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What went wrong with Robert De Niro?

This is a guest post by Ronan Moloney. Read his other writing here.

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This year at the Oscars finally saw Leonardo DiCaprio get his long awaited Oscar. Many felt that this was long overdue, as DiCaprio has proven to be one of the best, and more importantly for movie execs, most bankable actors of his era. The list of movies he has done have already been hailed as classics, not bad turnaround for a guy who gave us Titanic. He has earned back our trust!

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of his mentor and the man who paved the way to his acting career, the once great Robert De Niro. Last year saw De Niro star in the dreadful The Intern. This film is only one in a long list of terrible movie choices he has made in the last number of years. Some of the films he has done, which would never have been considered suitable for him such as Stardust, are being met with relief more than praise – relief in the fact that it could have been worse. Silver Lining Playbook was considered to be a return to form for De Niro, and although the film is charming, it doesn’t exactly stand out and it should never be mentioned in the same breath as his other classic films.

There has been much written about his demise. You now have to go back to over 20 years when the Michael Mann directed Heat was made, and it is terrible to see De Niro reduced to films like The Intern or the recently as woeful Bad Grandpa and Grudge Match (‘Rocky’ vs ‘The Raging Bull’). Shudder. What happened to one of the greatest actors of all time? Asking this question to a group of friends once I was provided with an interesting suggestion – maybe his previous efforts took their toll.

RDN TxiDe Niro was the definitive “Method Actor” of his era. In preparation for his role of the young Don Corleone in The Godfather II, he moved to Sicily several months before filming began to learn Italian and became fluent, winning an Oscar for his excellent performance.

In the classic Taxi Driver, whereby De Niro plays a psychotic taxi driver disgusted by modern society, he actually obtained a cab drivers licence (pictured right) and picked up fares to prepare for the film. He in fact continued to do this during breaks in the shooting and grew a Mohawk. Similarly, starring in New York, New York not to be outdone by his musical co-star Liza Minnelli, he learned to play the saxophone!

Raging Bull saw De Niro undergo an incredible physical transformation that would put him at risk. Playing the part of legendary Middleweight Champion Jake La Motta, De Niro actually trained as a professional boxer and fought professionally. La Motta himself, who took some of his training sessions, said that the Oscar winner could have been an excellent fighter and that he was basically professional. Whether or not this could have been said to promote the movie is up for debate, but De Niro did have three professional fights in the Bronx, winning two. Not half bad! In addition to this, he had hundreds of rounds sparring. Such was his condition; he actually broke two of his co-star Joe Pesci’s ribs in one of the training scenes in the film. This was left in the final cut of the movie.

RDN RBHalfway through the Raging Bull shoot, he moved again to Sicily to gain weight to portray La Motta in his later years as an overweight former champion. His transformation was shocking. De Niro gained 65 pounds after eating half of Sicily and his scenes took longer to shoot due to respiratory and other health problems he inherited in the process, scaring his Director and close friend Martin Scorcese to the point where production was halted for a time.

He carried on the extreme preparation to his craft in 1982 in the much underrated The King of Comedy. Portraying a character very different to his previous performances, De Niro put in an unsettling performance as crazed comic Rupert Pumpkin, a man who is trapped in his own fantasy by choice. De Niro would use anti-semitic remarks to his co-star Jerry Lewis to anger him and push him to hate his character. The production on this was extremely difficult and Scorsese and De Niro actually would not work together again for years after as a result.

The extremes in how he took his work continued throughout his career thereafter. In The Mission, he showed little care for his own well-being as a slave trader, doing his own stunts barefoot in the jungle and river beds of Portugal. In one of his stranger method acting requests, he asked to have Al Capone’s tailors make his clothes for his role as the famed criminal in The Untouchables. De Niro insisted that they designed the same underwear that Capone wore!

RDN The UntIn the classic Goodfellas (in this writer’s opinion the greatest movie ever made), the real Henry Hill of whose life the film is based said De Niro would not leave him alone. Such was his dedication to his character Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke he would call Hill constantly on any insight he would have on his character, even on how the real Jimmy ‘The Gent’ would hold a cigarette. However ridiculous that sounded to Hill, on viewing a scene where De Niro smokes a cigarette all the while wondering whether to kill someone, he got to see the method to his madness.

In Cape Fear, he was offered to wear prosthetic teeth to make his character, revenge seeking sociopath Max Cady, more menacing. This was not enough however, and De Niro underwent another physical transformation, lifting weights and training in the gym for months while he also paid $20,000 to a dentist to have his teeth ground down and deformed!
Taking his craft far less seriously over the last 20 years, De Niro’s reputation has fallen. It is somewhat incredible therefore to think that this same actor went on to Meet the Fockers, Bad Grandpa, Hide and Seek and so forth. He did though. Is it possible that the extreme measures he took could have exhausted the once acclaimed actor for an easy paycheck? Is that understandable? Not to his once huge fan base.

RDN LFIt has been announced however, that he is due to renew his partnership with Scorsese in the long awaited ‘The Irishman’. Shooting is set to start soon on the film and it has been given the green light. Anticipation for De Niro’s movies was once the same as DiCaprio’s now. Unfortunately it is not the case today. He badly needs a hit film and a strong performance to show us all he still has it. Please Bob. Get angry, smoke cigarettes and take revenge on people who have insulted your friends ‘just a little bit’. It’s just not the same anymore!

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See some classic Robert De Niro performances at The Light House Cinema’s “DE NIRO VS PACINO SEASON – ROUND 1” season.




Wow, I never knew. I now have a long list of filims I want to see!!

Who loves ya baby Ro? Me! Great post pal!

The man is literally a legend in the history of film. He is pushing 73 soon. He can retire or make shit movies for fun and the check for all I care. I will always respect him.

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