Monday, January 14, 2008

The Last Shot: De Niro In The Eighties

One of my earliest posts here at Moon In The Gutter focused on my disappointment with where Robert De Niro’s career has gone in the past decade. The last ten years have proven disastrous for De Niro and it has left many of his fans, including myself, more than a little heartbroken. There is thankfully some light on the horizon though with two projects in particular. First up is RIGHTEOUS KILL which re teams him with Al Pacino and then a new film with director MICHAEL MANN entitled FRANKIE MACHINE. A lot of us who grew up idolizing and admiring De Niro really have our fingers crossed for these two productions.
Much has been written about De Niro in the seventies, and that decade is certainly his finest but I think in many ways it is actually the eighties that makes up his most intriguing period. After filming RAGING BULL in 1979, De Niro was suddenly faced with an American cinema that seemed to have changed overnight. No longer would he be given the opportunity to make one masterpiece after another, instead he fiercely goes into the decade with a series of striking supporting and leading turns in some of the most interesting and often undervalued films of the period. The decade would produce some of his greatest work, and I would argue that a handful of his roles in this period rank along with the legendary work he did in the seventies. This is a small tribute to those ten years and dozen or so performances.
De Niro’s first film after RAGING BULL marked a clear turning point and was an ominous sign that American cinema was slipping dramatically. Ulu Grosbard had made the remarkable STRAIGHT TIME in 78 but his follow up film, TRUE CONFESSIONS, was a heavily flawed and disappointing production. Cast opposite Robert Duvall, De Niro’s work in the film as a damaged catholic priest is one of his oddest and at times least effective performances. The film’s muted reception hurt the great actor as he had been on what seemed to be an unstoppable role with his back to back work in THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and RAGING BULL (1980). Grosbard’s film would garner De Niro some of the most unflattering critiques of his career up to that point and it remains one of the most disappointing films of his career.
Perhaps feeling like Jake LaMotta on the ropes in RAGING BULL, De Niro would follow up one of his most flawed characterizations with one of his greatest. It is fitting that it would be Martin Scorsese who would supply De Niro with one of the most audacious and terrifying roles of his career, and the actors work as Rupert Pupkin in the astonishing THE KING OF COMEDY in 1983 stands as a towering testimony to his genius. The fact that the film was a failure upon its initial release says almost everything you need to know about American film in this decade. How a film so powerful, raw, funny and explosive could be abused like THE KING OF COMEDY was back in 1983 remains a mystery. Pupkin is one of the great performances and is the equal to De Niro’s more acclaimed works. He is terrifying, tragic and totally unforgettable in Scorsese’s controversial film.

As if the failure of THE KING OF COMEDY wasn’t a big enough blow for De Niro, one must wonder how he felt when he saw another one of his great performances savaged beyond belief by a group of money hungry and frankly stupid producers. Much has been written about the raping of Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON IN AMERICA but not enough has about De Niro’s work in it. As the haunted and immoral Noodles, De Niro again gives a performance that is the equal of his greatest work. Has there ever been a character as simultaneously tragic and vicious as Robert De Niro’s Noodles in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA? His work in the film is devastating and certain scenes like the controversial rape sequence or the bone chilling smile at the end are so far beyond where almost any other American actor has ever gone that it is almost hard to believe De Niro managed to come back at all after them.

Come back he did though…still like LaMotta…smiling, bloodied and refusing to go down. He seemed different after ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA though. He seemed damaged…vulnerable. He would make an uncomfortable love story with Meryl Streep called FALLING IN LOVE (1984) and then slip into an odd supporting role in Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (1985). He would grow a beard and give a messiah like turn in Roland Joffe’s THE MISSION (1986) before appearing as the devil himself opposite a great Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker’s masterful ANGEL HEART (1987). He is brilliant and oddly touching in all of them but it feels like he is hiding. It was as though something snapped in Robert De Niro when he became Noodles for Leone. He just wasn’t the same after that role.
He would garner much acclaim for his role as Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) but viewed today his work in it feels oddly telegraphed and distant. He would thankfully follow it up though with one of the most surprising and truly inspired turns of his career.
MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) might not be one of the best films of the eighties, but there are very few that I enjoy more. Teamed with brilliant comedian Charles Grodin and directed by talented Martin Brest, Robert De Niro’s performance as the bounty hunter Jack Walsh in MIDNIGHT RUN is one of my personal favorite performances of his career. It is a funny, spirited and finally very moving role that I have always suspected is probably more Robert De Niro than almost any character in his filmography. MIDNIGHT RUN is a sneaky little film and it is surprisingly resonate. There is a moment about halfway through where De Niro faces his estranged wife and daughter after nearly a decade apart, and it breaks my heart every time I see it. It belongs on any reel of great De Niro moments, as does the sweetly triumphant final “Looks like I’m walking” line that closes the picture. MIDNIGHT RUN is a real classic and deserves more recognition.
De Niro would close out the decade with two oddly effective but flawed films. He would be suitably wrenching and powerful as the spiritually destroyed Vietnam vet in David Hugh Jones interesting JACKNIFE (1989), and endearingly out of place opposite Sean Penn in Neil Jordan’s misguided but kind of lovable WE’RE NO ANGELS (also 1989). Perhaps what is ultimately most incredible about those two pictures is that he shot them back to back, as it is hard to think of two more different roles in his prolific canon.

