I was reading one of my very favorite blogs the other day and came across something which really drew my attention. Joe Posnanski is, by far, the best sportswriter in the country. I promise you, you need not be a sports fan to revel in his infectious writing style. Don’t take my word for it. Go check it out:
So, anyway, I was perusing a post he wrote called “Inspiration and Perspiration.” Interestingly, the part of that piece I will share with you has very little to do with the central point of the piece itself. Joe is actually speaking at length about some newfangled baseball stats and a few perceived idiosyncrasies. As a sort of introduction to his musings, he uses an example concerning the recent plight of Tiger Woods. Well, more to the point, the plight of being a fan of Tiger Woods. He writes:
“Every realistic instinct in my being tells me Tiger Woods is done as the best golfer in the world. Done. I really don’t think he will ever get back up to the top. I’ve been over my reasons a dozen times at least — he’s 35 years old (and probably even older in golf years since he has been playing, since he was 3), he’s had major knee surgery, he can’t find a swing that fits his current body, he has been trampled by the culture he created, and there are many very talented young golfers who grew up with Tiger Woods as their standard of excellence and are not intimidated or unfamiliar with his greatness. I am now at the point where I would be thoroughly surprised if Tiger Woods reached the top again. To tell the truth, I would be less surprised if Tiger Woods fell off the world golf map entirely.
I THINK that … but every time Tiger Woods plays, I again hold my breath. This past week, he’s playing at Doral and I held my breath. And here’s why: Part of me so respects Tiger Woods’ competitive nature that I cannot help think if he WANTS it bad enough, if he GETS ANGRY enough, if he FOCUSES HARD ENOUGH, then he can will himself back into the greatest golfer on earth. I may believe logically that such thoughts are silly or naive or flat misguided, but I still have those thoughts. I can’t help it.”
This is the exact experience I have with Robert Deniro.
I’ve been desirous of giving voice to this for some time now but haven’t found the way in until now.
Just the other day, I saw the preview for Deniro’s latest offering, a film called “Limitless.” It co-stars Bradley Cooper (of The Hangover) who plays an author who stumbles across a top-secret drug bestowing him with superhuman powers. Deniro plays a character named Carl Van Loon, a tycoon, who believes he can use the newly powerful Cooper to make a fortune. The preview itself only had a fraction of my focus until Deniro’s face hit the screen. And, for a moment, I held my breath. For a moment I thought, “Maybe this is the one. Maybe this is the beginning of his ascension back to his rightful throne as the greatest actor in the world.” Now, if you’ve seen the preview for this particular movie, than you already know that this thought was utterly absurd. Everything about this movie looks painfully random. In just the sixty seconds of footage they reveal, it is clear that the movie ought to be called, “Yet Another Shlocky Thriller With an Ordinary Man Thrown Into An Extraordinary Situation Shifting Frantically From Pillar to Post as He Slowly Comes to the Horrifying Realization That There is No One He Can Trust.” It’s like watching an advertisement for a paint by numbers set. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Bob Ross painting. The director is a hack and the cast is a hodgepodge of B level poseurs.
And yet, I hope.
What is abundantly clear to my eyes is, at least to a degree, offset by the hope I hold in my heart. That hope, once a raging fire now diminished to a flickering flame, still lives in me. It continues to seem impossible that Deniro’s brilliance is gone; that the seemingly effortless genius he manifested for a quarter century, is no more. And yet, the last fifteen years have provided some very compelling evidence that this is very much the case.
But I continue to believe. It’s in there. It’s in him. It has to be. Talent doesn’t go away. He just needs to find it again. Hell, Brando’s talent went underground for nearly two decades. After “On the Waterfront” in ’54, he produced predominantly dogshit previous to The Godfather in ’72. If Marlon can do it, Bobby can do it. But then I watch yet another trailer for some treacly piece of crap which he is clearly participating in for no other reason than to bank a paycheck and the hope dims all the more.
