Long-time fan Aubrey Malone traces his journey with Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro, the acclaimed film star who’s going to be 80 on August 17, visited the Aran Islands as a young man. It was 1962.He came here in search of his Irish ancestry. His paternal grandmother was an O’Reilly from Tipperary.
“I hitched from Dublin to Galway,” he said, “and took the ferry to Aran. Some people gave me blankets for sleeping outside their house. They were very friendly. I had breakfast with them the next morning.”
When De Niro played a gangster with Irish roots in the Netflix film The Irishman in 2017 he made more efforts to trace his Irish ancestry but alas turned up nothing.
It’s hard to believe he’ll be 80 this year. I’ve always thought of him as part of my generation rather than a previous one. Maybe that’s because he was no spring chicken when he became a household name. Not many people realise he made nearly a dozen low budget films before he struck gold with Taxi Driver in 1976.
I first saw this Martin Scorsese classic at the Cork film Festival that year. I remember Godfrey Fitzsimons, the Irish Times film critic, walking out at one stage. He couldn’t take the violence. I didn’t have that problem – I was too mesmerized looking at De Niro.
A year later I saw “New York New York. This was a film in which De Niro learned to play the trombone to a high level for his role. It was the first sign of how dedicated he was, something that would be apparent in so many other films in subsequent years.
In 1978 I saw The Deer Hunter at a late night movie. I’d been out for a few drinks with a friend beforehand. The drink made me woozy and I couldn’t stay awake. Even so, I was aware I was watching something very special. Was it as good as I thought? I kept telling people about it the next day but I couldn’t go into too much detail on account of having nodded off.
The next night I dragged my two brothers along to it again. We all agreed it was one of the most powerful films we’d ever seen. It annoyed me when some critics of it gave out about the fact that Russian Roulette wasn’t practiced in World War II as director Michael Cimino depicted in it. It wasn’t meant to be a documentary; it was art.
My next experience of De Niro was Raging Bull. I was walking down O’Connell Street in Dublin one day in 1980 when I saw it advertised and I wandered in. I didn’t know a thing about it at this stage. It was well on when I took my seat. Joe Pesci, who played De Niro’s brother in the film, was jiggling the switches of a TV set in the scene that was on. De Niro, playing the boxer Jake La Motta, was barking at him from a chair.
Even then I could see that the film was unbelievably good. I sat captivated in my seat as it progressed, De Niro getting so far inside the skin of his character it was almost scary. I watched it to the end and then sat through it all again. In those days you could do that. I staggered out onto the footpath afterwards as if I’d just gone ten rounds with La Motta. My man had produced another gem.
In the following months I kept hearing people talking about all the weight De Niro put on to play the boxer in his later years. No more than those who talked about the Russian Roulette aspect of “The Deer Hunter” I felt this was a distraction from what we should have been talking about: a new genius had arrived in Hollywood, someone who could finally replace Marlon Brando as the greatest actor of his time.
In fact “Raging Bull” was a kind of homage to Brando’s Oscar-winning role in On the Waterfront. De Niro won an Oscar for his role too, his second. His first was for playing the young Don Corleone in The Godfather: Part II in 1974. How amazing that both stars won Oscars for playing the same person at different stages of his life. It cemented them even further in my mind.
Almost everything De Niro did in the early eighties turned to gold. In 1981 he was impeccable playing a priest with Irish roots in Ulu Grosbard’s brilliant (and grossly under-rated) True Confessions. He got every mannerism of his character so perfectly I wanted to watch the film over and over simply to marvel at him.
I flew to London in 1983 to see him in King of Comedy. Having heard from some sources that the film wasn’t going to get a commercial release here, I had to see it so I tied it in with a trip to that city. I wasn’t disappointed. The film flopped at the box office but posterity has come to see it as an inspirational foray into the life of a fan – and let’s remember “fan” is short for “fanatic.” It was a black comedy par excellence and another rich collaboration with Scorsese, who was becoming like De Niro’s celluloid Siamese twin by now. He’d also worked with him on the cult classic Mean Streets in 1977.
De Niro followed this with another sensational film, Sergio Leone’s marathon Once Upon a Time in America. It had been in gestation in Leone’s mind for a decade and justified that amount of time. I couldn’t take my eyes off De Niro in it.
