On July 28, Phaidon will release two new books in its Cahiers du Cinema "Anatomy of an Actor" series, one of which is my own study of Robert De Niro. The other is Amy Nicholson's look at the work of Tom Cruise, an intriguing excerpt or offshoot of which appears here. I suppose a good number of readers out there are familiar with the series, which examines careers of contemporary actors via detailed essays on ten individual films. Although we're still almost two months from the book's actual pub date (and there will be events around the release of the book, and hopefully some excerptions and interviews here and there prior to the big day, which I'll keep you informed about, both here and on my Twitter feed [@Glenn_Kenny]) I thought it would not be completely useless to talk a little bit about the book now.
I now recall that I neglected to thank the filmmaker and writer Nicholas Saada in the acknowledgements section of the book, which is definitely my bad because he apparently set the ball rolling, referring an editor at the then-newly-formed Cahiers du Cinema imprint at Phaidon to me. I had an appointment with said editor around July of 2012, when she was visiting New York. She showed me a few of the new Cahiers titles, including Michael Henry Wilson's mammoth Scorsese on Scorsese, and asked me if I had any ideas. I immediately pitched a Richard Quine biography. "Yes, he is brilliant, but..." was the response, and then we moved on to the just-launched Anatomy of an Actor series, and I said I'd put together ten films of De Niro's that might make for a comprehensive or at least intriguing study. The ten films were, and remained:
Bang the Drum Slowly, John Hancock, 1973
Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, 1973
The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
Taxi Driver, Scorsese, 1976
Raging Bull, Scorsese, 1980
The King of Comedy, Scorsese, 1983
Midnight Run, Martin Brest, 1988
Awakenings, Penny Marshall, 1990
Meet the Parents, Jay Roach, 2000
Stone, John Curran, 2010
There was some concern about my not including 1995's Heat, which I do treat in a sidebar; my logic was that his appearance in that film, while containing a superb performance, did not constitute a latter-day career milestone, so to speak. From Midnight Run on, a lot of, if not most of, De Niro's work has to do with exploiting his cachet as a movie star, a status that had never really been conferred to him prior to the Brest film. Awakenings and Meet the Parents, regardless of what you think of them, represent moves on a movie industry chess board, while Heat merely keeps the core contituency happy. Also, I suspected that Karina Longworth would tackle that film in her own Anatomy of Al Pacino, which was close to publication as I started work on De Niro. As it happens, I was correct in my surmise, and Karina did a terrifc job looking at both actors in her Heat chapter. (I should thank Karina here for her words of advice and encouragement on this project. Over the years in engaging her I have been unforgivably rude and obnoxious; one of the many good things about taking on this project was that it gave me an appropriate opportunity to reach out to her with an apology, which she graciously accepted, and I am happy to have mended fences with her.)
When word got out that I was doing this project (and it was quite a bit of time before I got the go-ahead), some people asked me if I was going to "take De Niro to task" for such depradations as Rocky and Bullwinkle, 15 Minutes, a half a dozen VODish titles co-starring 50 Cent, etc., etc. The answer then and now is/was "No." This is not to say that I lavish praise on such efforts. In my introduction, after noting that in making Rocky and Bullwinkle and Shark Tale, De Niro was at least in part motivated by a desire to be in something that his young kids could see, I continue, "The main problem with Rocky and Bullwinkle, and to an arguably lesser extent Shark Tale, is that they ended up being movies that no one should see." However. I don't believe it is ever the critic's job to take an artists "to task" as such, or, for that matter, to offer career advice. I gotta be honest, it drives me fucking nuts when I read somebody offering "X really ought to make a children's film" or "Y ought to work with Z;" it always strikes me as smug busybodying, the middlebrow answer to TMZ coverage. What I try to do in the book, true to its title, is examine De Niro's work and his choices, and also to dig up some satisfying answers to questions that seem to torment some of his one-time admirers. But the fulcrum of my thesis has to do with how we mythologize great performers, and how in so doing we're almost doomed to be eventually disappointed in them.
That said, I am certainly very glad the little-seen Stone exists, because once you get to the contemporary section of De Niro's career, good performances in good movies are thin on the ground, there's no getting around it. I would have not really enjoyed delving back into Being Flynn, echoes of Taxi Driver or no; as strong as its central performances are, it's eventually almost as sentimental as, well, Awakenings. And while in Awakenings the physical precision of De Niro's performance was a pushback to the sentimentaliy, here no such subversion is allowed to occur. If you haven't seen Stone, I'd suggest you seek it out now, even if you don't plan on buying my book. It is strange, strong, resolutely unsentimental. My chapter on the film contains some terrific insights from Edward Norton, who was kind enough to grant me an interview.