I discovered Robert Deniro in 1988. I was fifteen, and my dad took me to the movies one Saturday to see a film called “Midnight Run.” It completely blew me out of the water. It’s ultimately nothing more than a lightweight buddy movie, but it’s most certainly one of the best of its kind. In the film, Charles Grodin plays a nebbishe accountant who robs his mobster clients for a fortune and Deniro plays the bounty hunter charged to get him back for his appointed court date. Deniro’s performance hypnotized me. It had been a year or so since I had gotten bitten by the acting bug and I had never seen anyone do it quite like this guy. To cap it off, I would come to realize that I had already seen Deniro in two movies without any idea that it was the same guy. The year before, Deniro had taken two supporting roles in major films, playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” and the devil in “Angel Heart.” I had adored both those movies and thought both performances to be of the highest order. And yet, until doing a little research, I had not a clue that the same man gave both performances; or that the very same guy co-starred in this movie I saw with my pop.
I had a new hero. I was completely obsessed with this man. He was the actor I wanted to be. And, unbeknownst to me, I had yet to see any if his best work.
My dad told me I should rent “Raging Bull.” I had seen the title before and was sure that it was a movie about a very pissed off male cow. I rented the one beat up copy that my neighborhood video store kept in stock, went home, and pushed play. I was both exhilarated and befuddled by what I was watching. I had never seen anything like this. Not even close. It didn’t seem like a movie at all. It was like watching some disturbing documentary bestrewn by a collection of deplorable human beings, doing and saying things as fucked up as they were enthralling. When Jake (Deniro’s character) says to his wife, who is trying to cook him some meat for dinner, “Bring the steak now! You overcook it, it defeats its own purpose!”- I thought, “I have no clue what that means, and yet it is the coolest thing I have ever heard anyone say.” This man, my new acting God, was a true force of nature. Explosive, terrified, wise, ambitious, and insane all at the same time. The range of emotion he could convey with a single word or with a minor shift in his posture was the stuff of legend. I had never seen a performance where there was no identifiable shred of the person playing the role. Of course, there was also the pacing and the script and the cinematography and the art direction. That is to say, my love affair with Deniro was, in large part, being orchestrated by the great Martin Scorsese. But I wasn’t yet filmwise enough to see the distinctions. All I saw was Deniro. And I knew that my next task would be to get a hold of every single film the man had made and watch them.
And so I did. Everything. At the time, that meant a total of 23 more films than the three I had already viewed. I blew through all of them in about two weeks. I watched the experimental early stuff (Bloody Mama, Greetings, Sam’s Song), the ambitious misses (The Last Tycoon, New York New York, 1900), the very solid (Once Upon a Time in America, Band the Drum Slowly, The Mission), and, of course, the classics (Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy). I read everything on Deniro that had ever been published. I was determined to shift from being a fan to being an aficionado.
And by the time I reached the Bachelor of Fine Arts acting program at Ithaca College, I had become just that. Quite frankly, I had become quite obnoxious when it came to this particular subject. I remember quite vividly, sitting in a film discussion class, composed of both B.F.A. and B.A. acting students, when one of the female B.A.’s whom I had never met, during a discussion on the subject of our country’s greatest actors said, “I think Robert Deniro is overrated.” The eyes of every B.F.A. student in that class shifted straight to me as a muffled, “Uh-oh” filled the room. Within ten minutes or so, I had that girl welling up with tears after verbally shredding her with a rapid-fire critique of her ill-informed opinions.
No matter what environment I became a part of, those around me very quickly came to understand that I was a staunch Deniro protegé. Actually, once, in the late nineties, I had a brief encounter with the man himself.
I was bartending at a restaurant on Madison Avenue. I manned a small bar in the front of a posh bistro which regularly drew the creme of the creme of the Hollywood elite. Sharon Stone, Susan Sarandon, Andy Garcia, and a whole host of others regularly showed up to chow down. I’ve never been overly star struck and was perceived by the majority of the weight staff as something of a stick in the mud who thought he was sort of above it all. They would all gather around the bar and “ooh” and “aah” and gossip about which stars said what to them and I would scoff and roll my eyes. “C’mon, Michael. There’s got to be someone who could walk in here and make you take notice.” To which I would answer, “Only one, my friends, and you know exactly who that is.”
Lo and behold, one day, I was squatted down behind the bar getting a new can of pineapple juice out of the cooler when I hear, “I’ll show you to your table Mr. Deniro.” I popped up like the clown in a jack-in-the-box to find the entire wait staff staring at me with shit eating grins. He had already turned the corner when I rose and was quickly ushered to the back of the place. Apparently, he had strolled in with recently divorced newscaster Joan Lunden on his arm and was nuzzled up next to her at one of the back booths. I desired to play it cool, but to no avail. I was shaking like a leaf, desperately trying to concoct some convenient excuse to go back there. All of a sudden, Martina the waitress shows up barside with wide eyes declaring, “He asked if you make a good Gimlet. Do you? I told him that you did.” Holy shit. I was a nervous wreck. A Gimlet is not a confusing drink, mind you. But, all of a sudden, it felt like I had been asked to predict the quaternary structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence.
