“His career has more peaks than the Atlas Mountains,” Martin Scorsese says about Robert De Niro. Cinematek has plenty of time to screen each peak one by one.
Over the past few years it has seemed as though Robert De Niro was more interested in fulminating against President Trump than in finding films that are worthy of his talent. But this season, the 76-year-old actor from New York is excelling as he did in the past century.
He delivered an excellent performance as the talk show-host who belittles Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and he really brought down the house in The Irishman. It was no coincidence that this gangster drama reunited De Niro with Martin Scorsese. They made more classics together than you can count on one hand: Mean Streets (photo), Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear. For Taxi Driver, De Niro spent nights restlessly walking the streets of New York. For Raging Bull, he first transformed himself into a muscle-bound professional boxer in top physical condition, only to gain thirty kilos so that he could depict the terrible decline of Jake LaMotta. These are well-known examples of method acting, the naturalistic method that prioritizes the personal experience of the actor.
“On the set of Raging Bull, I didn't see an actor playing a character, I saw the boxer De Niro. His transformation forced me to treat him as though he were Jake. I had to be really careful,” Scorsese told me last year. “We explored very dark terrain. Without manipulating his audiences, Bob can make them empathize with people who do terrible things.”
Scorsese isn't the only director who seized a prominent place in film history with De Niro's help. In Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II, he played the young Vito Corleone, in Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone a Jewish gangster, in The Untouchables by Brian De Palma the legendary gangster boss Al Capone, in Novecento by Bernardo Bertolucci a rich kid with a conscience, in The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino a steel worker who has to go and fight in Vietnam, and in Heat by Michael Mann an ultra-professional gangster. Thanks to De Niro, Cinematek has enough hits to show until February.