×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Dangerous De Niro brought electricity to screen

Films with Scorsese among actor's finest

Most lead actors with American movie careers have simple goals: They want to be noble, trusted, adored and successful forever.

Put as simply as that, you may detect a gap between acting and life. And in life, you never quite know about people. You have to stay alert, and make up your own mind.

That is why for about 10 years Robert De Niro was so different and so important. He played lead roles, but he was unfixed and not just unpredictable, but dangerous.

Before De Niro, Cagney had that mercurial closeness to outrage. Yet we guessed Cagney’s heart was in the right place — unless he was doing a flat-out villain, like Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” And villains are different. Richard Widmark was fearsome for a moment in the late ’40s, until his own good nature or his agent got to him, and he turned sour but decent, and rather duller.

De Niro played leads, protagonists and halfway heroes, but he was never more disturbing than when that razor smile sliced his face. Of course, De Niro was blessed by sharing in the great years of Martin Scorsese, but I’m not sure any other actor could have done “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “New York, New York” or “Raging Bull” with his intimidating ambiguity.

Very often in our movies, no matter the extremes to which a character goes, you feel the inescapable ordinariness or conservatism or amiability of an actor’s personality. That reassuring base is there in Olivier, in Jack Nicholson, in Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s in their eyes and the way they look at people. They think the world is spoiled, but OK.

I can think of only a few people in whom that reassurance is absent — Alain Delon, perhaps, Robert Mitchum certainly. Mitchum was largely disenchanted with acting, and he never had a Scorsese to drive him.

But it wasn’t only with Scorsese that De Niro seemed alien: Brando’s Vito Corleone is a sad gangster and a sadder father; De Niro’s young Vito was a guy of Asperger’s like distance, yet as poised as a knife held in a pocket. He had been out of his mind in “Bloody Mama,” a couple of years before “Mean Streets,” and in time he would make Michael in “The Deer Hunter” a Dostoyevskyan lone wolf.

By contrast, even with Kazan at his side, he was utterly stranded trying to play Monroe Stahr in “The Last Tycoon.” Stahr is a mastermind, but a guy with a soft heart, a lost love and a wish to do well by the world, and De Niro seemed to have no understanding of such sentiments. Then and now, he has never seemed to grasp love stories.

So he was great for the best part of 10 years. “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” are the obvious examples. My favorite is “New York, New York,” where the story and a yearning Liza Minnelli do their best to persuade themselves and us that he might just be likeable, sweet and a good dad.

He wasn’t, and we owe that revelation plenty. By contrast, today’s young actors look desperate and compromised by their endless search for respect and affection.

De Niro didn’t care about us, and it altered movies.

David Thomson is the author of more than 20 books, including “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

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

More Film

  • Svensk Filmindustri SF Studios logo

    Warner Bros, SF Studios Expand Distribution Deal Across Scandinavia

    Warner Bros. Pictures has expanded its distribution deal with SF Studios to include Sweden and have their movies released by the Nordic major through all of Scandinavia. Warner Bros. Pictures already has a distribution pact with SF Studios in Denmark, Norway and Finland. Under the partnership, SF Studios has been handling the sales, marketing and [...]

  • Nicole Kidman Meryl Streep

    Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman to Star in Ryan Murphy's 'The Prom' at Netflix

    Ryan Murphy enlisted a star-studded cast for his upcoming Netflix movie “The Prom,” an adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical. Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Awkwafina, James Corden, Ariana Grande, Keegan-Michael Key and Andrew Rannells are among the A-listers bringing “The Prom” to screens. “The Prom” follows a lesbian student in the fictional conservative town of [...]

  • Viktor Dvorak, Anna Geislerova Join Vaclav

    Viktor Dvorak, Anna Geislerova Join Václav Havel Biopic

    Viktor Dvorak has been cast in “Havel,” a biopic of Václav Havel, as the Czech playwright, dissident and national leader. Anna Geislerova, who starred in Oscar nominated “Zelary,” plays his wife, Olga Havlova. Jiri Bartoska, the president of Karlovy Vary Film Festival, will appear in the film as “Professor,” inspired by Czech philosopher Jan Patocka. [...]

  • Daniel Craig

    'Bond 25' First Footage Sees Daniel Craig Back as 007

    After suffering a series of setbacks, including finding a new director and Daniel Craig’s on-set injury, “Bond 25” production is officially underway. A new behind-the-scenes clip of the upcoming James Bond film features Craig and helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga at work in the Caribbean. The minute-long footage didn’t reveal much about the still-untitled movie, though [...]

  • (L to R) Marco Graf as

    ‘Roma,’ ‘The Good Girls’ Top Mexico’s Ariel Academy Awards

    The Mexican Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences hosted the 61st edition of their Ariel Awards on Monday evening, where Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Alejandra Márquez Abella’s “The Good Girls” stood out among the winners. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cuarón’s “Roma” scooping best picture is that it’s only the second of his films to [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    Already Pulled From Shanghai Festival, 'The Eight Hundred' Cancels Its China Release

    Already pulled from its prestigious spot as the opener of the Shanghai International Film Festival, war epic “The Eight Hundred” has been dealt a further below with the cancellation of its scheduled release in China next week. In a terse announcement on its official Weibo account, the film said late Tuesday that, “after consultation between [...]

  • Méndez Esparza, Fernando Franco, Villaronga Projects

    Projects By Mendez Esparza, Fernando Franco and Villaronga at Small Is Biutiful

    Antonio Méndez Esparza’s “Que nadie duerma,” Fernando Franco’s “La consagración de la primavera” and Agustí Villaronga’s “3.000 obstáculos” figure among the seven projects to be pitched at Paris’ Small Is Biutiful forum. The closing event for the alternative Spanish film festival Dífferent 12!, Small Is Biutiful takes place June 26, bringing together French distributors and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content