A Note on Robert DeNiro

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After having been made to sit through the unbearable garbage of DeNiro’s latest idiot-comedy Dirty Grandpa, I had some observations to share, with myself as much as anyone. I thought that this would be a fun little diversion, to look at the discrete phases of DeNiro—“serious” DeNiro, up to around the 21st century, and “stupid parody” DeNiro, roughly everything this century. But the more I look at his filmography, the more I realize that DeNiro is one of the most frustratingly perplexing actors in Hollywood, perhaps of all time. It’s not as if that crude separation I made above isn’t totally applicable—his filmography corresponds to roughly those two time periods. It’s just that, as with all complex phenomena, simply laying the facts bare only begs more questions, namely: why?

So maybe I’ll start by listing a selection of his films, so we can get a sense of what we’re talking about here. (And here’s a compete filmography in case you’re interested.) Looking at that complete filmography, it’s clear that I definitely can’t be any kind of authority here, since there are so many films of his I haven’t seen, and haven’t even heard of. So all of my observations and generalizations are going to be pretty uninformed. If you’re still with me, though, I’m just going to start throwing shit against the wall, and we’ll see what sticks.

So then, a filmography, based on what I’ve seen and what I’m familiar enough with to make a judgement on (eg: haven’t seen Analyze This or Analyze That, but I’m preeeeeetty sure I get the gist of both):

  • 1973 – Mean Streets
  • 1974 – The Godfather Part II
  • 1976 – Taxi Driver; 1900
  • 1977 – New York, New York
  • 1978 – The Deer Hunter
  • 1980 – Raging Bull
  • 1983 – The King of Comedy
  • 1984 – Once Upon a Time in America
  • 1985 – Brazil
  • 1986 – The Mission
  • 1987 – The Untouchables
  • 1990 – Goodfellas; Awakenings
  • 1991 – Backdraft; Cape Fear
  • 1994 – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • 1995 – Casino; Heat
  • 1997 – Copland; Jackie Brown; Wag the Dog
  • 1999 – Analyze This
  • 2000 – The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle; Meet the Parents
  • 2002 – Analyze That
  • 2004 – Meet the Fockers
  • 2006 – The Good Shepherd
  • 2010 – Little Fockers
  • 2011 – Killer Elite; Limitless
  • 2012 – Being Flynn; Silver Linings Playbook
  • 2013 – Last Vegas; American Hustle; Grudge Match
  • 2015 – The Intern; Joy
  • 2016 – Dirty Grandpa

Obviously, it’s a hell of a filmography, and one of the defences (or excuses) for DeNiro’s turn towards the self-parodic is that he’s one of the few actors around who has the credentials to justify such self-parody. But the really striking thing that jumped out at me as I made that list was how much his filmography actually kind of undermines my basic thesis. In my review for Dirty Grandpa, I alluded to a thesis that I thought this post was going to develop more clearly: the Two Phases Theory of DeNiro’s filmography, which basically states that there’s a discrete “serious” phase, and a discrete “parody” phase, and we are firmly in the latter. And I would have probably explained how there are a number of films in each phase that seem to weaken the argument, but these are just exceptions to the rule, blah blah blah.

The more I look at it, though, it really seems like that urge to separate phases might be erroneous to begin with. I mean, for starters, where would the splitting point between these phases be? I was going to say Meet the Parents, but DeNiro had already lampooned his own tough-guy image in a popular low-brow comedy, Analyze This. Another thing that jumped  out at me was what a wide range of performances, of different “types”, he used to explore, and how that has narrowed dramatically in the last few decades. You look at the 70’s and 80’s—say, from Mean Streets to Untouchables,  and you could easily say that by 1987 it was an obvious choice to cast DeNiro as Al Capone because DeNiro is the ultimate tough-guy actor. But his filmography by that time already was way more complicated than that—the “tough guys ” he was portraying were always way more than tough guys, and the filmography speaks for itself on that. And further, the tough-guy image that he was playing on when he played against type… Okay, here’s what I mean: think of DeNiro in Brazil or 1900, and then think of him in Raging Bull or Untouchables. First of all—what do any of those films have to do with each other?—and second, aren’t they all connected in this very strange way, solely and improbably, by the presence of Robert DeNiro of all people?