When he appeared in a middle-of-the-road romance the following year I was a bit stunned. What was he doing in a film so predictable? Falling in Love was the first of his films that disappointed me. It was the first time I’d seen him in anything that didn’t jump out at me with its originality.
He followed it up with another forgettable role, a loopy one in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil in 1985. Then came The Mission, a fine film but not really a De Niro one. Was the honeymoon over?
He recovered some ground playing a devilish character in Angel Heart in 1987, having fun trying to “possess” Mickey Rourke. He also played Al Capone that year in The Untouchables. I didn’t really go for this. For the first time I thought De Niro over-acted, something I never thought I’d see with him. He’d been such a master of nuance up to now.
In 1988 he went down a road I never wanted to see when he played a comic role in Midnight Run. Another comedy caper followed. He hammed things up for Neil Jordan in a remake of a 1955 movie, We’re No Angels. It seemed as if he was taking his foot off the gas, settling for easy options.
People went wild over his performance in Goodfellas in 1990 but this was never one of my favourite De Niro films. It’s featured prominently in many “Best Films of All Time” lists over the years but it did very little for me. I preferred his more subdued performance in films like Awakenings (where he played a catatonic character) and Guilty By Suspicion, where he was a blacklisted writer in Hollywood at a time of the communist witch-hunts.
In 1991 he appeared in another remake, Cape Fear.Again, as in The Untouchables and Goodfellas I thought he overdid the “tough guy” aspect of the part. This time he was a psycho into the bargain.
He chewed the scenery. The make-up was also overdone. At times it was as if he was trying to get his tattoos do his acting for him. I was more afraid of Robert Mitchum. Mitchum achieved more with less effort in the original version of the film in 1962.
For the next few years I attended De Niro films with a kind of “so so” attitude. I couldn’t say there was anything poor about Night and the City, This Boy’s Life or A Bronx Tale but I felt my love affair with his talent was ending. He was becoming just another serviceable actor, not someone whose every film had a “Must See” tag attached to it.
In 1994 he went down another inadvisable route, playing “The Creature” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. God forbid, I thought, that he would ever become gimmicky. But then, just as I was losing faith in him, he turned in an incredible performance in “Heat.” The famous 6 minute, 17 second café scene in this with Al Pacino – his main rival for “Best Actor of his Time” by now – should be videotaped by anybody who wants to see the secret of great acting. It’s here – practiced by two greats at the top of their game.
De Niro gave another marvellous performance the following year in The Fan, taking up where he left off in “King of Comedy” all those years before to play a deranged obsessive. Afterwards, though, he slumped back into what I saw as a routine set of performances in films like Cop Land, “Jackie Brown and the insufferable Wag the Dog, surely a contender for one of the worst films of all time.
In 1998 he made another low budget run-of-the-mill thriller, Ronin. Then came more comedies – Analyse This and Meet the Parents. By now he’d improved as a comic from the forgettable turns in “Midnight Run” and “We’re No Angels” but so what? I didn’t want to see him becoming a comedy actor at the expense of the brilliance that turned me on to him in the first place. I felt the same about Brando when he tried to ham things up in “The Countess from Hong Kong – and failed miserably.
De Niro and Brando appeared together in “The Score” in 2001. It was a union I’d looked forward to for over twenty years but the film was lame. Sadly, I have to say I’ve had similar feelings about most of the films De Niro has made in this millennium, especially the comic sequels like “Analyse That”, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers. In ventures like this he seems to have his eye on franchise dollars rather than anything else.
Over the last twenty years, putting it bluntly, he’s been making far too many films. Their quality has suffered as a result. He says he needs the money to support the luxurious lifestyle of his estranged ex-wife, Grace Hightower, but surely he’s rolling in it now, not only from his acting but also the grosses from his production company, Tribeca.
I’ve always advocated people going out to do what they love at any age. I wouldn’t want my hero to sit at home watching footage of films made long ago while he feels he still has something to offer the industry but it makes me sad to see a man who pushed the envelope so often in a raft of masterpieces descending to rubbish like Dirty Grandpa and the like in his so-called “golden years.” The bull no longer rages. Robert – is it not time to get your P45 and put the feet up?
It’s not as if he would have nothing to do. He’s just fathered a child, as has his friend Al Pacino. He’s three years older than De Niro at 83. Some people are saying this is unfair to the children in question because of the age discrepancy. One wit quipped, “It’s not such a bad idea – they’ll both be in nappies at the same time!”