Blogs on Film

De Niro’s Greatness (Guest Essay)

London-based Ian Jentle had a long and successful career as an actor; Americans are most likely to know him as Josef Goebbels in the epic War and Remembrance television mini-series. I asked Ian to explain from an actor’s point of view what makes a great film performance, and he has kindly agreed to do so using the example of the legendary Robert De Niro. Over to Ian:

When people ask me, as a retired actor, what I think constitutes great acting, I tell them to rent Raging Bull (1980) and The King Of Comedy (1983) and watch them back to back. Both are directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro. In the former, De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a man of immensely powerful physical presence who is emotionally unstable, intellectually limited and sadomasochistic. He is huge, lumbering, frightening, and yet pathetic. In the latter film, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a small, weasely loser obsessed with other people’s fame, a stage door hangabout whose very presence is sphincter-clenchingly embarassing. If you removed the credits from both films and showed them to somebody who had lived a cinema-free life, I would bet a large sum that they would not believe the same actor played both roles.

First, De Niro has that strange quality known as presence or charisma. Film professionals will say of a particular performer that “the camera loves him/her” and it is true. But screen presence is not always linked with great acting skills: Charlton Heston had tremendous presence, but his acting was rarely better than wooden, and although one could not accuse John Wayne of creating a wide range of characters, he undoubtedly had presence and was always believable and entertaining. De Niro clearly demonstrates his presence in the scene in Raging Bull in which LaMotta is thrown into a prison cell.

But De Niro brings much more to the screen than mere presence. What marks De Niro out as a truly great actor is the integrity of his approach to his characters, the depth of his observation of human behaviour and the skill he brings to the performance of these characters in the context of a film narrative. Two more clips, one from each movie, demonstrate these skills.

In the clip from Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta repeatedly challenges his brother, played by Joe Pesci, to hit him in the face. Here, De Niro gives his character the objective of “control”. He tries several strategies to persuade his brother to hit him in the face: simple request, provocative insult, older brother authority, even slapping. By the end of the clip his brother demands “What are you trying to prove? What does it prove?” De Niro’s triumphant smile and brotherly tap on the face show that he has “won”, which is the whole point. As he does repeatedly throughout the film, Jake LaMotta uses violence, even the receiving of violence, to exercise psychotic control over others.

In the clip from King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin sneaks into a car with his comedy hero Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, to ask for help in becoming a comedian. Once Pupkin invades Langford’s car, he embarks upon non-stop babble with the objectives of impressing Langford with his comedy potential and recruiting his support for his non-existent career. What he reveals is an embarrassing blend of passionate desire to succeed with not a shred of comedic talent. He tries to behave as if Langford is his equal while saying that Langford is his hero. The scene is shot head-and-shoulders but with only his face, shoulders and arms De Niro produces a painfully recognisable character.

For me, these two movies demonstrate De Niro’s ability, flexibility and imaginative range, but don’t take my word for it based on these few clips. Watch the two movies back to back and they will make the argument much better than I can.