Central to the theme of The Way They Were is to highlight the careers of actors who have left an indelible image on pop culture through their work. This week’s installment is about a walking icon. Here is an actor whose filmography is so iconic that it includes self-deprecating work based on spoofing his own iconic status. That’s juice.
There’s also sure to be stuff I Ieave out, because the guy is so prolific. Prepare your digits for the comment section, everyone. That said, God hates a coward, so let’s go: who’s with me?
Robert DeNiro. “Thwock” times five. Every syllable resonates. His body of work reflects crime syndicates, espionage, mental illness awareness, sports giants, the CIA and a sense of humor. In retrospect, it is also reflects a love affair with New York City and the power of allegiances and friendships.
Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets established a genre with his third feature. Assembling a cast and the beginnings of a successful formula that he would revisit over the course of his career, Scorsese’s film gives DeNiro an opportunity to flex his emerging acting chops. The relationships built between and among the film’s protagonists serve as counter and reflection of the streets in which they find themselves. New York’s Little Italy is the backdrop of this character study of Harvey Keitel’s character (and also reflects Scorsese’s semi-autobiographical narrative). When you allow for the soundtrack, camera work and stylistic violence, one can imagine the influence on a soon-to-be-iconic director named Quentin Tarantino. But I digress.
One of my favorite movies of all time: The Godfather II. If you’ve read my writer’s bio, you’ll note that I have not watched Godfather III on principle, because I cannot abide the perfection of the first two being marred by the less than perfect third act. DeNiro’s young Vito Corleone establishes the bulwark, family-based perspective of a rising Don Corleone flawlessly. The fact that his business is crime is immaterial. He provides. He protects. He profits. DeNiro imbues Corleone with a quiet, compelling presence that complements the elder version of Vito Corleone (as portrayed by Marlon Brando, an icon in his own right). Appearance of the phrase, “I make him an offer he don’ refuse. Don’ worry.” (Which, to pick nits, is a derivation of writer/author Mario Puzo’s line, “I’ll reason with him.” But who’s picking?).
One of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever watched has to be Taxi Driver. DeNiro’s Travis Bickle is pitch perfect as the warped, delusional, ledger-keeping avenger. Between his off kilter dating pursuance of Cybill Shepherd and his descent into political assassin, it’s a wonder I get into any cab in any metro area. Portraying another character study of a man juxtaposed against the society that feeds his madness, DeNiro’s Bickle is someone who loathes the depravity of his surroundings which mirror his inner demons. Unable to reconcile the disparate parts of his soul and unable to save Jodie Foster’s teenage prostitute (herself a symbol of innocence betrayed and exploited), Bickle snaps. As an aside, I use, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ as a screener.
DeNiro won an Oscar for his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Physically transforming himself for this part, DeNiro scares the crap out of me whenever I watch this force of nature: a physical manifestation of jealousy and rage. There are no greys in this portrayal. LaMotta has no capacity for nuance or subtlety. Unable to reconcile lust versus love, his relationships with women are unsatisfying. Since he hasn’t developed the psychological tools to negotiate human relationships, LaMotta is reduced to being a ‘raging bull.’
“Never rat on your friends.”
This is the central theme to Henry Hill’s story as portrayed in Goodfellas. When Hill gets arrested early on in the film, rather than getting in trouble from his wise guy pals, DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway commends him for not being a snitch, saying, “I’m not mad, I’m proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man and you learn two great things in your life. …Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”
Betrayal to his friends and subsequent banishment to the netherworld of the witness relocation program is the foundational structure to this warped morality tale as seen through the lens of Scorsese.
I include Heat not only because of the pairing of DeNiro and Al Pacino, which, in and of itself, earns it some pop culture street cred, but because it explores the relationship between thief and cop. I’ve personally been interested in the psychology of what separates the two: what prevents the person with the “thief” mindset from stealing? How is (s)he able to harness his or her skill to catch the thief without crossing the line? Both DeNiro and Pacino’s personal lives have been sacrificed to follow their lifestyles. Each is connected to the other: both as individuals and as a extended social demographic at the expense of one-on-one relationships. Wives, girlfriends, a sense of place? All missing and at the expense of what?
People who have only been watching films for ten years will have as their point of reference for DeNiro the “Meet the” series. A send up of 75% of his filmography, DeNiro plays Jack Byrnes because he *can*. Intimidating, comic, just a bit unnerving and paranoid, DeNiro’s Byrnes delights in tormenting Ben Stiller’s Gaylord Focker. If this is all you’ve seen of DeNiro, do yourself a favor: visit IMDB, pick a film in his filmography and start watching. You are seriously missing out.
Speaking of missing out, I know. I didn’t include Cape Fear, Midnight Run, Analyze This/That, Wag the Dog, uh, The Good Shepherd… add your own in the comments section!
MEAN STREETS – JOHNNY BOY (1973)
GODFATHER II – VITO CORLEONE (1974)
TAXI DRIVER – TRAVIS BICKLE (1976)
RAGING BULL – JAKE LA MOTTA (1980)
GOODFELLAS – JAMES ‘JIMMY’ CONWAY (1990)
HEAT – NEIL MCCAULEY (1995)
MEET THE PARENTS/FOCKERS/LITTLE FOCKERS – JACK BYRNES (2000, 2004, 2010)