In his back catalogue are some of the finest acting performances ever put on screen and considering how many utterly iconic roles he has played, it is difficult to make a case for many other actors having had such a high batting average over such a prolonged period. Consider the following:-
- Mean Streets
- The Godfather Pt II
- Taxi Driver
- Raging Bull
- The King of Comedy
- Once Upon A Time In America
- The Untouchables
- Midnight Run
That’s twenty years of screen acting. I cannot think of anyone else who has turned in a more accomplished body of work in that sort of timeframe, but here’s the rub – since the last bona fide top-drawer performance on that list, we have had/suffered the following:-
- The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
- Shark Tale
- The Meet the Parents “trilogy”
- Killer Elite
- New Years Eve
- Men of Honor
In the interests of fairness and balance, De Niro has also given us Sleepers, The Score, Cop Land and Jackie Brown since his heyday, so he hasn’t wholly lost his way, but the precipitous drop-off in quality remains conspicuous. The question then becomes, wherefore? Or, less pretentiously, why? These sorts of arguments are often assembled and much is made of actors “phoning-in” their performances, ticking along on autopilot to collect a pay cheque and go back to whatever it is they fill their leisure time with these days. What is difficult to understand is why any actor would do that. One would imagine that all actors love their work, their profession and always seek to give of their best, for personal satisfaction if nothing else. Someone of De Niro’s calibre cannot surely need the money any longer and if he no longer has the same burning passion for acting that he once had, why not step back?
Gene Hackman is one actor of extraordinary talent, who has simply stepped back from acting because he is no longer driven by it. It is a crying shame to have lost the man who gave us Buck Barrow, Jimmy Doyle, Harry Caul, Little Bill Daggett and Royal Tenenbaum, but I respect his decisiveness and his integrity. By contrast, De Niro seems to be sullying an otherwise peerless reputation by signing on for roles that are beneath him and then coasting through without having to try very hard.
We last saw him on screen for Red Lights earlier this year and IMDb claims he has another dozen or so titles either in the bag or in varying stages of filming or post-production. That’s an awful lot and although a hike in quantity doesn’t necessarily equate with a drop in quality, it seems to be the case here. I mean, when was the last time we really saw De Niro on screen. When did he last genuinely inhabit a role and deliver a performance of enduring quality and impact? The Good Shepherd? The Score? Flawless? We’re going back over a decade now for something of genuine heft and that is a long time indeed.
De Niro is perhaps, more than most, a victim of his own success. In the same way as it was heart-rending to see Orson Welles slumming it in his later years, having given us Kane, the Ambersons, Touch of Evil and The Third Man and similarly depressing to see Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr Moreau and The Freshman after he had given us Don Corleone, Colonel Kurtz, Malloy and Stanley Kowalski, so De Niro draws attention to just how mediocre the majority of his more recent work has been by having given us such peerless work earlier on in his career.
I’m no Hollywood insider, so forgive my naivety in terms of how its inner workings operate, but surely he still has enough currency with producers, directors and studio heads to be able to put out the feelers for a role, perhaps a final swansong, that befits his considerable talent? Maybe he can put in one last great performance that reminds us of what made him so superlative in the 70’s and 80’s, gather in the accolades and then retire to whatever it is that he really wants to do, since he seems (at least on current evidence) to not really want to stretch himself as an actor any more.
Maybe such a role lies in his long list of underway projects? He is set to be directed by Sean Penn in a tale of an aging comedian and Penn has certainly excelled behind the camera thus far. It is hard to imagine the director who coaxed that performance out of Jack Nicholson for The Pledge letting De Niro get away with coasting. We can only hope and dream.