Monday 29 December 2014

Yeah! We're talking bout you, Bob

Published 25/11/2012 | 06:00

In David O Russell's new film Silver Linings Playbook, which opened here yesterday, Robert De Niro delivers his best performance in at least a decade. Bradley Cooper stars as a young man battling with bipolar disorder and a broken marriage, and De Niro plays his impatient but ultimately loving dad, a sports bookie whose obsession with the fluctuating fortunes of American Football team the Philadelphia Eagles has taken over his life.

De Niro and the film are being talked up as Oscar hopefuls, and some American critics have described his performance as a comeback.

This seems disrespectful: Robert De Niro has been as busy as ever in the last decade or so, and has appeared in 11 films in the past three years alone. But Silver Linings Playbook does offer a reminder of just how good he can be.

And in fairness, we did need reminding.

Since, say, 1995 and his acclaimed portrayal of an enigmatic bank robber in Michael Mann's thriller Heat, De Niro seems to have taken his foot off the pedal a bit in terms of his acting career, as he diversified into other areas such as running restaurants, and the TriBeca Film Festival.

And while he's kept on working in film industriously, his choices have sometimes baffled his admirers. Films like Machete, New Year's Eve, Righteous Kill and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle seemed egregiously unworthy of his great talent.

De Niro really does seem to love film acting, and even after having appeared in more than 90 movies, he hasn't lost his enthusiasm. The 69-year-old actor has absolutely no intention of retiring, as he made clear in a recent interview with A O Scott of The New York Times.

When Scott asked him about having played a lot of dads in his films lately, De Niro said "then it will be grandfathers, and if I'm lucky great-great-grandfathers if I'm still standing".

Robert De Niro, then, remains a dedicated actor, but the difference between the younger method man and the older actor is that De Niro now tends not to choose roles that are going to completely overwhelm him.

Back in 2001, for example, his friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese offered him a plum role in Gangs of New York.

Scorsese wanted him to play Bill the Butcher, an early 19th-century gang member and sociopath who goes to war against Irish immigrants to Manhattan.

De Niro was attached to the project until he found out that it would entail a six-month shoot in Rome. He pulled out, Daniel Day Lewis took his place and won an Oscar.

In fairness, De Niro was up to his neck at that time in organising the inaugural TriBeca Film Festival, but it also showed that he was no longer prepared to throw himself headfirst into the draining process of preparing for a major dramatic role.

Instead he has opted for supporting parts and even comedies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, that leave him free to pursue other interests and run his various businesses.

He has nothing left to prove as an actor and it could be argued that if De Niro had continued working as intensely as he did in the 1970s and 1980s, he might not be around to tell the tale.

He remains, perhaps, the only screen actor whose reputation rivals that of Marlon Brando.

Robert De Niro is indelibly associated with the city of New York, and he was born there, in Greenwich Village, on August 17, 1943. Both his parents were artists, and Robert has Irish as well as Italian extraction on his father's side.

His parents separated when he was three years old, and he was raised in Little Italy by his mother. He did not excel in school, and preferred hanging out with a gang of local street kids.

But after he was cast as the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz when he was 10, he became instantly smitten with acting. After studying at the Actors Studio and the Stella Adler Conservatory, De Niro landed his first film role in 1963 at the age of 20.

Brian De Palma cast him in a key role in his experimental film The Wedding Party, but the film sat on the shelf for six years before eventually getting a limited release in 1969. Even then it didn't really get him noticed, but things started to change for De Niro after he met Martin Scorsese.

De Niro and Scorsese were the same age and had been raised just blocks apart. And when they first met in 1972, they recognised each other from the old neighbourhood.

At that point Scorsese was working on a project called Mean Streets that would depict the grim reality of bottom-feeding criminals in Manhattan. He cast the then completely unknown De Niro in the role of Johnny Boy.

Made for just half-a-million dollars, the film was De Niro's big chance to get himself noticed, and he grabbed it with both hands.

His onscreen intensity was the thing that people immediately latched on to. The New Yorker's normally unimpressible attack dog Pauline Kael said of his performance in Mean Streets, "this kid doesn't just act – he takes off into the vapours".

De Niro and Scorsese would subsequently embark on a remarkable cinematic voyage together, but meanwhile he was given an even bigger opportunity by Francis Ford Coppola.

In 1973 Coppola was preparing to shoot his follow-up to The Godfather, and offered De Niro the plum role of the young Vito Corleone.

Showing for the first time his extraordinary dedication and scrupulous method approach, De Niro spent four months in Sicily learning the precise dialect the Corleone patriarch would have spoken. His performance in The Godfather Part II won him the best supporting actor award at the 1974 Academy Awards.

He should have won another Oscar for Taxi Driver, but Scorsese's woozy 1976 psychological thriller was a bit strong for mainstream tastes.

It's well known that De Niro drove a New York taxi in preparation for that role, and went even further on Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull, training as a boxer and then gaining 60 pounds in order to represent middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta at various stages of his life.

It's less well known that it was De Niro who helped revitalise Scorsese's career by persuading him to take on the story of Jake LaMotta in the first place. And more interesting than the lengths he went to make a character seem real is the extraordinary breadth of his acting range.

Because the young De Niro was one of those rare actors who can transform completely from role to role. He played an early 20th century Italian aristocrat in Bertolucci's 1900, a traumatised Vietnam veteran in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, a failed comedian in Scorsese's King of Comedy, and Al Capone in De Palma's Untouchables.

And in Martin Brest's delightful 1988 road movie Midnight Run, he revealed an unexpected flair for comedy that has served him well in later years.

If he did nothing else from now on, De Niro would still go down as one of the two or three greatest film actors of all time. But in Silver Linings Playbook he shows that he's lost none of his ability.

At one point, his character goes to his son's room to talk to him, and unexpectedly breaks down while trying to persuade him to attend a Philadelphia Eagles football game.

It's a beautiful, touching and surprisingly revealing moment, a typically truthful insight from the greatest screen actor alive.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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