December 15, 2012

The De Niro Dilemma

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not because of Christmas; because ’tis the season of movie awards! The Oscar nominations are less than a month away (begin to mentally prepare yourself for my usual, agonizingly deep immersion into that), but in the meantime, national and regional film critics groups are rolling out their accolades. This week saw nomination announcements for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Awards. And among the Best Supporting Actor nominees put forth by two of those three groups (the Globes denied a hat-trick) was Robert De Niro, for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s superstitious, football-obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook.

In an acting career spanning 47 years, more than 80 films, six Oscar nominations, two wins, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and countless other awards and nominations, De Niro is rightly regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. But it’s been a while since he’s been on the awards circuit. Because the hard truth we all know is that Robert De Niro has been lost. For the past 13 years or so, he has been wandering in a desert of bad movies and half-hearted performances, a shadow of the actor he once was. (It’s too bad he isn’t Jewish; perhaps ancestral instinct might have kicked in after a few years and helped him course correct.) So what happened? Good intentions that just didn’t pay off? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Look at the movies he made between 1973 and 1999, and the directors he worked with.

Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard)

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

The Mission (Roland Joffé)

Angel Heart (Alan Parker)
The Untouchables (Brian DePalma)

Midnight Run (Martin Brest)

Jackknife (David Hugh Jones)
Stanley & Iris (Martin Ritt)
We’re No Angels (Neil Jordan)

Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

Backdraft (Ron Howard)
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Guilty By Suspicion (Irwin Winkler)

Mistress (Barry Primus)
Night and the City (Irwin Winkler)

A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro)
This Boy’s Life (Michael Caton-Jones)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh)

Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Heat (Michael Mann)

The Fan (Tony Scott)
Marvin’s Room (Jerry Zaks)
Sleepers (Barry Levinson)

CopLand (James Mangold)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer)

Analyze This (Harold Ramis)
Flawless (Joel Schumacher)

Obviously there are some all-time classics in that era, and it’s an overall impressive filmography filled with strong, memorable, in some cases legendary performances and plenty of gifted directors. Not every film there is well-known, and not every one is a keeper, but by and large it’s a list that justifies De Niro’s status as one of the greats.

Now let’s look at what happens when we enter the new millennium.

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (Des McAnuff)
Meet the Parents (Jay Roach)
Men of Honor (George Tillman, Jr.)

15 Minutes (John Herzfeld)
The Score (Frank Oz)

Analyze That (Harold Ramis)
City By the Sea (Michael Caton-Jones)
Showtime (Tom Dey)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Mary McGuckian)
Godsend (Nick Hamm)
Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)
Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman) – Animated

Hide and Seek (John Polson)

The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro)

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

Righteous Kill (Jon Avnet)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)

Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones)

Little Fockers (Paul Weitz)
Machete (Robert Rodriguez)
Stone (John Curran)

The Ages of Love (Giovanni Veronesi)
Killer Elite (Gary McKendry)
Limitless (Neil Burger)
New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)

Being Flynn (Paul Weitz)
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortés)
Freelancers (Jessy Terrero)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Well, the man certainly keeps busy. That’s a long list of movies to consider. But a few things can be quickly gleaned.

1973-1999: Lots of intense drama. Lots of smart comedies. Lots of classics. Lots of strong, established directors. Lots of Martin Scorsese.

2000-2012: Lots of tepid drama. Lots of broad comedies. Lots of duds. Lots of undistinguished directors. No Martin Scorsese.

Now to be fair, I’ll say this. First, I have not seen a lot of the movies from the 2000-2012 span. Second, just because some of those movies weren’t big box office hits doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Third, just because critics may have had low opinions of many of those movies doesn’t mean they’re right. Fourth, just because many of the directors are less well-known doesn’t make them untalented.

But…when the reviews are bad, and the movies don’t connect with audiences, and they don’t go on to develop enduring reputations for being good, it’s not unfair to draw certain conclusions. And of the films I have seen from that era, few feature De Niro anywhere near his best. The performances are uninspired. He appears to have a lack of energy or interest. He doesn’t look engaged. Could it be that a bout with cancer took a toll on him? De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but the disease was caught early and he went on to beat it (probably with a baseball bat). Maybe the cancer affected the energy he brought to his performances, but the problems began well before his diagnosis, and have continued well after he received a clean bill of health.

