Sunday Times, 10 November 2013
In a room in the Dorchester, Robert De Niro has his back to me. It scarcely seems plausible, yet it must be him. He turns round and I am still not sure. This is a smiling 70-year-old guy in ordinary old-guy clothes. But then there are those eyes that narrow dangerously… This is, indeed, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Al Capone in The Untouchables, dangerous men with eyes that narrow. I have a Leica in my bag, but I have a feeling it should be a Walther or a Magnum.
My private mission is to take his photograph. Big stars are funny about such things — they usually need their image doctored by trusted retouchers, Photoshop jockeys — but not, I have persuaded myself, really big stars, the ones who are too big to care. I don’t know what he will say when I ask: Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?”, from Taxi Driver, perhaps. I’ll leave it to the last minute.
He is in town to publicise The Family, an odd but engaging film by Luc Besson. I congratulate him and say the movie has a strange tone.
“Yeah, thanks, yeah, I know.”
“And you’re in the mob again?”
He does that a lot: says nothing. Pools of the unsaid seem to form at my feet, making it difficult to wade on to the next question. This could be hard work. He is, I am to discover, not big on analysis or on anything that does not end with a clear question mark. I deliver paragraphs of brilliant insights, and he just responds “Yeah… yeah. Yeah”, with more or less that punctuation.
Anyway, in The Family he’s a mob boss exiled to a small town in France under a witness protection programme. He is looked after by Tommy Lee Jones, as an FBI agent, and Michelle Pfeiffer, as his wife. It’s a comedy. Everything goes wrong, and it ends with a bloody but jolly slapstick shoot-out. It is knowing and self-conscious. There’s even a scene involving his character attending a screening of the great Scorsese-De Niro collaboration GoodFellas.
“I liked the script, I liked the tone,” he says, embarking, to my intense relief, on a whole paragraph. “I like the relationship with the Michelle character. I was very happy doing it. I liked the whole GoodFellas thing. It was crazy, and it just needed some kind of refinement.”
That last sentence reveals an important truth about De Niro: he co-directs. In the early, great, days, he would tell Martin Scorsese when a suit or costume did not look right. In this film, he explained the fine detail of New York style and manners to the French. “Yeah, when you’re directing, you think of everything. The few times I’ve directed, if someone comes up with something you missed, you’re glad to hear that. I did it with Luc. In a New York scene, the way the set was set up, it wasn’t the way it was in New York, and I said, do this, do that, pull that away.” The throaty New York burr is still intact, but now there is a heaviness in the breathing. He also, intimidatingly, sighs a lot.
On the subject of his home city, there is no greater authority. I used to think New York was Lou Reed, but then I grew up and realised it was De Niro. He came from an arty, though broken, family. His father, also Robert, was a distinguished abstract expressionist artist, his mother a painter and poet. I ask him about this childhood.
“It was OK, it was all right.”
His parents divorced when he was three. His father is said to have come out as gay soon after he left. When he was 18, Robert Jr went to France to rescue Robert Sr from destitution and bring him back to New York. He now owns and preserves the apartment where his father subsequently lived and painted.
“I want to keep it pretty much the way it was. Somebody had sent me an article from an English newspaper about the way some poet’s apartment had been preserved, so I was just doing the same thing. He died over 20 years ago. I want my kids to know who their grandfather was and what he did, and so on. He was very prolific.”
Is he proud of him?
This leaves me with a sense of a boy missing his father, walking the New York streets, watching, always watching, as if searching for something he had lost. Perhaps that was what taught him everything he needed to act. He was, of course, walking streets that were much more dangerous then than now. I ask him if he thinks New York has lost something in becoming safer. “These days, things have changed, it’s all sort of dissipated… Some people say it has lost something, but that was then, now is now. In 20 or 30 years, people will say they lost something that we have now. There’s always something. It is what it is.”
As he walked the streets, he absorbed how everybody behaved, goodfellas and wise guys included. He is a watcher of genius — it is what he does, it’s how he acts. Every part he plays is an anthology of what he has seen through his narrowed eyes. In spite of the sighs and silences, is he watching me, too?
