“This kid doesn’t just act, he takes off into the vapours,” said iconic film critic Pauline Kael in her 1973 review of Mean Streets.
Fast forward 40 years and the kid – who goes by the name of Robert De Niro – comes in second on a Channel 4 poll of the greatest movie star ever, and makes it to the top 3 of most ‘top actor in the world’ rankings ever attempted.
It’s intimidating to write about De Niro – he is, after all, one of global cinema’s most towering figures. He’s acted in some of the most influential films ever made including Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Worked with legendary directors including Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. Co-starred with everyone from Marlon Brando and Al Pacino to Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and Sean Penn. Has two Oscars – including one for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather II, making Marlon Brando and him the only actors to win Oscars for playing the same character.
Unlike many who arrive in the movies by chance, De Niro – after a routine trip to the movies – announced at age 18 that he wanted to be an actor, dropped out of school, and enrolled in Stella Adler’s acting school, to the surprise of friends and family. He had acted off and on since age 10, but ask him to pinpoint a moment when he knew he could act and he pinpoints a routine night when he was home watching TV. “I was around 18. I was looking at a TV show — a soap opera or some weekly western — and I said if these actors are making a living at it, and they’re not really that good, I can’t do any worse than them. I wasn’t thinking of getting a job on a western or any of that. When I got into it more seriously, I saw how far I could go, what you could do,” he said in interview to the New York Times a few years ago.
It was at Stella Adler’s that he was introduced to – and became a committed believer in – method acting, a commitment that played itself out in incredible ways through his career. For Raging Bull, he put on 60 pounds, winning not just an Oscar but also a world record for the maximum weight gained for a film role. For his role as Max Cady in 1991’s Cape Fear, he paid a dentist USD 5,000 to make his teeth look bad. Post filming, he paid USD 20,000 to have them fixed. He spent 4 months learning to speak the Sicilian dialect forThe Godfather II. He got a provisional taxi driver’s license and drove a cab off and on for two weeks in New York in preparation for his role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
But while his film career has been incredibly prolific – he’s released a film every single year, barring 5, since 1968 – he’s added a whole other dimension to his work with the TriBeCa film festival.
One of the world’s most influential indie film festivals, De Niro launched TriBeCa along with co-founder Jane Rosenthal in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks to honour his home city of New York and to revitalise the Tribeca neighbourhood in lower Manhattan. He’s certainly done the job: the TriBeCa festival now draws an estimated 3 million people, generates USD 600 million, and attracts notoriously elusive celebrities from film, music, art and more.
Of course, none are more elusive – and reclusive – than De Niro himself, famously difficult to interview, a man who seems to save his most evocative self for the screen. It’s a trait that has made legions of interviewers awkward but then, as he laconically remarked in Casino, “There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way and the way that I do it.”
When you’re Robert De Niro, it turns out, every way is the right way.