"The Only One Here"

Robert De Niro's Unforgettable Characters

Posted by administrator | February 13, 2012
Robert De Niro: A Model Actor

Without argument Robert De Niro is considered one of our greatest movie actors, often topping film pundits' lists of favorite movie stars and repeatedly being cited by many as the model American actor. Quentin Tarantino remembers that when he was growing up, “De Niro was the ideal – to be Robert De Niro, that was the be all and end all.” He’s been nominated six times by the Academy Awards, winning twice: in 1974 for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather, Part II and in 1980 for Best Actor for Raging Bull. In BEING FLYNN, De Niro plays Jonathan Flynn, a complex character who is by turns a romantic artist and self-destructive, absentee father. The gritty, urban role recalls some of De Niro’s great dramatic creations, from the intensity of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to the off-kilter humor  of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Indeed one can find bits and pieces of many of De Niro’s great roles in Jonathan Flynn. In the following editorial slideshow, we revisit some of De Niro’s most memorable characters, figures who not only demonstrate De Niro’s acclaimed acting talent, but have also comfortably taken up residence in our popular imagination. This is a shortlist. Tell us in the comment section what roles rocked you.

Mean Streets (1973)

While De Niro had made a few features before Mean Streets, this 1973 gritty slice-of-crime drama put both himself and his director Martin Scorsese on the map. While De Niro and Scorsese officially met in 1972 at a friend’s Christmas party, the two New Yorkers had grown up in the same part of the city and realized that they had seen each other around the neighborhood for years. De Niro expressed a strong interest to work with the young director after seeing Scorsese’s Who's That Knocking at My Door?, and so Scorsese offered him a role in his upcoming film Mean Streets, a pseudo-sequel to that earlier film. The only problem was that Charlie, the lead role De Niro really wanted, had already been given to Harvey Keitel. After a bit of wrangling, De Niro took the part of Johnny Boy, Charlie's loose cannon best friend. De Niro remembers, “When you play a role you don't see yourself doing at first, you can get things from yourself that you ordinarily wouldn't get. I didn't see myself as Johnny Boy as written, but we improvised in rehearsal and the part evolved.” De Niro approached his performance with a level of preparation and professionalism that impressed everyone around him. “It was my first movie and to watch Bobby take charge of his work was a great lesson for me,” says his Mean Streets co-star Richard Romanus. “He would say, 'Whoa, whoa, I want another take. I want to do this again.' He would put the responsibility of his own performance on his own shoulders. So he wasn't able at the end of the day to turn round to anyone and say, 'I would have been better but for him.'” De Niro brought an unrestrained energy and painful humanity to the role, making Johnny Boy a truly unforgettable screen character. “Johnny Boy is played by Robert De Niro and it's a marvelous performance, filled with urgency and restless desperation,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time of the film's release. De Niro was voted Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics, and in the decades since the film's release Mean Streets has achieved classic status (it was selected to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry in 1997), largely on the back of De Niro's unforgettable performance.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Robert De Niro won the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II directly as a result of Mean Streets. Director Martin Scorsese showed his friend Francis Ford Coppola a print of Mean Streets before the film's release, and Coppola was hugely impressed by De Niro's performance. At the time, Coppola was trying to solve the conundrum of how he could make a sequel to the enormously successful The Godfather – as Paramount was desperate for him to do – when star Marlon Brando had opted out of appearing in the movie. Coppola's solution was to cast De Niro as a much younger version of Brando's character, mob boss Vito Corleone, and in one of the segments of the movie show the early part of the godfather's life. Coppola had auditioned De Niro for a number of minor roles in the original film, and had noted at the time how much De Niro resembled a young Brando. So, without even screen testing him, Coppola offered De Niro the chance to play the young mafioso. For De Niro, there were two major challenges. Firstly, he had to portray a character that Brando had so recently immortalized; and, secondly, all but three lines of Vito Corleone's dialogue was in Sicilian! (One of those three lines is “I make him an offer he don' refuse. Don' worry.”) As ever, De Niro overcame these issues with hard work and unceasing dedication. To try and become Don Vito, he endlessly watched Brando's performance in the first film, absorbing every detail of how he spoke, how he moved. “I didn't want to do an imitation, but I wanted to make it believable that I could be him as a young man,” De Niro explained. “I would see some little movements that he would do and try and link them to my performance. It was like a mathematical problem where you have the result and you try to make the beginning fit.” With almost no time to master Sicilian, De Niro took a six week Berlitz crash course in Italian, and then spent four months in Sicily absorbing every detail of Sicilian life and, more importantly, Sicilian dialect. De Niro's language coach was dumbfounded by his progress, saying he had thought it impossible that anyone could learn so much in so short a time. De Niro's performance wowed critics and audiences, and he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, one of 11 nods the movie received. Believing he had no shot at winning, the shy De Niro decided to stay at home in New York rather than make a pointless trek out to Los Angeles. When his name was read out, Francis Ford Coppola had to come to the stage on De Niro's behalf, telling the audience, “I think this is a richly deserved award. I think Robert De Niro is an extraordinary actor and that he is going to enrich the films that are made for years to come.” He was not wrong.