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In Depth

People In Film | Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro | A Complex Character

When writer-director Paul Weitz set his sights on transforming Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, poet Nick Flynn's memoir about his eccentric father, into the film Being Flynn, there was only ever one person who Weitz had in mind for the enigmatic Jonathan Flynn: Robert De Niro. Weitz first collaborated with De Niro on the 2002 Hugh Grant comedy drama About a Boy (Weitz co-wrote and co-directed, De Niro produced) and the pair reteamed on Little Fockers, the third part of the Meet the Parents comedy franchise. But the character, based on the real Jonathan Flynn, was a complicated mix: on the one hand, an irresponsible parent with substance abuse problems; on the other, a man riding his dreams of being a great writer. After seeing the legendary actor inhabit the character of Jonathan Flynn (with Paul Dano playing his son), Paul Weitz was thrilled: “I was moved by how hard Robert De Niro worked and how respectful he was to everybody, especially towards Nick Flynn and what Nick achieved artistically. He is also respectful towards his craft, as much as he ever has been... Before a take, I would see him go off and collect himself in order to get into the moment and get into the character.”

Robert De Niro | An Actor From the Start

De Niro (far right) in The Wedding Party

“I've never been one of those actors who has touted myself as a fascinating human being,” Robert De Niro famously once said, adding, “I had to decide early on whether I was to be an actor or a personality.” It is clear that in reviewing his more than 80 features, he chose the former. De Niro was born in 1943 in New York City’s Greenwich Village to artistic parents – his father Robert De Niro Sr. was a burgeoning abstract painter and his mother, Virginia Holton Admiral, was an artist and writer. Growing up, he soon became acquainted with the downtown scene, from the Village’s hipsters to Little Italy’s gangs. While his parents were in the graphic arts, by age 10, after playing the Cowardly Lion in a local production of The Wizard of Oz, De Niro was hooked on acting. While still in high school, De Niro wrangled himself a place at Stella Adler’s Conservatory where he immersed himself in Stanislavskian Method acting. After a short period, he convinced his mother to direct his college fund to acting, moving a few years later from Adler to Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. Diane Ladd later remembered that “Bobby was one of the prime representatives of the Actors Studio….he follows in a great tradition of…..Shelly Winters, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Jimmy Dean.” While De Niro’s name would later be integrally connected to Martin Scorsese, his first film was with Brian De Palma. The Wedding Party (which was co-directed by theater professor Wilford Leach and his students Brian De Palma and Cynthia Monroe), a drama about a soon-to-be married man and his friends, featured De Niro as one of the groomsmen. He may have received only $50 for his efforts, and the film, while made in 1963, would take six years to make it into theaters, but De Niro was on his way.

Robert De Niro | An Actor and his Director

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver

While De Niro started his film career with Brian De Palma, it was another Italian American auteur, Martin Scorsese, who made De Niro a star. While they had seen each other around the neighborhood, they officially met in 1972 at a Christmas party held by Jay Cocks (Time’s film critic who would later pen several of Scorsese’s screenplays) and actress Verna Bloom. Brian De Palma had told Scorsese that he should meet the young actor, and with seconds they realized they had known each other as passing acquaintances from growing up around the Village and Little Italy. Within minutes they were talking about their past, and plotting a future. The two men’s connection to each other's past was palatable and powerful. Julia Cameron, Scorsese's second wife, recalled, “De Niro found in Martin the one person who would talk for fifteen minutes on the way a character would tie a knot.” De Niro and Scorsese's first film together was 1973's Mean Streets, in which De Niro played the loose cannon gambler Johnny Boy, bringing an electric immediacy to the role. The film proved a revelation to critics and audiences alike. Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s famously acerbic critic wrote, “De Niro here hits the far-out flamboyant and makes his own truth. He’s bravura actor…the kid doesn’t just act – he takes off into the vapors.” After Mean Streets, De Niro and Scorsese reteamed another seven times, in the process making one classic movie after another: Taxi Driver; New York, New York; Raging Bull; The King of Comedy; Goodfellas; Cape Fear; and Casino. De Niro was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar three times under Scorsese, and won for his portrayal of washed-up boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. But, more importantly, the characters he created in those films – from Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle to The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin – demonstrated his uncanny ability to burrow deep into a role. “He has an extraordinary genius to be able to transform himself, to want to go into metamorphosis and simply just be the person he's playing,” said Scorsese, when he presented De Niro with the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. “He throws himself into the deepest darkest chasms, and always comes out a human being. That's a trick. At times working with him, I felt that we had a unique understanding of each other and I hoped that the audience would sense that and relate to that connection.”

Robert De Niro | A Director’s Actor

Robert De Niro in the Godfather Part II

Right after Mean Streets put him on the map, Robert De Niro won his first Academy Award, taking home the Best Supporting Actor statuette for playing the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Great directors such as Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900) then lined up to cast him in their movies. Beyond his films with Scorsese, De Niro was selective about who he worked with, but excelled whenever he was in front of the cameras. In between “Marty movies,” he gave an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance as a Vietnam vet in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and played the protagonist “Noodles” in Sergio Leone's epic swansong, Once Upon a Time in America. Though a natural born leading man, De Niro could also turn it on as a supporting player, notably as Louis Cypher (aka Lucifer) in Alan Parker's Angel Heart and Al Capone in De Palma's The Untouchables. And while De Niro became known for portraying tough guys, he loved to play against type, such as recovering catatonic patient Leonard Lowe in Awakenings (another Oscar-nominated performance), understated bounty hunter Jack Walsh in the road movie comedy Midnight Run, or jocular Dr. Wally in Marvin's Room. Fittingly, in 1995 De Niro was paired with Al Pacino –– the other legendary actor of his generation –– in Michael Mann's seminal thriller Heat, playing career criminal Neil McCauley opposite Pacino's dogged police detective Vincent Hanna. In the film's pivotal scene, McCauley and Hanna finally meet face to face in a diner, the two nemeses sizing each other up. Their brief, terse conversation ends with Pacino's cop saying, “I don't know how to do anything else.” Replies De Niro, “Neither do I.” 

Robert De Niro | A Funny Actor

Robert De Niro in Analyze That

By the late 1990s, Robert De Niro's status as an all-time screen great had been long assured and it seemed as if there was nothing left for him to prove. However, there was an aspect of De Niro that audiences had not fully seen yet: he could be funny. Really funny. When De Niro hosted Saturday Night in 2002, he said in his monologue, “Some people say that drama is easy, and comedy is hard. Not true. I've been making comedies the last couple of years, and it's nice. When you make a drama, you spend all day beating a guy to death with a hammer, or what have you. Or you have to take a bite out of somebody's face. On the other hand, with a comedy, you yell at Billy Crystal for an hour, and you go home.” Yelling at Billy Crystal in Analyze This – the hit movie in which De Niro played a mob boss having a nervous breakdown – sparked a rush of extremely popular comedies in which the acting legend showed a surprising propensity to poke fun at himself. The success of Analyze This led to a sequel, Analyze That, but even more popular was Meet the Parents, which saw De Niro playing intimidating ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes opposite Ben Stiller's nervy Gaylord 'Greg' Focker, the man who wants to marry Byrnes' daughter. De Niro has since played Byrnes twice more, in Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers, and the franchise has earned over $1 billion worldwide. De Niro also showed a gift for satire in the Hollywood comedy What Just Happened and the political laffer Wag the Dog, while he hammed it up for the kids (and mercilessly made fun of his onscreen tough guy persona) in the animated movies Shark Tale and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

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