Robert De Niro: We're talkin' to you

An open letter from a movie fan to the greatest actor of his generation.

March 8, 2015

To the strains of Jumpin' Jack Flash, that unnerving simper playing across your face, a girl under each arm, you strutted into the consciousness of cinemagoers as John 'Johnny Boy' Civello. You were a man transformed as Vito Corleone, imbibing Brando and adding something distinctly your own. Method acting was pushed and distended to its record-breaking limits when you embodied Jake LaMotta.

Upon these three roles alone, your legacy is assured. Such expertise in shapeshifting make it hard to dispute you truly are the greatest actor of your generation. One of your more recent transformations, however, has been troubling me.

Around the turn of the century, a change took place which saw you regenerate from the brooding, unhinged presence of your pomp, to something very different; a metamorphosis unimaginable of the man behind the mask of total immersion worn in the 1970s and 80s. You decided to take a dip in the mainstream. You made yourself available to the press. You became a comedy actor. A working actor. Robert DeNiro. For fans of film, it's impossible to imagine the medium without you as one of its key players. This is not quite the compliment it should be. According to the 2012 Mindset List – the yearly study into the worldview of 18-years-olds – you're better known as Focker's stepfather than you are the godfather. For a whole generation, the po-faced CIA agent is your career-defining role.

Anyone willing to explore your canon a little deeper, of course, will uncover a past life as a force of nature onscreen and an irresistible enigma off it, an actor who defined an entire decade of cinema, a career which brought no less than two Oscars and a further five nominations. There was a time when you were the first name on the Academy Awards teamsheet.

“This kid doesn’t just act,” esteemed film critic Pauline Kael said of your performance as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973), “he takes off into the vapours.” Your big break. The purple patch had begun. With each new role, you were reborn: physically, vocally and, crucially, psychologically you seemed to wear the skin of a character.

Only a brave man or a fool would step into Marlon Brando's shoes. For your valour in the Godfather Part II (1974), not to mention a masterclass in mimicry and the first real demonstration of your prodigious talent, you were rewarded with the Oscar for best supporting actor. The fact your role was performed almost entirely in Italian makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

That first date at the adult movie theatre, that diatribe about the rain washing the scum off the streets, that mohawk, that monologue in the mirror with a pistol up your sleeve. It's 37 years since Taxi Driver opened; for De Niro diehards, Travis Bickle is the jewel in the crown of your oeuvre.

Your role as Martin Scorsese's long-time collaborator is a fascinating one. You as reticent and inscrutable as he is garrulous and accessible. Do his movies bring you to life or does he live vicariously through you? There was a time when the director wouldn't trust any other actor with his vision, when he built movies around your strengths and limitations. Perhaps, even, your strengths and limitations are shared: together, you have explored the male psyche better than any collaborators in the history of cinema, yet you both struggle with movies with women. Robert DeNiro. The 70s and 80s was not without its flops, such as the The Last Tycoon (1976) and 1900 (1976). Your next work with Scorsese, New York, New York (1977), was also an uneven affair – although your performance as saxophone player Jimmy Doyle was exemplarily. Commanding, award-winning performances in the Deer Hunter (1977) and Raging Bull (1980) followed. I note, as I'm sure you must, that you did not star in a single comedy during this period.

As the 80s gave way to the 90s, you began to falter – by your standards, at least. A turn in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) marked the beginning of your stint in comedy, which arced from the superb Midnight Run (1988) to the terrible We're No Angels (1989). There was some very good but not quite great reunions with Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1995). And there was a wealth of mediocre movies, comedic and otherwise. There were some fine performances, of course, but nothing quite like Corleone, Bickle, LaMotta.

Held up by your peers, loved by the critics, adored by your fans. Your prime brought admiration from all quarters – with the exception of the box office. There were hits, yes. But they were not by your hand alone. They were collaborative – cast, story, concept. There was no real money-spinner you could take sole credit for. Is this the reason for your transformation? In your eyes, was the only role you hadn't successfully inhabited that of a truly bankable movie star? If so, you pulled it off. According to Box Office Mojo, four of your top five biggest box office successes are recent comedies – the Meet the Parents trilogy and Shark Tale (2004). Robert DeNiro. So that's that. It would appear the actor you once were has disappeared, never to return. And who are we to complain about it? But complain we do. Because occasionally, when you're not playing out of position, the magic comes again. And age has given extra depth to your range.

After a decade's absence, you were recently once again an Oscar nominee. And deservingly so. As the obsessive–compulsive, NFL-nut Pat Solitano, Sr. in Silver Linings Playbook, once again, you stole the show. The movie was not quite as good as the plaudits it's received. But the same cannot be said of your performance. Age has brought a frailty which adds all manner of possibilities for future roles. Or was this total immersion, once more? Sleight of hand? Did you simply snatch the body of a slightly frail old man? More roles like this, please; fewer animated villains and bumbling in-laws and inconsequential bit parts.

Perhaps, then, the problem is one of quality control. Or maybe it is simply impossible to take the intensity and commitment shown in those early years and maintain it over a 40-year career. Whatever happens, we have those great movies, that run, those towering performances – Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, the King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America and, arguably, many more in between and after. It's enough. But we want more.

Image credits: Snap/Rex Features