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.
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?