What the Hell Happened to Robert De Niro?

We continue our look at all the things to be thankful for over on Monkey Barn. We are up to the Second "I." You should come check it out. (Plus, I have an unconventional thank you. Hint: it makes girls angry)

The Hyperion Chronicles
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#423 What the Hell happened to Robert De Niro?

[Editor's Note: any movie with a hyperlink goes to one of my reviews. The actor links goes to their IMDB pages.]

Last Friday in my review of RONIN I wrote that the movie was worth seeing if for no other reason than it may prove to be Robert De Niro's last great performance. I started thinking about that, and after watching another De Niro movie over the weekend (SLEEPERS), I decided to do some more in-depth analysis, trying to figure out what the hell happened to Robert De Niro, one of his generation's greatest actors. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but here I use the actual evidence of De Niro's career path, as well as comparing De Niro to his contemporaries in what they've all been up to the last decade or so.

First, I don't think there is any argument by knowledgeable people that Robert De Niro is one of the best actors alive. He's one of only two men to be nominated five times for an Academy Award in the 1970s, and is responsible for at least two (if not more) of the best twenty performances over the last 30 years. In his greatest triumph, De Niro came to personify “method acting” by taking on the role of Jake La Motta in RAGING BULL, not only learning to box from La Motta himself, but getting his body into shape of a world-class middleweight, actually boxing in many of the movie's fight scenes (something Sylvester Stallone apparently never even heard of), and then gaining 65 pounds to portray La Motta after his fight career ended. Probably one of the top five acting performances of all time, a stunning tour de force.

The thing about De Niro was that he was always believable, no matter what the role, no matter what he had to do to bring himself there. Think of some of his legendary bad guys, like Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER one of the scariest bad guys ever, Max Cady in CAPE FEARE. You really believe he's capable of that much psychotic violence.

Perhaps just as epic are his more controlled professional criminals. De Niro became a household name for his portrayal of a determined young Vito Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART II, a reputation further cemented by his Jimmy Conway in GOODFELLAS and Neil McCauley in HEAT. And who can forget his Capone in THE UNTOUCHABLES?

(At this point I'm realizing that if I chronicle every great Robert De Niro performance throughout his career the column will run 9000 words, so head on over to Bobby's IMDB Page and see for yourself. In fact, it might be good to pull that up for the upcoming dissection.

The late '80s might have been a tad slow for De Niro, but when the '90s came around he seemed to go into a higher gear. 1990 gave us GOODFELLAS and AWAKENINGS, two top notch performances from our boy. 1991 brought GUILT BY SUSPICION, BACKDRAFT, and CAPE FEARE, and I defy you to find any actor who had three better performances ever (EVER!) in one calendar year. 1992 had MISTRESS and a terrific performance in NIGHT AND THE CITY, a movie that somehow never got the hype it should have. 1993 might have even topped '91, with A BRONX TALE, the against type MAD DOG AND GLORY, and THIS BOY'S LIFE. 1994 brought FRANKENSTEIN, a movie that is somewhat ridiculous on repeated viewings, but still has De Niro delivering the goods as Frankenstein's monster. That's the thing about De Niro: no matter the quality of movie, he never mailed it in.

1995 saw De Niro reaching for a gear few actors even possess, with CASINO and HEAT. I don't have time to review HEAT right now, but let me say this much: De Niro is the bad guy, Pacino is chasing him. 'Nuff said.

In 1996 De Niro gave two very nuanced performances in MARVIN'S ROOM and SLEEPERS, further cementing his reputation as a man who would play anything. (He also played in THE FAN, perhaps the first time you could accuse De Niro of playing De Niro, and in retrospect an ominous sign.)

1997 brought COP LAND, a failure as a film but once again with vintage De Niro. He also completely changed gears for a hilarious supporting performance in JACKIE BROWN and zigzagged once more for the terrific WAG THE DOG. We've previously discussed RONIN, but 1998 also brought GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a movie where De Niro was by far the best part of (if you don't count that one part with Gweneth Paltrow in her summer dress, and if you've seen the film you know what I mean).

What would De Niro do to top himself after a remarkable run? 9 straight years of at least two great to spectacular performances, with nary a dud in sight?

We'll get to that, but before we do, let's look at what other actors in De Niro's age group have done over the last decade.

