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Million Dollar Movie

From “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” here’s Kael on Robert De Niro.

First, in Mean Streets:

While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Bang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does something like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act–he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration.

The Godfather Part II:

Brando is not on the screen this time, but he persists in his sons, Fredo and Michael, and Brando’s character is exteneded by our seeing how it was formed. As Vito, Robert De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but he has Brando’s wary woul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end. In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a coward landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.

…De Niro’s performance is so subtle that when he speaks in the Sicilian dialect he learned for the role he speaks easily, but he is cautious in English and speaks very clearly and precisely. For a man of Vito’s character who doesn’t know the language well, precision is important–sloppy talk would be unthinkable. Like Brando’s Vito, De Niro’s has a reserve that can never be breached.

Taxi Driver:

Robert De Niro is in almost every frame: thin-faced, as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next–and not just looking at the people he’s talking to but spying on them. As Travis, De Niro has none of the pleasant courtliness of his Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Vito held himself proudly, in control of his violence; he was a leader. Travis is danger in a different, cumulative way. His tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost like an idiot. Or he sits in his room vacantly watching the bright-eyed young faces on the TV and with his foot he slowly rocks the set back and then over. The exacerbation of his desire for vengeance shows in his numbness, yet part of the horror implicit in this movie is how easily he passes. The anonymity of the city soaks up one more invisible man; he could be legion.

…Some actors are said to be empty vessels who are filled by the roles they play, but that’s not what appears to be happening here with De Niro. He’s gone the other way. He’s used his emptiness–he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance has something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango. In its own way, this movie, too, has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.

And Raging Bull:

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grown them–he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left. What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with: his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi-religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance–with his head flattened out and widened by fat–is far more shocking that if he were artificially padded.

Raging Bull isn’t just a biography of a genre; it’s also about movies and about violence, it’s about gritty visual rhythm, it’s about Brando, it’s about the two Godfather pictures–it’s about Scorsese and De Niro’s trying to top what they’ve done and what everybody else has done. When De Niro and Liza Minnelli began to argue in Scorsese’s New York, New York, you knew they were going to go from yelling to hitting, because they had no other way to escalate the tension. Here we get more of these actors’ battles; they’re between Jake and Joey, and between Jake and Vickie. Listening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb fuck,” and Joey says, “You dumb fuck,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?



1 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:14 am

Beautiful writing about De Niro, especially in second Godfather movie. I think that is my favorite De Niro performance. It's funny, he really changed for me, really starting with Raging Bull, though he still had interesting performances in him for several years in the '80s. But he became less interesting and I can't remember the last time I liked him in anything.

2 Dimelo   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:39 am

[1] Yeah Godfather 2 was my favorite Godfather, and they are both great. But De Niro really made the movie for me, not a far second is Pacino.

3 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:42 am

[1] Are you saying you don't like him in Raging Bull? I think Kael's thoughts on the earlier performances are really perceptive, but I've always thought she was off the mark on Raging Bull. It's an honest personal reaction, but not much else.

I think DeNiro has done some excellent work over the last 30 years (King of Comedy, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Jackie Brown, Casino, et al), even if it's not as iconic as Johnny Boy, Travis or Vito. You never can top that first flush of genius - and that's as much about the audience as the artist. He was new and fresh.

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:45 am

DeNiro of course is also guilty of making a ton of "How much? Where are we shooting? I'm in!" movies over the last 20 years. Not that I begrudge him that.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:48 am

3) Didn't love him in Raging Bull. Oh, I loved him in Midnight Run, and Jacknife and he was fun in The Untouchables too. Didn't care for him as much in Goodfellas or Casino. Thought he was good in Copland.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 10:49 am

4) Yeah, can't blame him there. The Samuel L Jackson school. I looked up Jackson's credits and it's amazing how much work he's done in cartoons and video games.

I think "Jackie Brown" is the only Tarrantino movie that I can sit through.

7 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 11:09 am

Liked him in Heat, This Boy's Life & Wag the Dog, too. I think the last thing I enjoyed him in was The Good Shepherd, which he directed.

8 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 11:11 am

It's weird to think that DeNiro was once king of the realm. I mean whatever; he's an older guy now, etc. But his under-playing, lauded here in Godfather 2, got out of control a long time ago. There's a point where it's just boring.

I think her estimation of Raging Bull is a little unfortunate. Sometimes even when something isn't your taste, you have to try and and transcend your bias and just give props, especially if you're a critic.

(If I ever see AO Scott I'm going to tell him this too.)

9 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 11:23 am

[8] It's not like DeNiro ever was a guy who opened a movie. He was lauded by critics and serious movie fans, but even in his heyday, the big stars were Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford. "King of the Realm" might be overstating it.

10 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 11:49 am

I think he might of been King of the critical realm is all. I mean, in Kael's reviews of Godfather II and Taxi Driver she's talking about the heir to Brando's throne.

11 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 12:04 pm

[10] Which is funny, too, considering how Brando spent most of the 60s being considered washed up.

I'm not equating popularity with quality, of course, just saying DeNiro was never the big box-office draw those other guys were.

12 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 12:31 pm

11) Of course. And Brando was never a big box office draw either. Heck, Pacino was a bigger draw than De Niro in those days, right?

13 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 12:50 pm

[9] See
[10] - Exactly. Nothing about box office here; all the pieces seem to concern Acting: The Art.

If anything, DeNiro was more of a draw after his shit hot beginning.

Brando was the best. Ultimately I think Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis have outdone DeNiro over the course of their careers.

14 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 12:58 pm

[13] Understood. I was just reacting to the "King of the Realm" comment. It's worth noting that during the period under discussion, Nicholson was also at his creative peak and another critical favorite. (What a crazy run he had in the early 70s - Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, Cuckoo's Nest...)

