Robert De Niro — immensely gifted and preternaturally disposed to playing intense, volatile and often disturbed loners — will forever be linked with those iconic films — “The Godfather II,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” — that firmly established him as the top dramatic actor of his generation.
But the guy’s funny: With hits such as “Analyze This,” “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers,” even “Stardust,” as well as “What Just Happened?,” the satire that opens Karlovy Vary and which reunites De Niro with his “Wag the Dog” director Barry Levinson, De Niro’s recognized as a great comic actor.
So what makes the brooding star of “Taxi Driver” also able to make audiences laugh so much?
For Dustin Hoffman, it’s De Niro’s “sense of irony that makes him so funny. He sees the absurd side of life, and a part of him is always amused by life, and he likes to giggle a lot.” Hoffman notes that his “Fockers” co-star has “a very dry, very sly sense of humor. And he plays it straight, which makes it believable and even funnier.”
“He has an intensity to his work and in also defining his character,” Levinson notes. “It’s very rare that you see just Bob as some guy in a movie. It’s very specific, the character he’s into, and it’s that specificity about what he does. When he zeroes in on that, it allows for the humor to come out in the character. I think it’s always character-motivated. It’s never just him saying a funny line.”
Billy Crystal recalls wanting De Niro for “Analyze This” when he started working on the script. “My feeling was he was always funny to me, even in his darkest characters something he did made me laugh. I felt that if he would embrace this character and sort of wink at what he’s done before it would be hilarious and of course honest and real, because he can’t help but be that.”
But the star took a little convincing, Crystal admits. “He wasn’t sure, even though he liked the script, and the notion of the two of us working together. So we had a reading, and he was great. Our stuff just clicked. I was like a tenacious bulldog, always persuading him to do the film, that he was funny, and people would love to see him have a good time.
“Bob is funny because he commits to it,” Crystal adds. “He has wonderful timing and is very open to listening, to trying different timings or takes on a scene. Bob has a great attitude for comedy. He can be strong, outraged, sympathetic, and also plays dumb really well. We never rehearsed too much, so the discoveries we made during scenes were really exciting.”
Ultimately, says Levinson, “Bob can do comedy as well as drama because he’s a really accomplished actor and one of the greats of film. And he just continues to prove how extraordinary he can be. Put him in something where there’s humor and he’ll latch onto it, but only through character. That’s his genius.”
“It took people a long time to realize he’s a gifted comedian,” Hoffman notes, “but the talent was obviously always there.”
“When we first did ‘Wag,’ he hadn’t done much comedy,” Levinson adds. “No one had really thought of him quite that way, but he was very funny in it, and then people went, ‘Oh, Bob can do comedy. too!’ ”
But it seems that De Niro’s comedic gifts are a mixed blessing for his peers. Perhaps Crystal sums it up best: “At first, I felt great that he became a comedy star, because he’s a dear friend, and I love him. But now, he’s getting parts I should be getting, and I sort of hate him.”
What: Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival
When: July 4-12
Where: Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic