Hollywood's greatest bromance
De Niro and Scorsese have a long-standing, symbiotic relationship, writes Ed Power
There is creative chemistry – and then there is the uncanny bond that exists between Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro.
Starting with 1973's gritty Mafia movie Mean Streets, the two have forged one of the richest legacies in cinema – a sequence of movies that rate as among the darkest, smartest and most coruscating ever committed to celluloid.
Like the entwined yin and yang symbols, they are vividly contrasting personalities bound through mutual love and respect.Both are now in their seventies and show little inclination towards slowing down. Scorsese and De Niro have just collaborated on the gangster comedy The Family (Scorsese produced, De Niro stars), which comes out tomorrow. Next year, they will work together on The Irishman, the true life account of brutal Irish-American mobster Frank Sheeran, one of the few mafia leaders without Italian blood. They will probably have to clear their mantelpiece for another slew of Oscars.
The relationship goes back to the early 1970s, when Scorsese was introduced to De Niro by the director Brian De Palma. De Niro had studied under the acclaimed Stella Adler in New York (Adler later described him as the most talented student with whom she had worked). Unlike the bullish, gregarious Scorsese, however, De Niro was shy and not much of a schmoozer – huge drawbacks in the entertainment industry.
Still, when it came time to cast his third full-length movie, Mean Streets, Scorsese sensed that De Niro, with his understated charisma and outsider's edge, might be the man to play anti-hero Johnny Boy. De Palma had raved about De Niro and, shooting on a micro-budget, it was unthinkable that Scorsese would be in a position to cast an established actor.
In real life, they struck up an enduring friendship. Both came from Italian-American backgrounds, though their upbringings were very different. De Niro's father was a prominent artist and he grew up in the company of painters and writers. Meanwhile, Scorsese truly was the kid from nowhere. Most of his peers became waiters, factory operatives – or gangsters.
With the success of Mean Streets, their careers were entwined. The garrulous Scorsese saw De Niro as a confidante and sounding board. Once you have a hit movie, everyone becomes your friend and 'yes'-man. However, De Niro thought nothing of bringing Scorsese down a peg if he felt he was out of line (the arrangement worked vice versa as well). Moreover, their creative connection flowed both ways: if Scorsese saw De Niro as the actor who could best dramatise his visions then De Niro regarded the director as one of the rare creatives in the industry whose sensibility he completely trusted.
For instance, it was De Niro who suggested to Scorsese that he dramatise the life of boxer Jake LaMotta. Initially Scorsese demurred – he hated sport, boxing especially.
"A boxer? I don't like boxing . . . Even as a kid, I always thought that boxing was boring . . . It was something I couldn't, wouldn't grasp."
As it happened, Scorsese was enduring a rare bout of self doubt. His previous feature, a risky musical called New York New York (which De Niro had appeared in) tanked critically and commercially.
Clinically depressed and rudderless, he fell into an unhealthy lifestyle and suffered a near fatal cocaine overdose. Upon recovering, he resolved to change his life. The first thing he did was pick up the phone and call De Niro. Soon they were shooting Raging Bull – regarded today as one of the most searing and intelligent character studies of all time.
To date they have made nine movies together, including Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino. Their greatest moment had actually come several years prior to Raging Bull. In 1975 , Scorsese and De Niro shot Taxi Driver, a dreamlike reverie about a psychotic cabbie drifting through nighttime New York. One of the most acclaimed, and brutal, films ever made, Taxi Driver is also unique because it sees Scorsese and De Niro share screen time.
After the original actor fell ill, Scorsese took the role of an angry passenger who jabbers endlessly about bumping off his wife. They barely exchange a word – but the spark between them is as palpable as that between any of Hollywood's great on-screen couples. Truly, this is a bromance for the ages.