Martin Scorsese Hails Robert De Niro as ‘The Greatest Actor of His Generation’ at Variety Creative Impact Awards

“Tomorrow I’ll be presenting [Martin Scorsese] with the 2020 Kim Jong Un Humanitarian Award and after that the big one — the Kids’ Choice Award,” Robert De Niro quipped in his opening remarks upon receiving the Variety Creative Impact in Acting Award at the Variety Creative Impact Awards and 10 Directors to Watch Brunch Presented by AT&T on Friday morning. “It’s what we do,” De Niro laughed.

Scorsese, who was at the Parker Palm Springs to introduce “The Irishman” star and longtime professional collaborator, called De Niro “the greatest actor of his generation” whose “creative impact in acting will always be felt so long as there are actors to express their art.”

Scorsese made note of the nine films he and De Niro have made together, adding that “God willing, we’re on the tenth, with Leo [DiCaprio].”

“We met when we were 16 years old,” Scorsese said of fellow New Yorker De Niro. “I think the first movie star I had worked with was Paul Newman in ‘The Color of Money.’ Before that…it was all just working with friends, almost like home movies…and that culminated in ‘The Irishman.’ It took us many years to figure out that was the picture we wanted to make.”

De Niro plied his trademark good-natured yet self-effacing humor when discussing his intricate make-up routine for playing mobster Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman.”

“The aging process developed for ‘The Irishman’ means now I can play any age,” he said. “If they ever do a remake of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ I would kill as Dorothy: ‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’ OK, I’ll work on the voice.”

De Niro called working on ‘The Irishman’ a “homecoming for me.”

“I was making a movie with my best friends,” he said, referring to co-stars like Joe Pesci. “When I think about it I can’t believe how f—ing old these guys are. You can’t de-age friendships. We spent 108 shooting days [on ‘The Irishman’]; I wish we could have shot for 108 more. Marty, can we do some reshoots?”

Of the filmmaking process, he continued, “You don’t do it alone. … And it wouldn’t be any fun if you did do it alone.”

When introducing Todd Phillips for the Creative Impact in Directing honor, “Joker” star Joaquin Phoenix also spoke of the on- and off-set friendships that result from the close-knit, intimate act of making movies together.

“I find it very difficult and unsatisfying to work with myself; I can only imagine what it must have been like for Todd,” Phoenix said. “I tested him daily.”

Phoenix recalled an emotionally resonant moment when filming “Joker” in which he re-shot a scene over and over again in order to get it just right, feeling emotionally depleted as the day wore on. Finally, he hit the right notes.

“[Todd] said, ‘What was that?’ And I said, ‘sincerity.’ And he said, ‘Well, you should be sincere more often.’”

“It was a scene,” Phoenix continued, “that was ultimately cut from the movie, but it was the most important scene because it’s a scene that helped me to find sincerity. I’m sincerely honored to give [Todd] this shenanigan.”

Phillips recounted the myriad fan emails he received following “Joker’s” release, many of which pointed to the importance of the controversial film underscoring crucially important hot button topics such as “depression,” “mental illness” and “schizophrenia.”

“When the fog cleared, the thing I took most was the impact it had on people around the world,” he said, making note of an email he received from a woman whose sister suffers from schizophrenia and who, after watching the film, felt compelled and moved to treat her sister with “more kindness.” Another fan wrote that “’Joker’ touches a dark past” that he never before understood.

“Joaquin is like a grown-up version of me,” the fan wrote to Phillips. “It’s helped me and cured my heart which aches a lot and I thank you.”

Lena Waithe and Cynthia ErivoVariety's Creative Impact Awards and 10 Directors to Watch Event Presented by ATT&T, Palm Springs, USA - 03 Jan 2020
CREDIT: Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

“Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo presented the Variety Creative Impact in Producing Award to Lena Waithe, calling the “Queen & Slim” filmmaker “a powerhouse.”

“She’s the most intellectually badass black queer female producer on the planet,” Erivo said.

“Everything sounds better in a British accent,” joked Waithe, who went on to praise Variety for being the first entertainment trade publication to recognize her.

“You guys are the first to put me on a list,” she said, referencing her inclusion in Variety‘s 2014 10 Comics to Watch list.

“My hope is that my impact will be seen through other filmmakers,” Waithe continued, highlighting those films that may not be blockbusters or get their fair due at the box office, but whose legacy rests on their collective ability to make people think and feel and ponder the world at large.

“Those are the stories who make people feel less alone,” she explained. “Those are the movies that are the legacy of truth, the legacy of passion. Those are the films that changed me.”

Waithe, who was the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for her work on “Master of None” added, “Cinema is a reflection of who we are. … Let’s make sure the people behind the camera look like the people who are watching.”

Steven Gaydos, Variety executive vice president of content, was on hand to deliver opening remarks at the star-studded brunch, which happened to coincide with the 115th anniversary that the magazine celebrates this year.

“This is the 24th edition of the Variety 10 Directors to Watch [brunch],” said Gaydos.

“This is a festival that is very internationally focused, as our list is,” Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge said, introducing the 10 director honorees. “Two of them have already been Oscar short-listed, half of our list is female directors. We are watching a lot of films early and its a real privilege.”

The 10 directors, nine of which were in attendance at the event, are as follows: Esteban Arango (“Blast Beat”); Nicolas Bedos (“La Belle Epoque”); Radha Blank (“The 40 Year-Old Version”); Janicza Bravo (“Zola”); Mati Diop (“Atlantics”); Rupert Goold (“Judy”); Ladj Ly (“Les Misérables”); Shannon Murphy (“Babyteeth”); Chase Palmer (“Naked Singularity”) and Nicole Riegel (“Holler”).

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