Robert De Niro in Scorsese's Casino

Robert De Niro

“There is a mixture of anarchy and discipline in the way I work”

From Film Review Jan 2001 See also:
Part 2 here
In the first of a brand-new feature, we take a look at the career of one of the greatest actors in Hollywood. But did you know he'd been on Sesame Street - and that his comic ability has earned new release Meet the Parents over $140 million? By Anwar Brett

These days there is a feeling, among critics if nowhere else, that Robert De Niro is weighed down by his mighty reputation. For so long described as the archetypal screen actor of his generation, he has brought an intensity and truth to film roles over four decades.

So much good work, so many memorable roles and unforgettable scenes that they can occasionally take you out of the film you are watching. But then, just when you think that his powers of reinvention are lost, he surprises you, as he has in Meet the Parents, where he plays very precisely to the image we share of him as an intense, slightly intimidating character.

In Jay Roach's hilarious riff on the collective nightmare of meeting future-in-laws and discovering that you are wholly incompatible, De Niro is the dad-in-law-not-to-be facing a terrified Ben Stiller. There follows a bizarre game of cat and mouse between the hapless Stiller, desperate to impress, and the suspicious De Niro, quick to judge.

For the actors working opposite him one would assume the feeling of awe tinged intimidation was similar to that described on screen, but fellow actors describe him as the most generous of performers, as well as one of the shyest men they have ever met. By all accounts he was a shy child too, growing up in New York's Little Italy. He was born on August 17, 1943, to artistic parents who engendered in him a fascination for all things artistic, and an intellectual curiosity that he would bring to all aspects of his work.

"Acting," he has said, "is a cheap way to do things that you would never dare to do yourself." That proved true of his earliest screen roles, in Brian De Palma's The Wedding Party in 1963 for example, or in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama, starring as one of Ma Barker's psychotic sons.

By the early Seventies he was another hungry young New York-based Method actor, and like many of his peers was considered for a role in Francis Ford Coppola's new film, The Godfather. He might have played Michael, the youngest son eventually played by Al Pacino, and he tested for the part of Sonny, played by James Caan. Eventually he was given a small role, that of Paulie Gatto, but left the film when a bigger part in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight became available. It was a providential move, as events in the next couple of years would prove...

Image copyright: Universal
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction.

Film Review Nov 2000 issueContinued: Part 2 here

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