We’re cheating a bit this week by taking it up to 1980, but when the film is Raging Bull, who’s gonna complain?
We start in 1971, and De Niro, fresh from catching a small wave of attention in an early Brian De Palma picture (Hi, Mom!), is cast as the lead in Bang the Drum Slowly. The film is unremarkable except for the fact that, off screen, the cast and crew began to notice De Niro’s unsettling acting technique, his dedication to the method style that he would later become synonymous with. He was known to stick his fingers down his throat to induce tears, even in rehearsal. His performance, whilst far from bad, certainly didn’t showcase those intense elements of his acting ability though; the De Niro rage wasn’t present, and it wasn’t until he teamed with Martin Scorsese that it would be.
That collaboration was already on the horizon at the time of Bang the Drum Slowly, however, and, in that same year, Scorsese and De Niro formed the partnership that would come to define so much; Mean Streets (1973) was born, and 70s cinema had its first great double-act. It’s fair to say that time hasn’t been kind to Mean Streets – the film is in fact a somewhat jumbled picture, albeit one interspersed with moments of brilliance. Many proclaim it to be a masterpiece, but it is better seen as Scorsese laying the foundations for his future masterpieces.
Mean Streets can be seen as the first flowering of De Niro proper, that coiled snake of an actor
Beyond that, the film can be seen as the first flowering of De Niro proper: that coiled snake of an actor who looked set to do like Brando and alter the face of an art form. De Niro’s Johnny Boy was never far from violence, and De Niro, more so than any other actor of the period, always looked ready for it. His performance was, as put by John Baxter, “tension embedded in stillness”. Mean Streets put De Niro on the map, and, for the next seven years, he would draw from and build upon the character that he had created in it.
Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro were extrinsically linked before The Godfather Part II (1974), but, once De Niro was chosen to play the young Vito Corleone, it seemed that they were destined to become intrinsic to one another, and De Niro, in having to play a different version of Brando’s character, was tasked with following up one of the greatest performances of all time. It’s testament to De Niro’s talent that he managed to both mimic Brando – the rasping voice, the finger touches to the cheek – and craft his own creation . His performance is peculiar in the way that isn’t actually a ‘classic’ De Niro performance. His character is (fairly) passive, even in murder, and there are very few hints to the convolutions of character that were laid beneath the young Vito. There are, of course, the usual De Niro traits (the looming silence, for example), but greater things lay ahead, and his most iconic role was just around the corner.
Taxi Driver (1976) provided De Niro with just that and, in a film of staggering perfection, his Travis Bickle became the 70s cinema’s most enduring character. Bickle is a Blakean creation, a character forged in the shadow of religious guilt, one looking for mastery of his conflicted mind – Allen Ginsberg’s assertion that he “can’t stand his own mind” could have been written for Travis. Betsy (Cybill Shepard) tells Bickle he is a walking contradiction, and she’s right; Bickle is a remote entity, not so much walking the line between sin and salvation as vaulting it, jumping from one side to the other, flirting with each before taking the latter to a porno theatre and thus committing to the former.
In a film of staggering perfection, De Niro’s Travis Bickle became 70s cinema’s most enduring character
Bickle is “God’s Lonely Man,” and De Niro plays him as an avenger, a nightmarish angel seemingly sent to deliver the people from evil. In a tour de force performance, the stand out remains the “You talkin’ to me?” scene, improvised by De Niro in a hellish address to himself, the ‘scum’ of the picture, and to the audience, who are left fully aware of both Bickle’s malevolent machinations and De Niro’s astonishing mastery of The Method.
De Niro would star in three films before his next ‘great’ role: 1900 (1976) for Bernardo Bertolucci, slouching and apologetic as land owner Alfredo; The Last Tycoon (1976) for Elia Kazan, a film which served as an antithesis to 70s cinema and harked back to the studio system; and New York, New York (1977), where he again paired up with Scorsese. All three are interesting roles in films of varying quality. De Niro is good in all three, but he himself criticised the films for their lack of give in terms of allowing him to work The Method; only New York, New York, in which he learned to play the sax – albeit badly – allowed him much artistic license.
At the end of the New Hollywood era – in 1980, so I’m cheating a bit – came Raging Bull, and De Niro, frustrated at the lack of opportunity to act his way, was about to be rewarded. If Taxi Driver is De Niro’s most iconic role, then Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is his most accomplished. Playing real life boxer Jake LaMotta granted De Niro the chance to push his body to the limit, to test his Method to the max. What transpired was a performance of sheer shock: a visceral, brutish, bullish display of power. It ranks as perhaps the most intense screen performance of all time, and the actor is scarily believable as the middleweight champion.
If Taxi Driver is De Niro’s most iconic role, then Raging Bull is his most accomplished
De Niro famously gained and then dropped the weight necessary to portray LaMotta in his two phases (ripped pro, and overweight night-club act), but Raging Bull isn’t just about De Niro’s ‘trickery’. Consider a scene at the close of the film: LaMotta, fat and fading, rehearses Brando’s “I coulda bin a contender” monologue from On the Waterfront in the mirror. This is De Niro, not so much imitating Brando, as taking him on, matching him, perhaps even usurping him. The opening shots of Raging Bull show us LaMotta shadow-boxing in the ring, alone. He is, like De Niro in his greatest moments, untouchable.
Featured image: Paramount
Inset images: Warner Bros; Paramount; Columbia