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Right from the start, Robert De Niro was the actor everyone wanted to play Travis Bickle. Indeed, when Martin Scorsese was offered the gig of directing Taxi Driver, it was contingent on him being able to get De Niro to play the unhinged title character. De Niro's situation prior to filming was far from ideal –– he was in Italy shooting Bernardo Bertolucci's 20th Century epic 1900 –– but he wanted to do the movie so badly that he became determined to overcome any immediate problems that he faced. On weekends or during any time off from Bertolucci's movie, De Niro dedicated himself to understanding Bickle, the scarred Vietnam vet turned vigilante. He would fly back to New York City, where he procured a cab driver's license and worked 12-hour shifts. He visited U.S. soldiers based in Italy and recorded them talking, trying to find the right Midwestern voice for Travis. He listened studiously to recorded readings from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who tried to assassinate presidential hopeful George Wallace in 1972, and read extensively about mental illness. And, feeling Travis should have a lean look, he lost 35 pounds. In addition to piecing together all of Travis' component parts, De Niro created the character's most famous line of dialogue, “You talking to me?”, which Bickle says repeatedly to his reflection in one scene. In the original script, the only detail given was “Travis looks in the mirror,” and De Niro –– extremely gifted at improvisation –– simply constructed the scene from there. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Travis Bickle was “as nutty as they come, a psychotic, but as played by Mr. De Niro he's a riveting character inhabiting a landscape that's as much his creation as he is the creation of it. ... Travis Bickle—the collaboration of writer, director, and actor—remains fascinating throughout, probably because he is more than a character who is certifiably insane. He is a projection of all our nightmares of urban alienation, refined in a performance that is effective as much for what Mr. De Niro does as for how he does it. Acting of this sort is rare in films. It is a display of talent, which one gets in the theater, as well as a demonstration of behavior, which is what movies usually offer. Were Mr. De Niro less an actor, the character would be a sideshow freak.” Though De Niro was nominated as Best Actor at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, he came home empty handed. (In both cases, he lost out in to Network's Peter Finch, who had died just before the start of award season.) Travis Bickle, however, is now widely considered to be perhaps his greatest role.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Throughout the course of Robert De Niro's career, the actor has shown a commendable bravery in the roles and the movies he has taken on, and one of his boldest decisions was to play Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky, a small-town steelworker who fights in the Vietnam War, in The Deer Hunter. The movie was a tough sell: in 1978, Hollywood had not yet tackled Vietnam, and The Deer Hunter depicted the brutality of the war with alarming directness and intensity. Producer Michael Deeley had hired up-and-comer Michael Cimino to direct the film, but needed a big name star to offset the film's potentially alienating subject matter; De Niro was not only riding high but, as Deeley says, was also “the right age, apparently tough as hell, and immensely talented.” De Niro was drawn to the project on the strength of the script, and also because Cimino was a kindred spirit who loved preparation as much as he did. Together, they visited steel towns in Ohio like Steubenville and Mingo Junction, and tried to absorb the characters and the milieu around them. “I talked with the mill-workers, I drank with them and ate with them, and I played pool with them,” says De Niro. “I tried to come as close to a steelworker as possible. I wanted to work a shift at the mill but they wouldn't let me.” De Niro recalls The Deer Hunter as the toughest and most emotionally draining film he's ever made, and it's not hard to see why. Intent on doing his own stunts, De Niro was almost killed when, after he jumped 30 foot from a helicopter into the River Kwai, the chopper got caught on some cables and was nearly dragged down on top of him. During the famous Vietcong Russian roulette scenes, De Niro and his co-stars John Savage and Christopher Walken were tied up in bamboo cages while mosquitoes bit them and rats ran around next to them. And when De Niro and John Cazale did their own Russian roulette scenes, De Niro insisted that they use live ammunition to heighten the intensity and realism of the moment. For another scene, Cimino instructed Walken to spit in De Niro's face, prompting De Niro to almost storm off the set. However, all the hard work and trauma resulted in a painful and resonant performance, with the New York Times proclaiming that “Mr. De Niro ...does some of his best work to date.” The Academy voters agreed, and De Niro was once again nominated for Best Actor. A no-show at the Oscars for both The Godfather Part II and Taxi Driver, an anxious De Niro wanted to attend this time, but asked if he could avoid the spotlight and stay backstage instead, coming out only if he won. When the Academy would not agree to this, he opted to once again remain in New York City. Though The Deer Hunter won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, De Niro lost out to Jon Voight in Coming Home, another groundbreaking Vietnam War movie.