Dustin Hoffman
In the last ten years Hoffman has delivered several good performances: MAD CITY (1997), MOONLIGHT MILE (2002), RUNAWAY JURY (2003), I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) and THE LOST CITY (2005).

In that same time span he's given us 4 out-of-this-world performances: SLEEPERS (1996), WAG THE DOG (1997), CONFIDENCE (2003) and FINDING NEVERLAND (2004).

In that decade Hoffman has only pitched two goose eggs: SPHERE (1997), which I don't exactly blame him for, other than choosing to do a movie that had been adapted that poorly, and MEET THE FOCKERS (2004), which can be forgiven because it's not something he does all the time. (Although, now that I think about it, taking a role where you're married to Streisand is like selling your soul, so actually Hoffman's on the hook for this one.)

Overall, Dustin Hoffman hasn't been in a huge amount of movies the last ten years, but he generally has been in good ones, almost always given good performances, and sometimes some truly great ones. Good job, Dusty.

Al Pacino
Pacino has no terrible performances in the last decade, but on four occasions I think you could reasonably accuse him of basically playing himself, or at least his reputation: ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (1999), S1M0NE (2002), THE RECRUIT (2004) and TWO FOR THE MONEY (2005). I enjoyed three of this movies, so I don't begrudge Pacino the occasional Hollywood cliché.

Most of the reason I don't begrudge Pacino his so-so roles is because he has managed to knock me on m y ass six times in the same time frame: DONNNIE BRASCO (1997), THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997), THE INSIDER (1999), INSOMNIA (2002), ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003) and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004).

When a guy cares enough about his craft to still bring it that many times all you can do is tip your cap.

Jack Nicholson
Nicholson has been enjoying his old years—and he certainly deserves to—and has worked far less the last decade than his contemporaries. However, what he lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality. You can really only finger Nicholson for phoning it in once in ANGER MANAGEMENT (2003). He trades off his persona in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE (2003), but in reality gives a subtle performance once you buy the initial premise that he's basically playing “Jack.”

Then there are the stellar roles. Excellent in THE PLEDGE (2001), won an Oscar for AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997), topped that for a nominated performance in ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) and showed Jack's still alive and kicking in THE DEPARTED (2006).

One thing you have to give him: he sure can pick the roles.

Anthony Hopkins
At some point, a new group that Kapgar and I are working on are going to definitively determine who the greatest living actor is, but I'll tell you right now I don't see how anyone can top Sir Anthony. The only arguably silly performance in the last decade (and the movie sort of called for it) was INSTINCT (1999). I'll grant you that some people find the continued presence of Dr. Hannibal Lecter a money-grab, but A) it's the same role that won him an Oscar and brought him to public consciousness; how can you begrudge a guy reprising one of the three greatest bad guys in Cinematic history? and B) I'm pretty sure he didn't make that much money.

Five times Hopkins gave what were for him “good” performances, but for others might have approached “great:” THE EDGE (1997), THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998), MEET JOE BLACK (1998), HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (2001) and BAD COMPANY (2002). Okay, BAD COMPANY might not be that special a role, but you trying playing alongside Chris Rock and being the funny one.

Even by Hopkins's super high standards, which force us to take amazing roles in movies like HEARTS IN ATLANTIS and merely call them “good,” he knocked it out of the park an astonishing seven times: SURVIVING PICASSO (1996), AMISTAD (1997), TITUS (1999), THE HUMAN STAIN (2003), PROOF (2005), THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN (2005) and ALL THE KING'S MEN (2006).

Forget “Sir” Anthony, I think he needs to be “Lord” Anthony.

And this brings us back to De Niro.

Robert De Niro
I've looked long and hard for the “highlights” for De Niro since RONIN, sadly a fruitless task. I did enjoy THE SCORE (2001) and 15 MINUTES (2001), although in both films he's basically playing himself, with no real insight or heart.

Then you have the embarrassments.

ANALYZE THIS (1999) I can live with. De Niro is trading off his tough-guy image, and even though I don't find this movie nearly as funny as others, he does have good chemistry with Billy Crystal, and everyone deserves to make a commercially successful film now and then.

