern stardom with Will Smith as the test case. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6716942/page/2/the-movie-star

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12 thoughts on “Has Robert De Niro now been crap for longer than he was great… and does it matter?

  1. Philip Concannon (@Phil_on_Film)

    Really good article. The one person you haven’t mentioned here who I think is a worthy point of comparison is Paul Newman. De Niro is now 68 years old. When Newman was that age he had given us The Verdict and The Colour of Money in his past decade, and he was about to embark upon The Hudsucker proxy and Nobody’s Fool. I can’t think of any roles in his later years when he embarrassed himself (look at the performances he gave in Where the Money Is and Road to Perdition) and he gave the impression of a man who was willing to act his age and choose his projects carefully, while still giving much of his time to other interests.

    It is very sad to see De Niro giving such uninterested-looking performances in films that are essentially straight-to-video junk. I wonder if his 2003 cancer scare was a turning point, making it harder for him to commit as forcefully to a role as he has in the past? If a young filmmaker who adores De Niro came up with a great role for him to play (PT Anderson has said he’d love to work with him) would he still have the necessary passion to give a great performance? Some actors simply fall out of love with acting, it happened with Charles Laughton, and come to regard it as simply a day job. When that happens, it’s hard to imagine them pulling themselves out of that mindset, although hopefully working with Scorsese again will rekindle that fire inside him.

    Reply
    1. Ashley Clark Post author

      Thanks Phil.

      Newman is a really good point of comparison; there was a man who really looked after himself and managed, as you say, to balance successful, challenging acting choices with business ventures right up to the end.

      Perhaps Bobby D has just fallen out of love with the game. I think we’d all love to see him get that one last, great role though. Can PTA or Scorsese step in? Fingers crossed.

      Reply
  2. antonbitel

    Great piece!
    For what it’s worth, while none of these roles matches the best known turns of his youth, DeNiro recently delivered phone-free performances in: The Good Shepherd (which, as you say, he also directed), Stardust, Limitless, and the little seen but excellent Stone (straight-to-video but by no means junk).
    Also, when you say, “Brad Pitt, impressive as a hard-but-sensitive bastard dad in The Tree of Life, is starting to show manly promise.”, don’t forget that Pitt was the living embodiment of Nineties masculinity in Fight Club, and has since played such virile throwbacks as Achilles and Jesse James, as well as Lt Aldo Raine (in Inglourious Basterds) and (the voice of) Metro Man (in Megamind). He is pretty good at playing msasculinity in crisis, too (Megamind, Mr and Mrs Smith, etc.).

    Reply
    1. Ashley Clark Post author

      Thanks for the nice feedback Anton. I haven’t actually seen Limitless. Should I venture into its waters?

      Pitt’s a funny one for me. I’ve always thought he could act – he was perfect for (and you’re right – manly in) Fight Club, and great fun in Basterds – but it was only really in Tree Of Life that I thought he brought a real gravitas to the role, toning down the flashy, tic-heavy style that often defines him. I got a real sense of pain, pride, repression and ruefulness from him in TOL.

      Re: Jesse James, I only saw it once, and I remember thinking that Casey Affleck totally stole the film from under Pitt!

      Reply
      1. antonbitel

        Limitless is a high-quality airplane movie – but DeNiro is good in it.
        Casey Affleck IS great in The Assassination of Jesse James by then Coward Robert Ford, but as with Edward Norton in Fight Club, Pitt is there, and *has* to be there, to define him in negative, as id to the ego. In both films, Pitt represents everything that his neurotic, inadequate counterpart desires to be – and to me, Pitt nails that sort of cocky self-assurance with great skill, so great indeed that he makes it look effortless (and to his Jesse James, he brings the addition of a more complicated wistfulness).

      2. illuminati7590

        He had very small and underplayed role in Limitless. You can’t see him playing that kind of roles it’s neither powerful nor versatile.

  3. Michael Mand

    Wonderful article, which chimes with Neil Young’s timeless question: “is it better to burn out than to fade away”? Unfortunately, Art tends to offer a shorter spell in the spotlight than most protagonists can cope with; as a Morrissey fan, I could ask whether some of the weak, meat-n-potatoes efforts of recent years eclipse his Smiths glory years? The answer comes immediately: never!

    The trick is never to confuse a work which stands in eternity with the bizzare qualms of a millionaire performer. Enjoy what they still have to give (the Fockers films weren’t really so bad) and pray they never try to sully that work with a Taxi Driver 2 (or reformed Smiths).

    Perhaps a late career renaissance isn’t beyond the realms of possibility? Given the right script, an 80-year-old De Niro collecting an Oscar to a standing ovation could still happen.

    Though Righteous Kill remains the worst film I’ve ever seen…

    Reply
  4. Tim Pelan

    Maybe De Niro is suffering from a bout of Norma Desmond-itis:”I am big. It’s the pictures that got smaller.” No doubt directors of his latter works are too in awe of him to actually dare to direct the once great actor. Or else he really is just bored and cashing in to pay for his other endeavours. Perhaps he should concentrate on directing, he’s not too shabby at it.

    Reply
  5. david

    Great points. It’s been a slow decline, which is a lot easier to take than a severe drop off. And he’s only ever “bad” when the material is truly unplayable, as I imagine is the case with New Year’s Eve. There’s a movie called Everybody’s Fine he did which may or may not have gone straight-to-DVD that he was pretty terrific in — he’s definitely the only interesting/noteworthy thing about it.

    His performance in Jackie Brown may not be as quite as “major” as Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, etc., but it’s one of my favorite supporting performances of all time. Fucking impeccable.

    He does have a David O. Russell movie coming up (a supporting role), which could be interesting.

    Reply
  6. 3guys1movie

    Didnt he just father another child? Maybe he needs the money for diapers and formula and other baby items. That stuff is not cheap you know. He is also going to have to leave that kid some money since he will be 86 when its time for that child to go to college.

    In answer to your question, Hell yeah he has been mailing it in for years. You know who is sadly following in his footsteps Harrison Ford.

    Reply

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