Let’s go back to the beginning. Scorsese’s Mean Streets wasn’t De Niro’s first film, but it was the one that launched him into infinity and beyond. As Johnny Boy, he became a big star in precisely 25 seconds. He appears on a street, puts something in a postbox, walks away, then, as the postbox explodes, he jerks and dodges into an alley.
“I tried to time that shot,” he says, “so I would jerk like that about a second after the explosion. It worked better than I thought.” Then he murmurs something I didn’t catch at the time, but heard on my recording: “It’s not easy to impress myself with what I am doing.” That’s the thought of a great artist, and the appearance of Johnny Boy — a skinny, jerky, dangerous emanation from the very dust of the city sidewalk — was the work of one.
The ensuing Scorsese films — Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, Casino — represent one of the greatest creative collaborations in the history of cinema. But you know all that. So I ask him about another, perhaps even greater masterpiece from that era, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, in which he plays not an Italian but a Jewish New York gangster.
“To me, being a New Yorker, it had a foreign feel. It was Sergio’s vision, I understood that, of course, and I loved the music. But, especially when I was doing it, it was different. New York to me is one thing, to him it was another… It’s actually based on a book called The Hoods, which, just by chance, I had read when I was very young. It was a terrific book, but the film was not the book. Sergio used it as a takeoff point… It was good, it was just different. It wasn’t my New York — that doesn’t take anything away from it.”
Thrillingly, the shift from one cinematic master to another showed the man who is New York a different city. Such is art.
I ask him why there are so many gangsters in this career. Then I kick myself for using the phrase “social critique”, just the sort of thing that would silence him. But no, he has warmed up.
“There is something going on. With The Godfather, especially when it was made, there was so much going on historically in America. The Godfather represented honour and a certain kind of cohesiveness that was not where it should be, in the government. With everybody opposing the Vietnam War, it had a certain romantic vision that I think people took to. Plus there was all that family stuff.”
It is routinely said that, since 1995, when Casino and Michael Mann’s Heat (in which he played opposite Al Pacino) came out, his career has been in decline. Notably there have been a string of comedies, some good, some not so good.
“It just sort of happened. It kind of started with Analyze This. Billy Crystal brought it to me, and we had a reading, then another reading, and I got involved. There are some kinds of comedy I can’t do — certain kinds of slapstick.”
He is not exactly defensive about this, though, at one point, he just shrugs and says they’re nice films and he can bring something to them, so why not? Furthermore, he has grown into these parts. “The older you get,” he says wryly, “the more you are associated with families.” And he makes a specific exception for Silver Linings Playbook, in which he played the football-crazy dad of a mentally disturbed son. He rates its director, David O Russell, very highly indeed, and took the time — and made considerable preparations for — a single day’s filming on his latest, American Hustle.
Never mind, he has more than earned the odd turkey. He is a big man now, a patriarch with children and grandchildren, a patron of his art with the Tribeca Film Festival, which he created, and a business boss with a property portfolio, restaurants and hotels.
Yet, touchingly, thrillingly, he does still itch, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, for one last work “of noble note”. He may have found it. He recently talked Scorsese out of doing another project, The Winter of Frankie Machine, which he found “too generic”. Instead he persuaded him to make I Heard You Paint Houses (or The Irishman, as it may be called), the story of the teamsters union’s boss Frank Sheeran, who, just before his death, confessed to the killing of a predecessor, Jimmy Hoffa, the most famous unsolved crime in America. Marty is on board, as are Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, the dream team. De Niro has been keeping quiet about this, for fear he could “jinx it by going public”. But now they are all signed up and the schedules should sync in a year or two.
“How’s your health?” I ask nervously. He had prostate cancer in 2003. “It’s fine,” he says, touching some pricy Dorchester wood. “I’m going to make it. I’m sure we can make it.”
The time has come. “Can I ask you a favour?”
“Can I take your picture?”
“Sure, what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” I say, meaning I want him to be Robert De Niro.
I fish out the Leica and shoot three frames. As I leave, he gets up to shake my hand and suddenly asks: “How old are you?” I shiver later when I realise this meant he had been watching me all along. It’s what he does