I did my best. The waitress returned to tell me that he said it tasted kind of funny and asked what kind of vodka I was using. I told her that a Gimlet is not made with vodka, it is made with gin. What he was looking for was a Vodka Gimlet. I was minorly devastated even though it was his mistake, not mine. Apparently, he was very cool about it and switched over to vodka martinis after that. I must have made them just fine as he knocked out three of them whilst his date blew through almost an entire bottle of Chardonnay. The meal seemed to take an eternity. All the while, I was twisted in a mental knot, obsessing on what I would do when he inevitably walked past the bar on his way out. I couldn’t think of a single thing that would not me sound like a total douche, but I also realized I had a once in a lifetime opportunity here and might never forgive myself if I chose to do nothing. I had looked at this conundrum in every possible way by the time he actually passed. Joan was highly intoxicated, hanging on his arm and nibbling his neck. I opened my mouth, but no sound would come out. And then he was gone. I watched the back of his head pass the by the outside cafe, reeling in self-hatred over my cowardice.
Just as I was mentally hammering the very last nail in my coffin of failure, he came back. He jogged past the bar back toward his table. He clearly had forgotten something. This second chance would not be lost on me. Even if I said something as treacly as, “Mr. Deniro, you are the most awesomest actor in the whole wide world” then so be it. I would take douche over coward. He passed again with what looked like a script under his arm, as I said:
“You sure you got everything?”
He stopped in his tracks, grinned and said, “I’m pretty sure I do.”
There was a second of silence between us.
He was looking at the small ramekin of nuts on the bar. They were honey roasted and covered with some kind of evil brown sugar. I spent most shifts trying desperately not to eat them. He pointed at them and asked, “Are they good?”
I answered, “So good.”
He grabbed one, threw it back into his mouth, chewed, thought for a second and with a classic Deniro look straight out of Goodfellas, with downturned mouth and slight nod of the head, he proclaimed, “Good nuts.”
I smiled and said, “Take care.”
He said, “Thanks. You too.”
It was perfect. I couldn’t have scripted it better.
That was 1995. Little did I realize that this was two years after he had already given his last great performance in 1993’s This Boy’s Life. Since that movie, he had made “A Bronx Tale” (great movie, but not because of his acting), “Frankenstein” (godawful), “Casino” (Goodfellas poorer cousin) and “Heat” (nothing to write home about.) None of this concerned me. Bobby D had certainly had off years before. There would be another classic any time now. And there were some decent movies over the next few years. “The Fan” was silly but fun. “Wag the Dog” was somewhat interesting. And then there were a whole bunch of good movies where had taken smaller roles (“Sleepers,” “Copland,” “Jackie Brown”).
And then… then it was over. For some incomprehensible reason, Robert Deniro dropped off a cliff. He began to pump out bag-of-shit movies as if he had been possessed by the spirit of Keanu Reeves or Andie Macdowell. Over the next ten years, came the following Filmography of disgrace:
- Great Expectations
- The Adventures of Ricky & Bullwinkle
- Men of Honor
- 15 Minutes
- The Score
- City by the Sea
- Hide and Seek
- What Just Happened
- Righteous Kill
- Everybody’s Fine
It’s not just that these are horrid movies. He is horrid in them. It’s more than just a great actor going through the motions. It’s bad acting. It’s as confusing as it is appalling. I would offer that there has never been another case quite like it. Yes, there have been great actors who seemed to shift into cruise control as they aged. Dustin Hoffman comes to mind. Dusty hasn’t been hit-it-out-of-the-park fabulous since 1988’s Rain Man. Still, if you look at his choices, he always seems to be trying to pick interesting roles helmed by decent directors. It seems that this is true for Deniro’s other two closest contemporaries in Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. They certainly both take a lot of roles that require no more than mugging and chewing on a bunch of scenery; but they weave those “picking up a paycheck” performances with a host of more personal, independent films with talented directors, suggesting that they continue to be committed to their craft. Not Deniro. He seems to be going out of his way to pick only directors who are either come from TV and do little more than point and shoot (John Polson, Nick Hamm) or washed up auteurs who have been relegated to Hollywood gun-for-hire status (Barry Levinson, Michael Caton-Jones).