WE’RE NO ANGELS would be the final project of the eighties for De Niro. He would start the nineties with one of his worst films, STANLEY AND IRIS, and one of his best, GOODFELLAS. The nineties contain some more great work, especially in HEAT (1995) and JACKIE BROWN (1997), but by the end of the decade he begins to slip terribly. I hope his upcoming films restore him to the top where we know he should be.
With Pacino and Hoffman absent for much of the eighties, De Niro for a lot of us was the one who kept on consistently swinging. His great work in the period remains some of the most special and undervalued work by any of our great actors and his symbolic passing of the torch to such young actors as Mickey Rourke, James Woods and Sean Penn is still considerably moving.
Like LaMotta in RAGING BULL there is something inspiring about Robert De Niro in the eighties. No longer was he the beautifully sculptured young man of the seventies with Hollywood at its best at his disposal, Robert De Niro in the eighties was like a bruised club fighter who wouldn’t stop punching…who refused to stop fighting…climb back in the ring brother. Climb back in the ring.


Mariana said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Angel Heart sometime. Oh, and if you love Suspiria, Final Girl is doing a Blog-a-thon on that movie.

aaron said...

I know this may be wishful thinking on my part, but I always interpreted that scene in JACKIE BROWN -- just before Sam Jackson shoots De Niro -- to be Tarantino's most heartfelt thoughts on De Niro's career in the eighties and nineties. If you recall (and I'm sure you can), Jackson begins to lament about how he "used to be beautiful".

Thanks for this thoughtful consideration of De Niro. How could the eighties possibly compare with his work in the seventies? It's alternately the decade that reinforces my positive feelings about his acting career, but also a decade where I personally began to stop supporting it blindly.

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Jeremy, you had me at "Frankie Machine". Since I well recall that was the name of Sinatra's card dealer character in "The Man With the Golden Arm", I wondered if maybe this new De Niro film was going to be a remake. However, a look at the short description on IMDb would seem to indicate not. Probably just as well, given that the Sinatra film is one of Frank's best.

Lastyear said...

Frankie Machine is based on a novel by Don Winslow called The Winter of Frankie Machine about a retired mafia hit man living as a surf bum.Great book but can't see DeNiro has a surfer.

Brandon Colvin said...

I love De Niro in JACKNIFE. I saw it the other day on Encore or something and was stunned by how scuzzy, strange, and average the character was. De Niro nailed it, which is impressive considering most of his characters are men of great power or eccentricity. It was a very solid, desperate performance. Sadly, Ed Harris' performance was terrible and incredibly overplayed. Either way, I think is a sadly overlooked De Niro performance, amongst all of the other great ones you discussed.

Every time I read your blog, it seems you've become a better writer. It's quite inspiring.

Steve Langton said...

This piece on De Niro's fall from grace is terrific to read, yet very sad because it chronicles the way his career has gone since his bigest triumph. I'd say ONCE UPON A TIME had the same effect on his inner spirit as RAGING BULL had on his body in terms of preperation and what it took out of him. Good to read some praise for KING OF COMEDY too. I think his Rupert Pupkin character is indeed terrifying, coming from the same block as Travis Bickle.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanka Mariana,
I love ANGEL HEART. It is another favorite from the eighties...

Thanks Aaron,
That scene in JACKIE BROWN really chokes me up. I have always thought that Tarantino was absolutely making a statement about De Niro at that moment..."Your ass used to be beautiful" What an amazing moment...

Hey Pete,
I wondered the same thing and I am glad that it isn't...the original is untoppable.

Thanks LastYear for the info on the source material for FRANKIE MACHINE...

Thanks Brandon,
I really appreciate those nice words.
I haven't seen JACKNIFE in years but De Niro's work in it really stuck with me. I will have to give it another look...thanks again.

Hey Steve,
Thanks so much. I agree with your thoughts on OUATIA and RAGING BULL. Also glad top hear you also admire KING OF COMEDY...I love that film.

Thanks for all the great comments

Rogue Spy 007 said...

What a great tribute to De Niro. I do think he's one of the finest actor we've seen, but he's been doing a lot of crap over the last decade. After films like Heat and Jackie Brown, he's been not done much else worth noting. I am hoping those those films on the horizon will reignite that fire. The man made so many great films in the 70's and 80's. There were some good ones in the 90's as well. One of my favorite films of his is Midnight Run. I love that movie. He and Grodin have quite good chemistry with one another.