Raging Bull (1980)

After Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, it was clear that De Niro and Scorsese were a powerhouse actor-director combo, and they consolidated that reputation with Raging Bull. De Niro had read the autobiography of troubled boxer Jake LaMotta while working on The Godfather Part II and had tried to interest Scorsese in directing it shortly thereafter. But it was only when Scorsese was at a personal low in 1978 –– when he had a near-fatal cocaine overdose –– that De Niro managed to convince him to take an interest in the project. Scorsese and De Niro worked together for five weeks honing existing drafts of the script, finding the best way to tell LaMotta's turbulent life story. De Niro then immersed him in LaMotta's world, befriending the boxer's ex-wife, Vicki, and hiring LaMotta himself as his personal boxing trainer. It turned out that De Niro had a natural gift for pugilism: he fought three amateur bouts in New York, winning two, and LaMotta said he thought De Niro was good enough to become a professional middleweight. In Raging Bull, De Niro's physicality is startling, and it was for real: while sparring on camera with Joe Pesci, De Niro actually broke one of Pesci's ribs. To portray the older and much stouter LaMotta in the latter part of the movie, most actors would have simply worn padding, but Scorsese put production on hold to allow De Niro to go on an “eating tour” around Italy and France for four months, during which time he put on 60 pounds. The praise for De Niro's portrayal of LaMotta was unanimous and deafening: Time lauded his “explosive art,” while Vincent Canby of the New York Times posited that this was “the performance of his career.” De Niro won Best Actor awards from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, and had such momentum going into the Oscars that he decided to actually attend. It was a good thing, as he won the award and nervously, happily thanked all those around him, not least the real Jake LaMotta, who had been on the set throughout production and at that moment was sitting in the audience, smiling with obvious approval.

The King of Comedy (1983)

As with The Deer Hunter, the production experiences on The King of Comedy were far from enjoyable, but De Niro's resulting performance –– and the movie as a whole –– was exceptional. The word that sums up so much to do with The King of Comedy is “uncomfortable.” The film is about discomfort, it was uncomfortable to make, and certain creative principals attached to the movie ultimately felt uncomfortable that they had made it. In The King of Comedy, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an obsessive wannabe comedian who dreams of stardom and feels that his special brand of genius would be recognized by the world if only he were given an opportunity to let his light shine. So, he kidnaps late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and demands the opening spot on his show as ransom for Langford's return. De Niro, who was looking for a comedy after a string of extremely dark and serious roles, came across ex-film critic Paul Zimmermann's script for The King of Comedy and thought it was perfect. It was blackly funny but was profound and troubling too. Pupkin had parallels with characters like Travis Bickle, but had genuine pathos; Pauline Kael called Pupkin “a nothing” and deemed him “Jake LaMotta without fists.” Scorsese had to be cajoled into directing (he wanted De Niro to play the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ instead), and then said he was “unsettled” by the bitterness of the script. As in all of De Niro's great movies, he found a way to become his character –– although, according to Paul Zimmerman, De Niro and Pupkin were maybe already quite close. “Bobby understood the bravery of Rupert Pupkin, his chutzpah, the simplicity of his motives,” says the Zimmerman. “Bobby said he liked the single-minded sense of purpose. People speak of Bobby as an instinctive actor but he also understands these characters on an intellectual level. I think Bobby understood Rupert because he's an obsessive person himself.” When The King of Comedy first hit theaters, it polarized critics. Scorsese even said, at a later point, that it may have been a mistake for him to make the film. Nevertheless, decades after its release, The King of Comedy is considered one of the finest films of the 1980s and on a par with previous De Niro-Scorsese collaborations such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Midnight Run (1988)

