A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Robert DeNiro – A Profile

In Actors on March 4, 2009 at 2:51 am

It’s amazing to me that even at 65 DeNiro is still a chameleon in how he changes everytime I see him. The difference between how he looked in RIGHTEOUS KILL, where he looked like a 65 year old with a hair-dye job,  to how he looked at the Academy Awards – fit, grey haired and just exuding the old DeNiro we all know and love – presenting for Best Actor was shocking.

Obviously, any kind of comment on his career is going to fall into line with just about everyone else that has written about this great actor and to try and run-down all of his movies, and list what made them special – not just in the history of movies, but to me personally – would take at least a few weeks. So, I’m going to focus on a number of movies that I associate the most with the actor, be it from classics like TAXI DRIVER, to the not-so classic (FRANKENSTEIN, anyone?) his productivity has slowed in recent years, understandably, and along with a career full of iconic personalities – there comes the eventual dilution of what made the actor stand-out. I still love his performances – who can begrudge him the cross-dressing, air-pirate captain from STARDUST – and hopefully, there’s still a number of stand out roles on the horizon. Hell, if Eastwood can still surprise us with a fresh take on his effectively (deceptively) “one-note” character acting for over 50 years, I’m sure DeNiro still has some fight left in him, with his 30 years in this business. 

TAXI DRIVER was the movie that growing up in the 80’s, as a kid, you probably hadn’t seen but knew the most famous line from. It having been endlessly parodied and reused. It wasn’t until college, I actually wound up seeing – and at least remembering it, although there’s a chance that I might have seen it sooner – and I think that it not only made me instantly aware of DeNiro’s skill as an actor, but also made me aware of Scorsese’s directing skills. I’m sure, by the time I actually got to see TAXI DRIVER, I had already seen at least GOOD FELLAS and had definitely  seen CAPE FEAR. 

The way  Travis Bickle was tortured reminded me of John Rambo, the way he was obsessed with Betsy reminded me of Norman Bates and the way he was protective of Iris for some reason reminded me of Daddy Warbucks from ANNIE. But, the way he sticks to his ideals, and mostly just wanting to be left alone is something very familiar in my life. Albeit, I have neither a mohawk, nor a predilection towards carrying fire-arms. 

Louis Cyphre in ANGEL HEART, has a very limited time on screen, but a crucial and in the end mystical slant to the the movie’s main character (Harry Angel, played by Mickey Rourke), in the end all he needs are those few minutes to capture the strangeness and the intimidation needed to pull off a role like this.

And although, in ANGEL HEART he actually is supposed to be playing the Devil, it’s his role as Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, that gives us probably his most demonic performance. I don’t know when I “got it” that the same person that played this violent, evil man was the same person that played the Fire Inspector from BACKDRAFT, but it certainly wasn’t immediate. The tattoos, the wicked teeth and slick hair – and in particular that scene where he is hanging upside-down as the camera rotates to make his face look right-side up gave me nightmares. And I don’t know if I’ve ever been more afraid of a movie character than when on the houseboat, he’s burning the flare over his hand. And seeing him beat Heath Ledger in being a cross-dressing murderer, by 15 years is pretty amazing. (Not the DeNiro was the first to do that either, but it was all in the shoes!)

When I saw BACKDRAFT, it was instantly DeNiro’s Inspector Rimgale who captured my attention. Again, it was that same sort of obsession with something that led this character to pursue something that had already physically scarred him. A role similar to the one he would play in COP LAND, his purpose in this movie was mainly a peripheral one, but a character integral to the plot and also in his limited screen-time giving the other actors with much more time in screen a standard to live up to. And the payoff to what happens to his character towards the end, always gets me. 

By the time I saw HEAT, I fully knew who Robert DeNiro was, and what an event we were in store for to see him on-screen with Al Pacino – who strangely, I knew who he was from a young age. His role as Neil McCauley, leading the “bad guys” in this crime-thriller, was electrifying and menacing, yet always cool. Just one of those bad guys with a moral code, that made you want to root for him to get away. Even to this day, I pray that he’ll get the drop on Pacino’s Vincent Hanna. Michael Mann’s directing in this movie – especially the now iconic- action sequence in downtown Los Angeles – was superb and along with Scorsese, made me fall even deeper in love with movie-making. 

DeNiro’s foray into satire/comedy, that I saw (I wouldn’t see Kings of Comedy until a long time later) in WAG THE DOG, was a pleasant surprise. Playing Conrad Brean, a mysterious man brought in to mis-direct the American citizens into a war in some anonymous European country was meant as a commentary on the mid-nineties conflict between our dropping bombs in Iraq and “lending a hand” in Bosnia, while the conflict between then-President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was taking place. the bearded, aged looking DeNiro in this role, played cool to the nines, while looking anything but, while wearing that funny hat. In the end, when he makes the subtlest of motions to have a government agent deal with Dustin Hoffman’s movie-producer, Stanley Motss. You can tell that he feels the slightest bit bad about it, but in the end he has a job to do.

Amazingly, DeNiro played the role of Conrad Brean in the same year that he played ex-con, and pot-head Louis Gara in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The grizzled, out of shape Louis, is pretty much the right hand man of Sam Jackson’s Ordell Robbie, and is sort of filling in as John Travolta as the sidekick in this movie. Unfortunately, he doesn’t fair much better. 

One of my favorite roles of DeNiro is as Sam in the movie RONIN. Much like Conrad Brean, in WAG THE DOG, we don’t know much about Sam. Other than he can take care of himself and he’s good at what he does, he’s an enigma that is just as ready to walk out of the story at the very beginning, as he is reluctant to follow the plan of the theft the movie is centered around, because it doesn’t make sense and sets the team up to be at multiple disadvantages. Boasting an all-star cast, of both current-then stars (Jonathon Pryce and Jean Reno) and soon to be familiar faces (Natascha McElhone), DeNiro doesn’t so much as shine in this movie as he does disappear in plain sight and allow all of his co-stars the opportunity to step-it up. 

Finally, DeNiro in my favorite of his comedic roles of his, in MEET THE PARENTS, was over the top and hilarious as former CIA agent, and human lie detector, Jack Byrnes. Facing off against Ben Stiller, DeNiro shines in this silly romp, continually one-upping Stillers, Greg Focker. Whether it’s hooking him up to a polygraph machine or reading a ridiculous poem made as a benediction to his mother, this is DeNiro’s movie.

I know there’s a number of other endless movies that I could have talked about and listed, and gushed over. And even a few that I could have been like, “Mr. DeNiro, what were you thinking?!” But, these are the movies that pop into my head when I hear the name Robert Deniro.  And since he’s not much of a public figure outside of his movies, that’s why I was shocked to see him presenting along with others at the Oscars. 

DeNiro, we love ya!

  1. […] to stay on top in the movie business. Ben, played by Robert DeNiro – also previously discussed here – starts his day on the phone, stays on the phone as he drives to his ex-wife’s to pick up […]

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