It’s reasonable to think that as actors get older, some of their intensity and passion will subside or burn out. But if we look at some of De Niro’s key contemporaries, who were also considered the best actors of their day – Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall – we see actors that are still delivering excellent work, if not quite as consistently as in their early days. Yeah, Pacino has had his duds over the past few decades, and has veered toward overacting at times, but he’s also shown that he’s still got the magic, in HBO movies like Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack, and even as the bad guy in Ocean’s Thirteen. He’s also continued to do impressive work on stage. Hoffman doesn’t do a lot of leading man work anymore, but has shined in supporting roles in films like I ♥ Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Confidence, Barney’s Version and Stranger Than Fiction. He also headlined this year’s short-lived HBO series Luck, delivering a quietly cutting, laser-focused performance as a recently paroled gangster out for revenge. Duvall has also continued to do excellent work in roles large (Open Range, Get Low) and small (Crazy Heart, Thank You For Smoking). He had a tiny part in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with about five minutes of screen time managed to give one of the best performances of that entire year. And what about Meryl Streep? Defying the oft stated problem that no good roles exist for older women, Streep is in the most successful stage of her career, turning character driven comedies into box office hits, still slam dunking dramatic roles and winning her third Oscar earlier this year. I’d like to think that if these actors are still capable of delivering top-notch work, De Niro is too.

In fact, I know he is…because I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s great in it. He does his best work in years. His character is just a regular guy with a few idiosyncracies, but not every part needs to be Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle to give an actor something special to do. His performance isn’t astonishing or transformative, but it’s vigorous and fully energized. The role gives him something to work with, and you can see him having a blast with it. I don’t think that anyone expects him to pull another LaMotta or Bickle out of his hat at this point in his life, but earlier in his career he could turn even ordinary parts into something special. Consider the fire inspector he played in Backdraft. It was a fairly small role, and there’s nothing dynamic about the character on paper. But even though he’s just “a guy,” De Niro gave him an appealing dry humor and a short fuse that kept things interesting. He does the same sort of thing in Silver Linings Playbook, and that’s why he once again finds himself in the conversation for awards. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, it will be his first in 21 years. While accepting an honor in October for Supporting Actor of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards, De Niro joked that he had become much more accustomed to presenting awards than receiving them. Well take a look at your filmography Bobby, and it’s not hard to see why your trophy shelf hasn’t had many new additions of late.

While it’s great to see him back in the game with this new movie, I worry that it may be only a brief return to form. His upcoming projects look to be mostly of the same ilk he’s been turning out for years now. Commercial, broad, maybe kind of fun, but not worthy of his talent:

The Big Wedding, a comedy that boasts some fine actors like Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Robin Williams, but sounds like generic, madcap fluff.

Last Vegas, with De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman as four buddies who go to Vegas for a bachelor party when one finally decides to get married. Great cast, and these guys will surely play nicely off each other, but you can almost see the script being assembled by a studio marketing team.

Grudge Match, a comedy with De Niro and his CopLand co-star Sylvester Stallone as two ex-boxers who come out of retirement for one last fight. Kinda fun to think about Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta squaring off…but again, you know this is just going to be a middle-of-the-road exercise that might offer some amusement before it’s forgotten.

There are a few others listed on IMdb.com, but only two sound like they have some potential to be interesting: Malavita, a crime drama directed by Luc Besson and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron, about a mafia family who enter witness protection in France and struggle with the adjustment; and The Comedian, which I don’t think is even an officially greenlit project yet, but would be directed by Sean Penn and star De Niro (alongside Kristin Wiig, intriguingly) as an aging, Don Rickles-like insult comic.

Those movies could prove to be bright spots, but otherwise De Niro’s current line-up doesn’t inspire much hope. Maybe he made those deals a while ago, and the experience of making Silver Linings Playbook, along with the acclaim he’s receiving for it, will reawaken whatever passion or desire for quality material has been lying dormant for so long. What De Niro really needs to do is hook up with HBO. As I mentioned before, the cable network has provided great material for Hoffman and Pacino. The latter will be back on the air in 2013 playing music producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector in a film written and directed by David Mamet. How great would it be to see De Niro topline a series with the kind of rich storytelling and writing that HBO consistently offers? Maybe he can dip his toes in those waters slowly, with a nice season-long arc on Boardwalk Empire? C’mon Scorsese, you’re a producer on that show! Make it happen! Or hell, put the guy in one of your movies again. Just because Leonardo DiCaprio is your new De Niro doesn’t mean De Niro can’t be your old De Niro. Give the guy a juicy co-starring role! I know, I know…De Niro was supposed to be in The Departed, in the role eventually played by Martin Sheen, but couldn’t do it because of his schedule directing The Good Shepherd. But what about the other projects over the last several years that were going to see you two reunite? Haven’t you been attached to a gangster film called The Irishman for years now? What’s the holdup? Marty, help us out. We want De Niro back in top form, and we need you to help get him there.

Only time will tell if Silver Linings Playbook is a turning point for De Niro, setting him on a path back to the kind of quality roles and impassioned performances on which he built his reputation. Nothing can take away from the momentous work that marked his early career, but it’s sad and frustrating to see such talent squandered on dumb comedies and flat dramas. Silver Linings Playbook is a much-needed reminder that Robert De Niro is capable of better. Here’s hoping some talented writers and directors can steadily provide him with the material to match his skills, and that he’s ready to bring his A-game when those scripts arrive at his door.

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