Despite its title, The King of Comedy was far from an all-out yukfest (the movie's tagline was “It's No Laughing Matter”), and in 1988 De Niro was looking for a film with more mainstream comic appeal. “Everyone thinks that I have this dark side,” he explained. “I am a bit sick of always being taken so seriously.” When De Niro lost the lead role in Big to Tom Hanks, he was tapped to appear in Midnight Run, a road movie comedy about a dogged bounty hunter on his last job, directed by Beverly Hills Cop helmer Martin Brest. Though Robin Williams was originally considered, De Niro's comic foil in the film –– the slippery embezzling accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas who De Niro's veteran bounty hunter Jack Walsh has to take from NYC to LA –– was played by Charles Grodin, who was cast because of his great on-screen chemistry with De Niro. As studious in his preparation for this as he had been for any drama, De Niro spent time with policemen and bounty hunters, familiarizing himself with the life of his character, an ex-cop. (During one drug bust that De Niro observed, the perp who'd just been arrested asked for De Niro's autograph.) Walsh, as played by De Niro, was experienced and assured, but much more understated and laconic than some of the actor's previous characters. He and Grodin enjoyed playing off each other, often improvising scenes and trying to outdo one another. De Niro, says Grodin, was “all about 'work,' plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen.” Brest recalls that he would often leave the camera running after a take was over, as he would invariably still get something great from De Niro. “De Niro continues to show a special talent for adjusting each performance to the special needs of the movie at hand,” wrote Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “De Niro manages to divide the territory of Midnight Run with Charles Grodin, effectively strutting his stuff without ever overwhelming his fellow actor.” Roger Ebert said of De Niro's Golden Globe-nominated performance in Midnight Run, “Here he proves to have comic timing of the best sort –– the kind that allows dramatic scenes to develop amusing undertones while still working seriously on the surface. It's one thing to go openly for a laugh. It's harder to do what he does and allow the nature of the character to get the laughs, while the character himself never seems to be trying to be funny.”

Awakenings (1990)

In 1988, Robin Williams had wanted to play the Charles Grodin role in Midnight Run, but the comic actor got the chance to star opposite De Niro just two years later, albeit in a very different kind of movie. Awakenings was based on a 1973 book of the same name by British neurologist Oliver Sacks about a group of patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica (or "sleepy sickness") who were brought out of their catatonic, seemingly vegetative state after going decades without speaking, moving or interacting with the world. Williams portrayed Dr. Malcolm Sayer (a character based on Sacks himself), while De Niro played Leonard Lowe, the patient who has the most remarkable recovery. In preparation for playing the role, De Niro went to London on his own dime and spent extensive periods of time with the actual patients Sacks wrote about in the book, observing them and talking to them. “He spent hundreds of hours with patients and at a very deep level, beyond words,” recalls Sacks. “Bob is very intelligent but he doesn't feel like talking much. He often says 'Shut up, let me feel it.'” De Niro also went with Williams to visit Sacks to observe him interacting with patients. For the first part of the movie, De Niro had to learn to be still, to be a void. “It was hard to play because it was so physical,” he recalls. “Playing someone handicapped is difficult. It's not just being immobile but being blank. And finding the right position for the head and the hands and the feet. We were told to imagine we were stuck in glue.” Later on, when an experimental drug rouses Leonard's body from its sleep, De Niro was physical in a more familiar sense, though this had its drawbacks too. While shooting a scene where Leonard is pinning Dr. Sayers down, Williams's elbow accidentally smashed into De Niro's nose, causing it to bleed profusely. De Niro, however, did another nine takes before going to the hospital, where he was told his nose was broken. “The thing is, my nose was broken once before and Robin knocked it back in the other direction,” joked De Niro. “He straightened it out. It looks better than it did before.” Critics saw a softer side to De Niro in Awakenings, and liked it greatly.“De Niro's performance is a physical wonder, a stony guise that gives way to a sideshow of wracking tics,” wrote Rita Kempley in the Washington Post. “Underlying that is a zest for living that fairly breaks our hearts as it complements Williams's comically tentative bedside manner.” The New York Times' Janet Maslin praised De Niro's “skillful and ambitious performance” and his “uncanny efforts to immerse himself in the character's remarkable pathology.” De Niro earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination in a decade for the film, and shared the National Board of Review's Best Actor award with co-star Robin Williams.

