Watching a Robert De Niro performance is like taking a master class in acting. He literally transforms into the most disparate characters, using his entire instrument — face, body and voice — to undergo a startling metamorphosis, as he portrays men who themselves undergo profound changes. An actor who exhaustively commits to the intricacies of his craft, over the past 35 years De Niro has created several of the most iconic characters of American cinema. His keen, measured ability to observe life’s minutiae as a foundation for creating a character from the inside out has earned him a reputation as one of this generation’s finest, most discrete actors.
Looking at De Niro’s body of work, it’s apparent that he’s fascinated by the possibilities within a character’s contradictory behavior, as that character searches for his own identity in an every-man-for-himself world. De Niro’s own favorite films examine this theme: Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman in A PLACE IN THE SUN, Brando’s Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT and James Dean’s Cal Trask in EAST OF EDEN. Each explores one man’s struggle as he confronts the unpredictability of the human condition.
Alternately welcoming and repellent, De Niro’s characters exist within their own skewed realities, worlds they believe in wholeheartedly. He received the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of young Vito Corleone in THE GODFATHER: PART II, bringing to life a man shaping his family’s criminal identity in a new country. When we first meet TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle, he’s a gentle, lonely soul, with a strangely beatific smile. His intriguing inner confidence is a welcome contrast to Albert Brooks’ Tom, whose desperate pursuit of Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy is as palpable as the grime coating the streets Travis navigates each night. During their first coffee shop date, when Betsy tells Travis, “I’ve never met anyone quite like you,” she’s uttering the most prescient line in the film. We soon see that Travis’ tightly coiled anger at New York City’s depravity-intensified by Betsy’s rejection-sends him over the edge, convincing him that violence is the only solution to urban evils.
With a reputation for meticulous research, experience and knowledge, De Niro shows his respect not only for the filmmaking process but also for the audience. While much has been written about the physical demands he endured to play RAGING BULL’s Jake La Motta — the boxing training, the weight gain — it’s the internal work that brought him the Best Actor Oscar. De Niro’s La Motta is a man torn between his desire for a meaningful relationship — with brother Joey, with wife Vickie — and his inability to truly connect with anyone except by brute physical force.
When Robert De Niro made his directing debut in 1993, he chose a story with which he was intimately familiar. A poignant, reflective take on the relationship between a father and son, A BRONX TALE reveals the depths of De Niro’s insight into both filmmaking and human nature. De Niro’s subtly shaded portrait of Lorenzo, a father with an unshakable moral center, is heartbreaking in its simplicity and raw emotion. As Lorenzo loses his son to the ostentatious gangster life personified by Chazz Palminteri’s Sonny, De Niro shows us a universal desire of every parent — the fierce determination to protect one’s child against the lure of corrupting influences.
While De Niro received enthusiastic reviews for his chemistry with Charles Grodin in the comedy thriller MIDNIGHT RUN back in 1988, more recently it’s been enjoyable to watch him inhabit characters like Paul Vitti in ANALYZE THIS and ANALYZE THAT and Jack Byrnes in MEET THE PARENTS. After decades of portrayals marked by ferocious intensity and gravitas, De Niro’s disarming sense of humor is an unexpected delight.
De Niro’s commitment to American cinema goes beyond his name above the title. In the late 1980s, he founded the Tribeca Film Center, a creative destination for the New York film, television and new media communities. In 1988, he and partner Jane Rosenthal established Tribeca Productions, which has produced 24 films.
A native New Yorker, De Niro became a spokesperson for the city he loves after the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/01, a violation which he took personally — Ground Zero is clearly visible from his home and office windows. In the following days, he, Rosenthal, Tribeca Grill chef Don Pintibona and restaurateur Drew Nieporent donated hot meals to the rescue workers, serving hundreds at a time on docked cruise ships. Deeply distressed by the economic devastation caused by the attacks, Rosenthal and De Niro organized Dinner Downtown. On the evenings of November 7 and December 18, 2001, busloads of more than 500 diners were directed to over 30 restaurants in Chinatown, Little Italy and the Wall Street area. Walking into every participating restaurant, De Niro personally thanked each guest for supporting New York — his devotion to the city overpowering his habitual reticence.
Continuing De Niro and Rosenthal’s efforts at revitalizing downtown Manhattan, the Tribeca Film Festival debuted in May 2002. Organized in just 120 days, the Festival attracted more than 150,000 people, infusing over $10 million into the lower Manhattan economy. The Festival returned for its second triumphant year May 3–11, 2003, with over 340,000 people in attendance.
It makes sense that a man who finds joy in losing himself in other people refuses to talk about himself — which is refreshing in an era where tidbits about celebrities’ private lives are as accessible as the nearest magazine, Web site or TV remote. With more than 60 films to his credit, De Niro has proven that loquacity has nothing to do with either talent or staying power. Indeed, he’s more a throwback to no-nonsense, larger-than-life figures like Marlon Brando, George C. Scott and Paul Newman, actors more at ease emoting on the big screen than on late-night talk shows.
A great performance invites discussion; a brilliant one demands reflection. By believing that anyone is capable of anything, De Niro has crafted some of the most fascinating, complex characters of all time. An artist at the top of his game, his performances are devoid of timidity.
While the character may be unsure of exactly where he’s headed, the actor playing him has no doubts. It’s a subtle — yet critical — distinction. Because of his iconic performances sure to be treasured forever as part of American cinema history, as well as his heartfelt commitment to New York and its independent film community, the American Film Institute is honored to present Robert De Niro with AFI’s 31st Life Achievement Award.