Remember the good ol’ days when Robert De Niro was picky about the roles he tackled?
If you look over Bobby D’s career, you’ll notice that he has always liked to work. A lot. Time was, though, a new De Niro film was something to at least look forward to, even in his busier years.
Consider 1987, when we got De Niro in two key supporting parts, as an intense, baseball bat-wielding Al Capone in The Untouchables, and the sinister Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart. Same for 1995, when he played master thief Neil McCauley opposite Al Pacino’s Los Angeles’ detective Lt. Vincent Hanna in Heat, and gambler/mob associate/casino operator “Ace” Rothstein in Casino, directed by frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese.
Some say the demise of the now incredibly prolific De Niro came when he discovered he could be funny, starting with his turn as Paul Vitti, a mobster in crisis seeking psychotherapy from Billy Crystal’s shrink in Harold Ramis’s surprise 1998 hit Analyze This. The movie did so well that the principals reunited for the 2002 sequel Analyze That.
In between the Analyze films, De Niro also scored as grouchy ex-CIA operative Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents (2000). His disdain towards Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller), a nurse about to marry his daughter (Teri Polo), drew big laughs, leading to the follow-ups Meet the Fockers (2004) and Little Fockers (2010). All of them saw big box-office returns.
Of course, De Niro had done the funnyman routine before, since early in his career. In 1968, at the age of 27, De Niro played one of three friends grappling with the draft, the Vietnam War and the counterculture in Brian De Palma’s dark 1968 satire Greetings. He would repeat the role two years later in De Palma’s follow-up Hi, Mom!
There were other lighter roles to be sure, some of them perfect showcases for the actor’s comedic talents (Midnight Run, Brazil, The King of Comedy, Wag the Dog); 1989’s We’re No Angels with Sean Penn and Demi Moore, however, should have had seen De Niro arrested for mugging.
The fact remains that once upon a time De Niro could hardly do any wrong, be it his forte of serious dramas, or in projects uncharacteristically lighter in tone. Now, De Niro cranks movies out so rapidly—and often, it seems, with little discrimination—that they are no longer “De Niro movies,” just films he happens to be in.
Considered for years as the best actor of his generation, De Niro’s bank account has obviously grown with his hyperactivity. He owns multiple homes, restaurants, a production company and who-knows-what-else? Someone who once worked with him told us that these days, as soon as a scene is shot, Bobby D is often on his cell phone, making business deals.
Or, perhaps, trying to find out if there are any more film offers to be had.
It’s likely that De Niro, who turns 69 years old on August 17, figures he has enough of a legacy for the films he made in the earlier part of his career. Notoriously uncomfortable in the public and with the press in his earlier years, De Niro now seems more comfortable being a “movie star”—at least on screen—than a serious thespian practicing “the Method.”
How many people have his resume? He’s got the classic Scorsese pictures (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, et al). He’s got The Godfather II. He has been directed by Bertolucci, Barry Levinson, Ron Howard, John Frankenheimer, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, Elia Kazan and Roger Corman. There are two Oscars and scores of other awards. There are the two films he directed and appeared in, the much-admired A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd. He’s been immortalized in songs and given the American Film Institute Award and a Kennedy Center Honor.
At this point, maybe he doesn’t care if people can’t even recall that he appeared in films they didn’t see—if they’d even heard of them in the first place—such as Flawless, Showtime, Godsend, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Righteous Kill, Hide and Seek, What Just Happened, Everybody’s Fine, The Ages of Love and New Year’s Eve.
What prompted this article was the fact that two of De Niro’s recent efforts—Red Lights, in which he plays a blind psychic investigated by Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy; and Freelancers, which finds him as a rogue cop, sharing the screen with rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson—did did not even open in theaters, at least where we’re located, in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Being Flynn, a high-profile 2012 film that received limited release, was in and other of multiplexes in no time. The adaptation of Nick Flynn’s novel Another Bulls— Night in Suck City, which co-starred Julianne Moore, Paul Dano and Olivia Thirlby, had a box-office take of a little more than a dismal $500,000.
Of course, De Niro is still capable of doing good work. He was solid as a weary parole agent entangled in a disturbing cat-and-mouse game with convict Edward Norton in 2010’s Stone. His limited time on screen as a business tycoon duped by wonder drug-fueled writer Bradley Cooper in 2011’s Limitless showed he still has chops. Just his presence in throwaway parts like the Jason Statham actioner Killer Elite and as a John McCain-like senator in Machete shows he can have a good time in a genre picture.
It’s tough to predict if De Niro will ever get another role with enough gravitas that it will snag a major award nomination or make people recall that he was once the greatest actor of his generation—or, maybe, even, of all time. He obviously has no problem being nominated for an MTV Award as opposed to an Academy Award.
Who knows? Perhaps his return to glory and wowing audiences will occur with Silver Linings Playbook, a November release directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter), in which he plays the father of an emotionally troubled teacher (Bradley Cooper) who has a romance with a mysterious mental patient (Jennifer Lawrence)?
Or, maybe, the romantic comedy The Big Wedding, with Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Katherine Heigl, will win him accolades and crowds for his light comic touch, when it is issued in October?
If not these, there is no shortage of possibilities in the near future: a Bosnian war drama with John Travolta; a film in which he plays boxer Roberto Duran’s trainer; a crime thriller opposite John Cusack; a senior citizen bachelor party farce with Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman; and a dark comedy in which he essays the role of an aging Las Vegas comic.
We’re hoping for a rebound here.
After all, it was De Niro’s bus driver Lorenzo Arello in A Bronx Tale who said: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”