Why Robert De Niro has the right to be a bad actor

he greatest actor of his generation has not done a single role worth remembering in the last 15 years. So bloody what?

Some days ago, a friend posted a piece by salon.com’s film critic Andrew O’Hehir on facebook. It’s the review of a new film called Red Lights, but that’s just an excuse for O’Hehir to write an enraged treatise on what’s really bothering him—about someone who’s acted in the film. The title of the piece is: “Will Robert De Niro ever make another good movie?"

O’Hehir lays out his evidence with clinical precision. “Whatever set of invisible principles has governed (De Niro’s) choices since his unofficial breakup with Martin Scorsese (their last film together was Casino, in 1995)," he writes, “the results have ranged from mixed to pretty doggone atrocious." What O’Hehir—and possibly many other film critics who take their work very seriously—don’t like is that the greatest actor of his generation abandoned “acting" when he turned 50, and decided to take it easy.

Strangely enough, that’s one of the reasons I admire De Niro so much.

No one has worked harder at his craft than him. He put on 60 pounds for Raging Bull, he learned to speak in a Sicilian dialect—and speak it with a rasp that the audience could believe would change into Marlon Brando’s distinctive voice 30 years later—for Godfather II. He spent months with mill workers and even wanted to work in a mill (he wasn’t allowed) as preparation for The Deer Hunter. He got his teeth crooked for Cape Fear (and got them straightened again after filming was over). He’s got enough awards to fill up a medium-sized warehouse. He has fought prostrate cancer and won.

photoYes, he’s been goofing off for nearly two decades now, playing a cross-dressing ship captain in the mediocre fantasy Stardust, a clichéd dirty Senator in Robert Rodriguez’s homage to C-grade gorefests, Machete, and roles in films like The Score and 15 Minutes that could have been done by, well, anyone. His big box-office hits have been the Meet The Parents series, and the Analyze This-Analyze That comedies. While the base humour of the Parents films can make you cringe in your seats (how witty can a film be when you’re banking on the biggest laughs to come from the fact that hero’s name is Gay Focker?), you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to make out that De Niro, as the father-in-law from hell, is having a lot of fun. The other thing you sense is his star power. He is investing very little of his mind into his role, and you suddenly realize he has as much of that undefinable quality called star presence that say a Brad Pitt has, or Paul Newman had. He just hadn’t used it for the first 30 years of his career.

And Analyze This-Analyze That? I can watch them any number of times, as De Niro caricatures all the splendid mafia roles that stud his acting career, as the don prone to anxiety attacks, and has the time of his life.

Of course, as I said before, he’s been accepting many roles that make you wonder why he took them on. To make some money? Because he was bored? Just to fool himself that he was still working? We’ll never know. De Niro rarely gives interviews, and on the very few occasions he has agreed to give one, comes through as woefully inarticulate. Though he once did manage to put it coherently: “Movies are hard work. The public doesn’t see that. The critics don’t see it. But they’re a lot of work...Because I know how (expletive deleted) hard it is to act."

My point is: Surely De Niro does not need to prove any more that he is a titan among actors, and surely, he has no obligation to keep working his butt off to satisfy the expectations of serious film buffs and critics? Scorcese did offer him the to-die-for role of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, but when De Niro heard that it would mean spending six months in Europe, he opted out (the role went to Daniel Day-Lewis). Clearly, the man has some priorities in place.

I posted what I felt, in response to the salon piece my friend had uploaded on facebook. He came back with the following: “But then, why just acting, in fact it takes us to an ancient question: Does an artiste, a great artiste, have any obligation beyond him? Does an artiste live beyond the implications of his own myth?"

Now these are toughies, and I don’t feel equipped to handle such issues till I have had a couple of drinks. But, OK, yes, I don’t believe an artiste has any obligation to anyone other than to himself. At least, as far as his art goes (I am deliberately not going into the tricky area of his personal relations and habits). And as for living beyond the implications of his own myth, one must realize that the myth is created, not by the artiste, but by the purveyors of his art. And De Niro has clearly decided to live beyond his myth. To a typical film critic, he may seem to be even disrespectful to the myth and intent on subverting it. But that is really the critic’s problem, not De Niro’s. If he’s more interested in running the four restaurants he owns in New York, and do a few zero-stress acting gigs once in a while to relax, it’s entirely his choice.

In his heydays as an actor, when he was doing “(expletive deleted) hard work", De Niro once said: “You don’t just play a part. You’ve got to earn the right to play them." I think the man has earned the right to live his life the way he wants to.