Wednesday, June 17, 2015

An Actor Prepared

Ask a young moviegoer about Robert De Niro and the response might be "He's the guy in those comedies with Ben Stiller." Or, if it's a more hip moviegoer, "He's the guy who's in every other film that comes out, mostly bad ones." Shawn Levy's biography of De Niro helps conjure up a time when he wasn't just a grand old actor with his best days behind him, but an up-and-comer who'd immerse himself in roles as no one had ever done.  And a time when he was the first among equals, more respected even than contemporaries like Pacino, Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman.

De Niro was born in 1943 in Greenwich Village, the son of two painters.  His parents soon split and his father left the country, bumming around Europe on a quest for his art.  De Niro grew up in little Italy, known as "Bobby Milk" for his pale looks.  He turned toward acting and studied with Stella Adler, who herself had studied with Stanislavski.  De Niro had his father's single-mindedness, becoming someone who'd prepare for any role with meticulous research.

In the 60s, when others his age were part of a revolution, he was quietly observing the world, taking it all in.  He served his apprenticeship throughout the decade, working regularly in movies and theatre but getting paid little or nothing.  In the early 70s, however, he exploded into public consciousness with two parts in 1973--as different as could be--both startling in their own way: the slow country boy Bruce Pearson, a baseball player with a terminal illness in Bang The Drum Slowly, and the heedless, wild Johnny Boy, a street kid from Little Italy whose time is running out in Mean Streets.

The critics took notice, and his audience was growing.  Levy details the immense preparation he did for each role.  For instance, in Bang The Drum Slowly, De Niro, who'd never been into sports, took baseball lessons, in particular learning to be a catcher.  He also went to spring training to talk to ballplayers and soak up the atmosphere.  Then he went down to Georgia (the film is set in the South) to see how people dressed, talked, etc.  He took a tape recorder and interviewed numerous people, peppering them with questions.  He also read up on his character's illness, Hodgkin's disease.  He spoke to doctors about it.  He learned how to chew tobacco, though it made him sick.  And, of course, he dug deeply into the script, making copious notes, planning his character's journey, yet leaving room to explore.

Few actors could come close to him in groundwork, and this was before he became a major star.  He kept it up through the next decade, turning in memorable performances (and winning two Oscars) in films such as The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and Once Upon A Time In America.  Not all his films were great, or even good, but every performance was memorable, and different from the previous one..

Once he hit his 40s, he still worked hard, but maybe not quite so hard for each role.  And his batting average wasn't quite so high.  Still, the films he made in the rest of the 80s and 90s contain some memorable titles: Brazil, The Untouchables, Midnight Run (showing he had comedy chops), Goodfellas, Awakenings, Cape Fear, A Bronx Tale (the first film he directed), Casino, Heat, Wag The Dog and Jackie Brown.

Then a film came that changed his career.  He'd long been respected, but not the kind of guy who starred in huge hits.  Compare this to, say, Nicholson or Hoffman, who did have occasional blockbusters.  But in 1999 he did a comic turn as a mob boss with mental problems in Analyze This.  It was the biggest hit of his career up to that point.  Then in 2000, in another comedy, Meet The Parents, he played an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is getting married to someone he doesn't approve of.  It was even bigger than Analyze This.  The sequel in 2004, Meet The Fockers, was even bigger.

So late in his career, the most serious actor of his generation reinvented himself as a comedian.   Not that his earlier roles had failed to show humor, but he had never had the all-out gift for comedy of, say, a contemporary like Dustin Hoffman.

Meanwhile, he was working more than ever, often in what seemed to be projects mostly about the paycheck--Showtime, Godsend, Righteous Kill, The Family, Grudge Match and quite a few more.  Only occasionally would he appear in a title that reminded audiences of his former glory, such as Silver Linings Playbook. And that's where he is today--in his 70s, still in demand, but not someone whose next film is eagerly awaited.

The book also goes into his business ventures and personal life, but spends most of its time--as it should--discussing his film work.  There were points it could have used an editor--for instance, on page 479, his character Jack Byrnes in Meet The Parents is referred to as "Jack Burns" (where's Avery Schreiber?).  And a paragraph on page 210 notes that in the late 70s, "with the shooting war and the danger to American lives over" that Hollywood started making Vietnam pictures.  Later in that same paragraph, Levy notes that director Francis Ford Coppola could finally make his Vietnam film with "the shooting war and the danger to American lives over." I think this is an oversight, not a style choice.

But, overall, a fine book.  Recommended.

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