2000 brought a terrible low to Bobby De Niro's illustrious career. First there was THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, a miscalculation so bad it's painful. I suppose with all the special effects De Niro might not have known ahead of time how bad the film would be, and I suppose he could have had a childhood love for the characters. Less excusable was MEET THE PARENTS. I'll admit I have a bias against Ben Stiller comedies (mainly: they are not funny; usually a bad thing in comedies), but even if you like the movie, De Niro is playing almost the same character as ANALYZE THIS. How can such a great actor get away with this? At least Hannibal won Oscars and ate people. Jack Byrnes had a cat! (2000 also brought MEN WITH HONOR, a film De Niro so obviously did in his sleep that the less said the better.)

2001 brought the two decent performances we talked about, but then in 2002 De Niro was right back at it. I don't care what you thought about the first one, no one could possibly like ANALYZE THAT. It was the same movie, but much less funny. Sadly, this was De Niro's best movie of the year, as he also turned in a great big flaming turd known as SHOWTIME. De Niro and Eddie Murphy playing TV cops. What could go wrong?

As if those horrors were not enough, De Niro had one more sequel to shame himself in, MEET THE FOCKERS (2004), which finally caused me to cry uncle. De Niro's got a movie coming out later this year with Matt Damon (THE GOOD SHEPHERD) that normally I would be excited for, but now I'm just scared. It looks like an attempt at quality, but who knows? In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the best De Niro performance in the last decade isn't even a movie at all, but that American Express commercial he made with Scorsese.

Speaking of Scorsese, this brings us to conspiracy theories over what on earth has happened. De Niro has worked with Scorsese 8 times, and clearly was a muse for the great director. However, Scorsese's last three movies (and a fourth coming) have been with Leonardo DiCaprio. Has perhaps Scorsese found himself a new Italian-American to make movies with, and has this made De Niro so depressed that he now prostitutes himself?

Other conspiracy theories include the idea that someone has kidnapped his mother and is holding her hostage unless De Niro makes a decade worth of bad movies. If this is so, I bet Joe Pesci is behind it. Still another theory (and I swear I am not making this up), is that Robert De Niro died in 1998, and since then has been impersonated by a lookalike. I know I'm grasping at straws, but can you imagine Vito Corleone making SHOWTIME?

Of course, the obvious answer is money. De Niro might be one of the biggest movie stars of all time, but it's distressing to think that Adam Sandler makes more money in one movie than De Niro has made in his whole career. (How can that be right? It' s not, I sez!) I don't know his personal details, but maybe there was a painful divorce where he got nailed for alimony. Maybe he invested in the PTL Club, or Enron, or took the Buffalo Bills four years in a row. I don't know, but it sure seems like De Niro is much more interested in commercial success.

I can't blame a guy for that. What's the point of being a star of his stature if you don't have the bling? Yet couldn't he make better choices? It seems to be that De Niro would have enough clout that he could see whatever scripts he wants to, and cherry pick good roles that are likely to be hits. Are you going to seriously tell me that if Robert Effing De Niro wanted to be in your movie you wouldn't find a way to make that happen?

Wouldn't you have loved to see De Niro as a Pirate of the Caribbean? I thought Alfred Molina was inspired as Doc Ocks, but Bobby D. couldn't have worn many arms and emoted pathos? You thought Samuel L. Jackson was bad as Mace Windu? What kind of Jedi Master would De Niro have made? I'm thinking an awesome one. I mean, couldn't our boy at least have been the Architect over the Colonel Sanders guy? Or c'mon: can't you just see De Niro knocking it out of the park as Gimli? Of course you can.

Sorry, I got carried away thinking of ways to help the man. For you see, I don't write this column to destroy him. I love De Niro. His 20 best roles stack up against anyone's 20 best roles: arguably the top 3 or 4 ever. (EVER!) I want the man who scared me in TAX DRIVER back. I want the boxer from BULL DURHAM, the villain who put in thumb in Juliet Lewis's mouth in CAPE FEARE, the man who inspired such loyalty (and walked away from his girl in 30 seconds flat) in HEAT. I want that guy. I have a movie in my head I'd love to write, a movie that I'd only want De Niro to star in. How can I write that movie if he continues to the way he's been going on?

What the hell happened to you, Bobby D? Come back to us. Bring back the icon worthy of adulation, admiration and Bananarama songs. Bring back the Man .

We know he's in there.

November 20, 2006


'Jax said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dragon said...

My favourite De Niro film is The Mission. His character's redemption scene left me speechless and in awe of the man.