Why does he do this? What could the reason be? Is it possible that no real directors with vision ask about him anymore? That’s hard to believe. If they’re calling on Nicholson and Pacino and Hoffman and Duvall and Caine and Hackman, than they’re calling on him. Is he scared to try? Has it been so long since he put his all into a role that he wonders whether he can pull it off again? Remember, this is The Actor’s Studio valedictorian. This is the guy who gained and lost 60 pounds to play Jake Lamotta. This is guy who scared the shit out of stage hands refusing to break character between takes on the set of Taxi Driver. Maybe the bar was set too high and he feels safer taking roles that require nothing of him. You certainly can’t accuse him of selling out. What would the sell out be? I don’t sense that he is getting paid more to produce these lousy films than he would be if he was working with real directors. It’s not like anyone offered him Nicholas Cage’s career.
I mean, Cage I can understand. He’s turned himself into the biggest putz in Hollywood, but I understand it. I would never have thought that the guy who ate a live cockroach in “Vampire’s Kiss” harbored a secret desire to be a laborious action star. It’s tragic and I hate him for it. But he made a clear decision. Being kick-ass for single-digit millions in amazing films like “Wild at Heart” and “Leaving Las Vegas” was clearly not as important as double-digit millions in bags of garbage like “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “The Wicker Man.” Fine. Fuck you, Nicholas Cage. You’re a joke and a sellout. But I’m disappointed by him- not confused.
I don’t think Deniro sold out. I just think that he doesn’t give a shit. That’s the only option that makes a fraction of sense. He clearly has other interests. Over the last decade and a half, he has become a restaurateur (Nobu, Locanda Verde) and the founder and head of The Tribeca Film Center. And my sense is that he shows up and half-heartedly performs in any ramshackle production that will pay his fee so he can funnel funds toward these other priorities. And he’s entitled to make such decisions. As a man, I understand. As a fan, I am offended. I want him to care more that he continues to chip away at his legend. I want him to care more that he’s become a joke known to an entire generation through the idiots on Saturday Night Live who do impressions of him. I want him to see that with every cinematic abortion he spews out, it becomes harder to remember how amazing he once was. It’s like the Police Academy movies. By the time part 7: Mission to Moscow was released, it was almost impossible to reflect back on the fact that at the base of the series was a really funny, well-made comedy.
And I may be remarkably naive, but it seems so damned resolvable. Here’s my fantasy:
Deniro pens a letter to be sent to the following ten directors:
- Darron Arnofsky
- Christopher Nolan
- The Coen Brothers
- David O Russell
- Todd Haynes
- Paul Thomas Anderson
- Alexander Payne
- Spike Jonze
- Richard Linklater
- David Fincher
The letter reads:
Hello. I thank you for reading this letter and hearing my request as this is a deeply personal venture I am undertaking. I have seen your work and respect it immensely. I believe you are currently responsible for some of the most remarkable art this country has to offer and a powerful part of reflecting back to the people of this nation who they are and where they are headed. I understand myself to have once been part of a similar movement. I can see that the trappings of fame and wealth have led me to a vastly different place. I sense that my career has become stagnant and I wish to mobilize. I deeply believe there are still many bravura performances within me and I sense that I need a director with true vision to inspire me to bring forth what I have lost along the way. My request is simply a desire to open up a dialogue. I would like to know what ideas and projects you are currently fostering and how I might become a part of the picture in your mind and heart. Please let me know if you’d be willing for that conversation to move beyond this letter. Either way, I thank you again for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best,
You know what the worst part of this is? As I was researching a few details for this piece, I came upon the following:
As we reported when the Pacino / Pesci rumors surfaced in September, De Niro and Scorsese have been developing the project for a couple of years. ‘The Irishman’ is based on ‘I Heard You Paint Houses,’ a best-selling book by Charles Brandt about the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who claimed that he killed legendary teamster Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The film will mark the reunion of De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s ‘Casino.’ But it will also mark the first time that Pacino and Scorsese will work together, which is kind of amazing.
As I read it, my mouth began to water.
Damn. The son of a bitch has got me hoping again.