Cape Fear (1991)

The characters that Robert De Niro plays in Martin Scorsese films are generally not people that you'd like to spend any time at all with, and maybe the most extreme example of this is Max Cady, from the director's 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Cady is rapist who, after finally being released from jail, sets out to torment and terrorize the lawyer who put him away (Nick Nolte). “Max is incessant, he just keeps coming and coming,” said De Niro. “What's terrifying is the idea that you can't stop someone no matter what they do. He's like the Alien or the Terminator. I feel if you're going to do certain parts, you really have to commit to them all the way to make them special.” And De Niro certainly showed huge commitment in making Cady special. He collaborated with costume designer Rita Ryack in assembling Cady's wardrobe. He studied endless videotapes of Southern felons, looking for a prisoner on which to base Cady, eventually settling on one with a strong Appalachian accent. He asked locals in Southern towns to read certain lines from the script so he could get every word just right, and then spent up to five hours each day practicing Cady's drawl. In order to make Cady as scary as possible –– and to overcome the 3-inch height advantage Nolte had over him –– De Niro worked out for five hours a night during production to make himself as imposing as possible. At the end of the shoot, when Scorsese filmed the scenes of Cady's naked, tattooed torso, he was heavily muscled and had reportedly got his body fat down to just four per cent. To complete his image, De Niro supposedly paid a dentist $5,000 to make his teeth look as bad as possible –– and then shelled out another $20,000 after the movie wrapped to have the dental work corrected! “De Niro throws himself into the part of Cady with unmistakable relish; playing this madman seems to have energized him and opened up the dark channels of his talent,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post. “Cady isn't merely a psychopath, he's a Nietzschean superman, the cruel, killing hand of justice meting out a stern, remorseless form of punishment. Nobody is more frightening in these roles than De Niro, particularly when he's as fully committed as he is here. Every movement, every narrowing of his eyes, is a threat. Pulling his face into obscene, leering grins, he gives Cady a kind of goofy suavity, especially in the long, mesmerizingly languid scene in which he sweet-talks Danielle into his confidence. At times, the characterization verges on the comic –– it's a tremendously entertaining performance –– but it's comedy mixed with cutting quality of horror. You may laugh, but it's laughter with no release –– tense, scary laughter.” De Niro was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for a second year in a row, but lost out to another psychopathic killer, Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter.

Meet the Parents (2000)

In the late 1990s, as De Niro looked to build on the success of movies like Wag the Dog and Analyze This with more comedic films, a perfect project landed on his desk. Although Meet the Parents had not been written with any particular actors in mind, De Niro was the instinctive choice to play the role of the film's uber-intimidating prospective father-in-law, Jack Byrnes. “Just imagine going home to meet your girlfriend's dad and discovering that it was Robert De Niro.” says Jay Roach, director of Meet the Parents. “All we had to do was get Bob to agree to star and we were set. He got the joke straight away and gave a great performance.” Though Roach admits he was at first a little scared and intimidated by legendary Method man De Niro, he quickly learned that the actor was an open and keen collaborator. After first reading the script, De Niro conceived one of the movie's key set pieces, the polygraph test, in which ex-CIA agent Jack tries to get the truth from his daughter's new boyfriend, Greg (played by Ben Stiller). De Niro's on-screen antagonist and comic foil Stiller says he was delighted to find that De Niro always made him “feel like if there was an opportunity, it was completely okay to try something unplanned.” Stiller and De Niro loved improvising and riffing off each other, and the latter enjoyed playing with the freedoms that comedic work afforded him. “Comedy and drama are just different, not necessarily easier or harder,” De Niro told Entertainment Weekly. “I couldn't do certain things that many other comics can do or that dramatic actors can do. I believe that subtlety of humor, I've got. Irony, that's what I know. I do behavior and stuff –– that's  what I do best.” The sense of fun on set translated into an incredibly funny –– and extremely successful –– movie, both financially and critically. Reviewing Meet the Parents, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon wrote, “De Niro is, of course, the funniest –– if only because he’s not entirely funny. After he badgers Greg into revealing that he prefers dogs to cats, he makes it look as if he’s shrugging off the fact that Greg has chosen the 'emotionally shallow animal.' But of course he hasn’t shrugged it off; he has grabbed onto it as if with pincers. De Niro’s performance works because it isn’t exactly likable –– he’s totally at ease with his own jokes, but he’s not out to make us feel relaxed. Our uneasiness actually makes his jokes funnier. And you can tell by the impenetrable smirk on his face that he likes it that way.” Meet the Parents earned De Niro a Best Actor nod at the Golden Globes, and the film was so popular that it has so far spawned two sequels, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers (directed by BEING FLYNN’s Paul Weitz), with the trilogy grossing over $1 billion worldwide.


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