Brando was the best of a particular style, I think, but he was all over the place, too. I don't agree about Streep or Day-Lewis "outdoing" DeNiro, but I'm not sure I think about actors in those terms.

15 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 1:24 pm

The less I think about Streep the better. I hear she's going to play Ronald Reagan in her next movie.

16 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 1:34 pm

[15] I admire Streep, but she never really makes me feel anything. Now, Gena Rowlands on the other hand...there's a genius actress.

17 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:00 pm

[14] I just mean they have had more quality work over a longer period of time (or in Day-Lewis's case, close to it). Put another way, their batting average is higher. DeNiro did seem like the heir to Brando's throne, but in retrospect he kind of crapped out.

Fwiw I don't see Brando as having a particular style, he could do pretty much anything, from the mumbling animalistic Kowalski to the awesomely foppish Fletcher Christian. Admittedly his track record ended up pretty darn spotty but he is the one actor I know of that has such colossal yet equal measures of both versatility and screen presence.

People who hate on Meryl Streep confuse me.

18 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:09 pm

17) She's too much of a technician to me. I admire her skill and in some movies I've found her moving but most of the time I so aware of watching her act, every raised eyebrow, every gesture seems so calculated, that I am thrown out of the story.

19 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:14 pm

[18] Yeah I think you've mentioned it before, actually. I guess I get it in theory, but I don't notice that stuff. I know nothing about acting, I mean I've never attempted it myself so to me it's all just movie magic.

20 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:15 pm

[17] I see what you're saying, I just don't necessarily agree. I don't think DeNiro crapped out at all. What did Brando do with the last 20 years of his career? Brando marked a total sea-change in acting in the movies, so in that respect he's completely singular. DeNiro, great as he has been, did not have that kind of impact on popular culture. There was no throne to inherit.

21 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:26 pm

20) Interesting.

22 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 2:34 pm

[21] It's really true - there's the movies Before Marlon and there's the movies After Marlon. Even when his career was at a low ebb in the late 60s, he was still the guy who had changed everything.

23 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 3:01 pm
24 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 3:44 pm

[20] I think I acknowledged in [17] that Brando's career was spotty. That said, he had the good grace to not do much once he shit the bed, so to speak. DeNiro keeps finding new depths of uselessness.

I think the throne YOU refer to couldn't be inherited but I don't think that's necessarily or even likely what Kael means; it's certainly not along the lines I was thinking which were more like: greatest actor of their generation, or carrier of the torch of great chameleon/screen presence combination.

Re: Streep and Day-Lewis vs DeNiro, I don't doubt you see what I'm saying, I'm just clarifying in regards to your comment about not thinking about actors "that way" - I figure anyone can appreciate sustained quality vs precipitous drop offs ... Though I guess you can draw the line any number of places. I do think after a while, the bad can begin to, if not outweigh, certainly tip the balance a bit away from the good.

Brando had that 70s rebound that really cemented his legendary status with an iconic box office smash performance and an art house soul-searing performance (throw in Apocalypse Now too). I think besides his talent, that may set him apart the most - a pretty amazing (albeit brief) "comeback".

25 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 3:49 pm

[24] Oh yeah, Brando's 70s rebound is crucial to his legend, I think. Even "Superman" showed that he was still a huge marquee name - but it wouldn't have been so without the Godfather and Last Tango.

26 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 3:57 pm

And then there's Brando in "The Missouri Breaks," which I love, but some detest.

27 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 4:07 pm

What's incredible is his comeback was only those two movies--Godfather and Last Tango. Even though Matt liked him in MB, he's likely in the minority on that one. Apocalypse Now and Superman were stunts.

28 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 4:22 pm

[27] Oh yeah, he chews the scenery with abandon in Missouri Breaks. It's a truly weird performance - the kind of weird only a genius can give you. Nicholson totally underplays as a counterpoint and he's really good.
The Freshman was a stunt, in a way, but he's wonderful in it.

[24] Again, I just think DeNiro and Brando are such different animals, you know? There were so many great actors who came around in the wake of Brando, too - Newman, Scott, Pacino, Hackman, Hoffman, et al. I think I just have an aversion to trying to quantify their greatness/failures. It's not you, it's me.

29 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 4:34 pm

I think we should do a Nicholson week.

30 The Hawk   ~  Nov 8, 2011 4:38 pm

[28] Agreed re: the Freshman. I don't think Apocalypse was a stunt but Superman surely was.

As for DeNiro and Brando being different animals, I also agree with that. It's just that initially it seemed they were closer than they ended up being.

[27] Two movies, yes - but boy those are two big performances.

31 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 5:02 pm

[30] I don't think Apocalypse was a stunt, but it seems almost like Marlon treated it as such. It's amazing Coppola got enough useable footage to make it work. I certainly don't begrudge him Superman - wasn't that a record salary at the time? And to play Superman's father? Who'd say no?
And yeah, fair enough in re: Bobby D & Marlon...and yeah, only two movies but if he'd only made those 2 movies, he'd still be a legend.

32 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 8, 2011 5:02 pm

[29] Absolutely. There's so much to choose from and so much to say.

33 joejoejoe   ~  Nov 8, 2011 6:57 pm

I'll second the recommendation of "This Boy's Life." DeNiro is boyfriend to single mom Ellen Barkin and young teen Leonardo DiCaprio set in the 1950s in the Northwest. It's a good film that got me into the great writing of Tobias Wolff. The movie was made from his memoir.

34 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Nov 8, 2011 9:20 pm

[29] Gene Hackman week, please!

35 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 8, 2011 9:30 pm

34) Oh, yeah. I think it'd be fun to do some Hackman/Jack movies that we maybe haven't seen. I'll set this up with the Banter crew.

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