You Talkin’ to Me? | The Rise and Reinvention of Robert De Niro

“There is a certain combination of anarchy and discipline in the way I work.” – Robert De Niro

Many film fanatics are salivating at the thought of the next Martin Scorsese movie. Promising a tour de force of cinematic mastery, the director and his classic muse Robert De Niro will team up once more in the The Irishman.

What’s fueling the fires of anticipation even more is the inclusion of Al Pacino, surprisingly in his first role in a Scorsese project.  This is a movie that fans of De Niro need, a reminder of what once was and what lurks behind those eyes when the mood takes him.

There is no denying Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.  Although nowadays he’s calmed slightly. The once volatile defiance which fueled him has slowed down.  His roles of late – in the Meet the Parents franchise and Dirty Grandpa – are a million miles away from the two-time Oscar winner who stalked the cinema screen from the mid-70s up until the turn of the millennium.


There are still small glimpses of that menacing specter which is De Niro’s ability to captivate and detest us in the same breath, as if the actor needs to come to the surface and draw his breath if only occasionally. His short appearance in American Hustle as mafia boss Victor Tellegio gave the movie that extra edge of danger.

Looking back at the genesis of his career it becomes very easy to pinpoint where he invented himself as a new breed of performer, defining the term ‘method acting’.  It is also worth mentioning since he invested so much of himself into movie roles in the past that his current work is a semi-retirement of sorts.  This is why the anticipation of The Irishman could fulfill fans’ dreams of seeing him in a pivotal part once more.

“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at the morning driving rain”.

The words of The Rolling Stones’ mantra of impending doom heralded the arrival of Robert De Niro into a Martin Scorsese movie.  With the flamboyant, half-smile, half-sneer that became a trademark, the actor waltzed into 1973’s Mean Streets like he was finally home.  This was the young De Niro’s 13th film. However, it was to be his entrance into a world of character construction never seen before.  In this gritty-crime drama set against a New York backdrop, Mean Streets hinges on friends Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel, also in The Irishman) the wise guy wannabe and John “Johnny Boy” Civello (Robert De Niro), the self-destructive screw-up who needs saving.

The following year put De Niro’s career in the stratosphere, as he landed the role of the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2. Although it also starred Al Pacino, because of the two-timeline storyline, the pair would not appear on screen together until the explosive classic heist thriller Heat in 1995. The Godfather 2 earned De Niro the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and the movie itself became the first sequel to win a Best Picture Academy Award whilst Coppola also picked up a Best Director Award.  That said, the Academy was criticized as Pacino, in what is seen as his greatest role, lost out on a Best Actor to Art Carney for his role in the largely forgettable Harry and Tonto.

After a two-year hiatus, De Niro returned in a movie which would become his pivotal role.  Again with Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair, the actor played the part of Travis Bickle in the masterpiece of dark paranoia Taxi Driver.

A commercial success at the time, it is now hailed as a cinematic game-changer. Scorsese invites the audience to lick the grime from the streets of New York as De Niro’s character narrates about the seedy nightlife of a city through the traumatized eyes of a Vietnam veteran.

“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

The film also featured Keitel as a pimp for an underage prostitute played by Jodie Foster.  A magnificent tension builds as the character of Bickle acquires a number of guns, shaves his head into a Mohawk and plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. When this goes wrong, the tense drama shifts into a violent killing spree as Bickle turns his attention on Sport (Keitel).

Indeed, the film has a greater legacy. In 1981, a young man named John Hinckley Jnr attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster. Found not guilty by reasons of insanity, Hinckley was obsessed with De Niro’s disturbed protagonist and tried to mirror him in the same way De Niro mirrors characters.

Method acting was key to De Niro’s innovation, such as learning to play the saxophone for his role in Scorsese’s 1977 homage to old Hollywood New York, New York.  Here he stars as a musician who falls for a pop singer played by Liza Minnelli.

The following year came Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, a movie similar to Taxi Driver in theme as it engaged with the trauma of the Vietnam War.  Not a Scorsese vehicle, no trophies were won for De Niro though it did earn the young Christopher Walken a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

DeNiro’s method acting went into overdrive at the dawn of the 80s. Scorsese and De Niro joined forces to give audiences the first true masterpiece of the decade in the gritty, black and white juggernaut Raging Bull.

Raging Bull took De Niro to another level above all his contemporaries, giving him a Best Actor Academy Award. He played the role of boxing legend Jake La Motta. Before the film began both co-star Joe Pesci (also in The Irishman) and De Niro lived and trained together to form the brotherly bond which would appear on screen.

All the fight scenes, some the most graphic ever filmed, were shot first. This is as the second part of the movie focused on an elderly overweight La Motta.  DeNiro gained weight for the later scenes by going on a culinary tour of Italy and France, binging on three large meals per day, with lots of pasta, meat, butter, ice cream and beer. He gained 60lb in four months and said: “The first 15lb was fun, the rest was hard work.”

Further Reading | Buckle Up | Ronin at 20

The remainder of the 80s saw an expansion of roles including in Roland Joffe’s The Mission and Irish director Neil Jordan’s We’re No Angels. There was also one other Scorsese movie.  The box office bomb The King Of Comedy. Now seen as a masterpiece, this year’s upcoming Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix is said to be heavily inspired by the tale of a crazed comedian and will also feature DeNiro.

We should also mention DeNiro playing Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s classic The Untouchables.  Again, the actor put on weight specifically for the role. The scene where he inflicts a baseball bat on some unsuspecting dinner guests is not for the squeamish.

Surprisingly it was the turn of the next decade when De Niro and Scorsese struck gold with a run of films, starting with Goodfellas. Here the actor proved he could command attention with very little dialogue. To be fair, he was galvanized by Joe Pesci in an Oscar-winning performance as the psychotic Tommy DeVito.

Cape Fear and Casino followed, though De Niro appeared in ‘new kid on the block’ Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown.  In this outing though he faded into the background, almost like a sign of him slowing down his career.  After all, he injected so much into previous roles it is understandable to take a step back.

Now we await this reincarnation of a role which will remind us of what made Robert De Niro grab our attention on cinema screens over the last 45 years.  The question remains though: will his character of Frank Sheeran in The Irishman regain his throne of greatness? After all the band is truly back together.

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