Britannia honoree's gains are worth the pain

In Hollywood, the word “complicated” has two general meanings. The first refers to someone as “difficult” — a pain-in-the-prat. The other refers to someone whose working process is intricate enough to try everyone’s patience, but in the end delivers something good enough to make you glad they didn’t hire someone else.

By many accounts, Robert De Niro, this year’s recipient of BAFTA/L.A.’s Stanley Kubrick Award (to be presented at Thursday’s Britannia Awards), is a bit of both.

His first breakout performance came in “Mean Streets” (1973), in which his Johnny Boy seemed a real neighborhood crazy who charmed his way onto the set and into a movie that wasn’t initially about him. For a period of time thereafter, every movie he made seemed a radical departure from the one before, each falling into the upper atmosphere between A-list and classic: “The Godfather: Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy.”

Since then, De Niro has done strong, interesting work through the better part of some 80 films. His “The Good Shepherd” (2006) was a tour de force of taut, unified tone in which he directed a cast of high-profile actors and was himself almost unrecognizable in a recessive but critical role.

Still, what Playboy magazine said about him in a 1989 attempt to sit him down for one of its exhaustive interviews still holds true:

“His penchant for indecision and perfection has driven makeup artists, directors and screenwriters to muttering obscenities. It is that very perfectionism that makes De Niro as enigmatic as he is gifted. ‘I like Bob,’ Francis Ford Coppola said after directing him in ‘The Godfather, Part II.’ ‘I just don’t know if he likes himself.'”

Whether De Niro does or not, any threat of lost control extends to press interviews, which he prefers to sit out. There’s an argument for that approach, though it would kill the entertainment press: Whatever an actor has to say about a role, it’s an extrapolation, not the role itself. De Niro confines himself to interpreting parts and leaves it to others to interpret him.

“In his early work he was as powerful as Brando, but in a spookier way,” says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “In ‘Taxi Driver,’ he gave great depth and inner charge to a sociopathic figure, and I don’t know how he did it.

“He’s one of the rare actors who can work in period. He had the ’20s style down in his understated ‘The Last Tycoon.’ He was quite good in ‘Great Expectations.’ He’s made enough gangster films to run the risk of goombah typecasting, but we tend to forget he’s been funny for a long time. He’s a good director. He’s always challenging himself.”

Concludes Peter Morris, chairman of AFTA/L.A.: “De Niro has worked at a high level in a variety of roles for a long time. He’s put his money where his mouth is.”

TIP SHEET

What: 2009 BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards

When: 6:30 Thursday

Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza

Host: Stephen Fry

Web: baftala.org

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