DE NIRO was it. He was who everybody in my acting classes wanted to be. He was the ideal - to be Robert
De Niro, that was the end all. He was the focus the way Brando was the focus, and his work affected you in very much the same way. People idealised him, and the way young film-makers now want to be Scorsese that's the way actors felt about De Niro. You ran to see his new movie.
In his book American Film Now, James Monaco makes the case that De Niro was probably the greatest film-maker of the 1970s, by his association with the talents that he worked with. Everybody wanted to work with him. This holds true for today - you know if De Niro is in your movie you've got prestige, because he is the best out there - but in the 1970s he didn't work that
often, and the people that he worked with were at the forefront of the most
interesting film-making of the time
MEAN STREETS: He made a name for himself playing, you know, brash, charismatic young guys from the streets. They're not the upper class, they're the lower class. And they've got the bravado of the lower class, the charisma - that's how De Niro entered our consciousness in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. (As Johnny Boy) he comes in and stirs up the pot of the movie. He's so out of control, you don't know what he's going to do next: the minute that
De Niro walks into a scene, no matter what course the scene has taken, you know he's
going to up the ante 15 times.
It wasn't necessarily that he embodied America - he embodied New York more than anything else, that New York-Italian sense of coolness. There was an actor in my acting class who for five years had a picture of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel - not even a picture of them together, just separate pictures - in his wallet, reminding him how when he saw Mean Streets that made him want to be an actor.
GODFATHER II: This is the film that kicked it off - he was terrific. He played (the young) Vito Corleone but he never played Brando (who played Vito in the first Godfather) in the movie. Brando as a young man would have given a different performance. What Coppola (the director) did in effect was truly, 110 per cent to make De Niro a star, because he said: 'This is Marlon Brando as a young man'. When you see Brando in The Godfather he is like the beginning and the end of all wisdom as far as how to manoeuvre around his field. I would think the hook that De Niro took was the getting of that wisdom, the experience that formed the old man. The whole movie is about the legacy that this man started and his son is continuing. Coppola built this giant epic and put De Niro in the centre, trusting that he could hold it together, and he did. The effect of that made him a star.
TAXI DRIVER: The thing about Taxi Driver is that it's one of the best character studies ever done in film. It's like a great novel in the way it tells its story - it presents this guy, sickness and all. You never feel that the film-makers like Travis Bickle (De Niro's chararater) but you never feel that they've condemned him either. There is a purity enough in him to present him as he is. A lot of stars don't want to go that far with a character, don't want to completely alienate the audience. They want to remain likeable - and that never seems to have worked in De Niro's thought process.
The movie is presented from his point of view - you see through his eyes, you actually are repelled by the black pimps in the diner. Almost the fact that they're black repels you because you're seeing it through his warped eyes. One of the things I remember from when I was in my twenties living in Hollywood was the whole black debris living around there - all the pimps and the wackos and the whores and all that. You can appreciate how Travis Bickle feels when you walk down Hollywood Boulevard at night.
THE DEER HUNTER: I think The Deer Hunter is still the masterpiece it was then. One of the biggest embarrassments about the way the press attacked Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate was that not only did they unfairly attack the film on an artistic basis, they used the occasion to re-review The Deer Hunter, and decided they didn't like that either. What's interesting to note is that The Deer Hunter, epic as it was, was probably the first movie that De Niro did, during the time that he was God, with an unknown director. The Deer Hunter made Michael Cimino a superstar.
One of the hardest things to do on film is to make an intimate epic, and the film is an epic in every sense of the word - in scope, in length, in tension, in emotion. But it's not about big battle scenes, it's about people sitting in a living room or sitting in a car, or standing around a car, or sitting in a bar, or sitting in a Vietnamese prison cell. Some of the most affecting scenes are the little scenes between Meryl Streep and De Niro when he first comes home and their little talks, or trying the sweater on and then getting the sweater caught in his medal, things like that.
The Russian roulette sequence is just one of the best pieces of film ever made, ever shot, ever edited, ever performed. Not that the whole movie rests on that sequence, but it is just one of the most perfectly realised pieces of film ever. Anybody can go off about Michael Cimino all they want, but when you get to that sequence you have to shut up.
RAGING BULL: The thing that runs through almost every sequence in Raging Bull is the sense of comedy, the fact that you feel like you're hearing Abbott and Costello routines between him and Joe Pesci, between him and Cathy Moriarty. It's one of the funniest performances he's ever given. If you were to tape an audience watching Raging Bull, and you played the tape back, I believe you would swear you were listening to an audience watch a comedy - because they're laughing the entire time. You can do this for Taxi Driver too. The thing is, though, that Raging Bull is so powerful that although you're laughing throughout the whole movie you don't remember that.
What was very important about what he did when he took on all that weight, which at the time was very remarked on, was the fact that he didn't let just the fact that he had fat give his performance form. De Niro didn't use it as a trick: you know, like, 'Oh, look how big he looks'. There are a lot of actors who let externals give the performance for them - let their dirty hair give their down-and-dirty-in- New York performance, let the toothpick in their mouth give their performance for them. De Niro has yet to do this.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: There's a poetry and a beauty about (Sergio Leone's) film yet it probably presents the most vicious group of gangsters that I'd ever seen, until just recently in the South Central LA movies. These four guys are about as cold-blooded and brutal as any gangsters ever portrayed in films. When they kill, it's just 'Boom]' - a shot to the face before the guy even has a chance to think twice about it. So it's got the most cold- blooded, homicidal, almost psychopathic gangsters ever, yet the weight of what they're doing never rests completely in your heart. The fact that you walk away talking about how beautiful and how poetic they look, and how lyrical and how moving the film is, is an incredible testament to Sergio Leone's canvas.
What's interesting in De Niro's work in Once Upon a Time in America is the low- keyness of his performance. It's modest - he never goes for the super-big effects, but he gets them. If you could find any staple in De Niro's work that makes him great, it's how he can make you feel completely contradictory to the information that is given you. When he finally has his big date with Elizabeth McGovern and he buys out the restaurant and sets up this big romantic meal - that sequence is romantic. They walk on the beach and it's incredibly romantic - and then when he gets in the car with her he tries to rape her. It's similar to Taxi Driver, it's like 'I've done all this for you - now give me what I've earned'.
This is an edited version of tonight's 'Cinefile: You Talking to Me?', directed by Paul Joyce, broadcast at 9pm as an introduction to Channel 4's De Niro season. The season, which includes all the films mentioned here, starts at 9.30pm with 'The Deer Hunter'.
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