De Niro shy but characters jump off screen

DeMille winner's range from epics to Fokkers

At 67, in the victory lap phase of his career, it seems only natural that Robert De Niro should receive this year’s Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Many consider him the greatest actor of his generation, and there’s scarcely any major award he hasn’t been nominated or already won, including two Oscars. In 2009, he stood on stage as one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, which places him securely in the American pantheon of cultural heroes.

“He’s versatile and unique and has made an enormous contribution to the entertainment industry,” says Jorge Camara, former president and chairman of the board of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. “This is much more than an award for best actor of the year. He’s deserving.”

Who would disagree? “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Deer Hunter,” “True Confessions” and “Heat” are just a few of the memorable roles in which he’s been either explosive, comically unhinged, or as economical as a knife blade. In smaller parts, such as “Wag the Dog” and “The Good Shepherd,” which he directed, he still catches your eye. Though the Focker series may be running out of steam creatively, “Little Fockers” still showed box office mojo, generating more than $100 million in ticket sales.

It’s noteworthy that De Niro has collected his trophies and ribbons without being part of the Hollywood insider establishment — no camera sighting of De Niro, for example, at Princess Diana’s funeral — and he’s done it without working his way into the burl of beloved Americana, which would include folks such as Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, John Wayne or Tom Hanks. He’s made some mediocre movies, of course, and is almost as legendary for being a lousy interview (when he grudgingly does one) as he is for being a fine actor.

A painfully funny example is his classic 1989 Playboy sitdown, in which Lawrence Grobel chased De Niro coast to coast for eight sessions over seven months, only to have his flyaway subject say as little as possible while impatiently checking his watch and making numerous attempts to shut off the interviewer’s tape recorder.

Concluded Grobel: “Like mercury, he slips through your fingers. You can’t grasp him, can’t hold on to him. Try to shake his hand and it’s limp. Try to look him in the eyes and they’re darting around. Ask him about his childhood, his parents, his interracial marriage and he’s ducking out the door.”

The recent December Esquire interview with De Niro uncovers even less paydirt. One lightning-in-a-bottle commentary leaps out however.

Jodie Foster was 12 when she made “Taxi Driver” in 1976. She’d been acting since she was 3. She considered herself the pro and De Niro the amateur, and was increasingly bored and irritated by his concern that she have her lines down cold. Then he took her on an improvisational ride that careened through the spaces between the lines.

Says Foster: “It was a huge revelation for me, because until that moment, I thought being an actor was just acting naturally and saying the lines someone else wrote. Nobody had ever asked me to build a character. … I realized for the first time that it was me who hadn’t brought enough to the table. And I felt this excitement where you’re all sweaty and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep. It changed my life.”

“It’s a little tricky,” says New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, in assessing De Niro’s career. “I’ve loved a number of his performances, but I think the most interesting work he’s done is in collaboration with Martin Scorsese. That kind of relationship, like John Ford had with John Wayne, doesn’t happen as much as you’d like.

“I wish he had better taste in his movies, but he’s so completely and bodily part of his best ones that you can’t imagine them without him. When Paul Schrader wrote ‘Taxi Driver,’ he said, ‘It jumped out of my head like an animal.’ That’s the way De Niro played it, with coiled menace. He had a lithe young man’s body for Johnny Boy in ‘Mean Streets.’ In both, you see the explosion ready to happen. He’s never lost that quality, even in ‘Casino,’ where Joe Pesci does the shouting and gesticulating. But despite De Niro’s constraint, you feel he could erupt at any moment. There was a lot made of his appearance with Al Pacino in ‘Heat.’ But you only wanted to watch De Niro.

“That’s the definition of a movie star.”

More from The Golden Globes:
No changes set for HFPA voting process | Feisty femme characters raise TV stakes
And the nominees are:
Drama | Comedy/Musical | Drama – Actor | Drama – Actress | Comedy – Actor | Comedy – Actress
Cecil B. DeMille Award: Robert De Niro
De Niro ranges from epics to Fokkers | Dangerous De Niro brought electricity to screen