Intertextuality is something I’m only slightly familiar with, but even if I was a pro (whatever that would mean), DeNiro would give me a run for my money. Of course, every actor generates a unique space in every role, every film, merely with their presence, their unique physical features. I went down this rabbit hole in school a little bit, and Chishu Ryu in Ozu films is exemplary of this. And throughout all the chameleonic shit that modern actors like to do to “immerse themselves in a role “, in a large part popularized in the modern day by DeNiro’s extreme and slightly ludicrous Method antics, including weight gain/loss, prosthetics, hair, or old-timey undergarments that remain completely off screen, we in the audience can always tell that it’s really them (except when we can’t, in which cases it’s truly remarkable). To me, and this is where I detect a larger argument that I’ll have to flesh out, that entire discourse of modern acting that we all seem to take for granted, that we all seem to love to take the actor’s word on, is almost always a little bit absurd. And by absurd, I mean it’s funny.

To take an uncontroversial example, let’s take a passing glance at the career of Johnny Depp, as a particularly clear example. To give him a bit of a hard time, we could divide his career into two phases: the Legit Johnny Depp phase, from Gilbert Grape to, let’s say, Blow; and the Tim Burton/Pirates phase. Now of course, there is significant overlap there too (notably Edward Scissorhands), but you see what I’m getting at: not only is it evident that the man is engaging in a project of sustained and repeated bad choices serving to repeatedly undermine the quality of his oeuvre, but each bizarre bad choice he does arguably taints the spare, unadorned honesty of  all of his Gilbert Grapes, because you can’t help but notice that this is the same face covered in racist face paint and a taxidermied bird on his head. Although, to complete the circle and make this digression truly frivolous, I have to admit that it’s a bit of an open question whether Depp was smart to embrace the face paint and elaborate costumes for these ridiculous kids films, so that his face is still a bedrock of thespianic potential for “serious” roles he wants to do in the future. (The recent violent gangster film Black Mass might demonstrate that, on the other hand, maybe he just loves covering his face!)

As for DeNiro though, my main point was this, and it’s true of every actor, especially very popular and iconic ones: the continuous presence of the actor’s face provides a thread that connects the viewer visually from each role that the actor plays. The face is basically it—the smallest unit of currency in cinema, especially Hollywood, which banks on narrative realism, internal consistency, audience identification with the protagonist, a suspension of disbelief to help immerse ourselves in the “realism” of the narrative, to “believe” for 2 hours that this is a person we’re seeing instead of a paid actor in a carefully arranged performance. Not to mention, in Hollywood, the existence of a huge, booming, auxiliary industry feeding and sustaining the star system, making sure that we know that this is NOT just another person like you, but a paid actor, with a name you need to know, and a personality you need to know, and a filmography you need to know, and a relationship you need to know about, etc.

This is what I’m driving at: at this point, Robert DeNiro’s face is, in psychoanalytic terms, over-determined—there’s too much shit going on all at once. His face, when it appears on screen, whether in a joke-fart-frat movie or a serious drama, cannot help but display the history of DeNiro’s filmography, which, again, is a history  of bewildering  highs and lows, mutually incompatible and inconsistent. Today, when he appears in a David O. Russell human interest drama as the dad played by an over-qualified heavyweight cinematic legend, he has the emotional gravity of Taxi Driver and Heat contributing to the level of signification in that performance. But also, whether DeNiro or David O. Russell or any of us want to admit it, that emotional gravity of all of his “serious” and legendary roles is accompanied by the sideways, jokey, absurdity of all of the playing against type he’s done and continues to do. So, the short version—when you see DeNiro’s face, you’re seeing Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, you get Cape Fear and Heat, but you’re also seeing Fearless Leader from Rocky and Bullwinkle, you’re also getting the whole absurd situation of three Meet the Parents movies, and as of 2016, you’re seeing the juvenile dirty grandpa from Dirty Grandpa. All in the same face.

So maybe after all this, I still have only really arrived at the question: every actor plays against type, but where is the threshold? DeNiro, more than anyone, has been testing that boundary pretty excessively in the last few decades. My initial conceit was that, of all people, DeNiro’s legacy is so rock solid that he can play against type for two extra decades than he spent building that type and his legacy would still be bulletproof. He could make 10 more Meet the Parents movies (and lord knows there’s probably a Dirtier Grandpa and Dirtiest Grandpa in the works), but when he dies, we will all still remember that shot from Godfather II where he’s got that moustache and his hair slicked back, silently stalking the rooftops of Manhattan while the Italian festival goes on in Mulberry Street below, the image of everything postwar America wanted to believe about itself. But I’m not so sure now. I’m no so sure that, especially as time goes on, as people die off, we won’t get to a place where the recognition of his face and name, where it occurs at all, won’t be “Oh I remember him, he was that old guy in all those dumb comedies.” Then again, I suppose that applies to us all, doesn’t it?

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