Back in 1976 the young Robert De Niro, at the height of his powers, appeared in a restrained classic movie about moviemaking, The Last Tycoon. Based on the final, unfinished novel by one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, F. Scott Fitzgerald – a man with a strong Hollywood track record of his own – it revolved around a workaholic Hollywood hotshot producer and his efforts to form a relationship with a young woman. The parallels between the moviemaking genius of the lead character and that of the masterly young actor portraying him were apparent to all.
Now, more than three decades later, the aging Robert De Niro – regarded as a Hollywood legend more for his past glories than for his recent work – returns with another film about filmmaking, this time based on the memoirs of The Untouchables producer Art Linson. It revolves around an aging, fading Hollywood producer going through his second divorce while struggling against a system that sees him as past it. Again, the parallels between the character and the star playing him are palpable.
Of course, it’s not that De Niro has lost it entirely. It’s just that he was once so very good that he has a hell of a task trying to live up to both his past successes and the expectations of audiences who, on seeing his name on a film’s poster, expect something truly superb. His 2006 directorial effort The Good Shepherd, in which he also starred, still had many of his fans slavering with anticipation – so little wonder that it disappointed. But the thing that has most frustrated his fans is the fact that his recent comedy outings – in the likes of Analyze This and Meet the Parents (and their sequels), not to mention the animated Shark Tale and the dire Rocky and Bullwinkle – have so often seemed to mock his glory days, and the earlier, grittier, classic roles for which he is so fondly remembered.
Some may say that this merely shows that he’s not stuck-up, and happy not to take himself so seriously any more. Yet this is the man who was once such a committed method actor that he both learned how to box like a pro and gained 60 pounds in weight for the masterly Raging Bull. The man who ground his teeth down to play a psycho in Cape Fear, and who spent the entire shoot of The King of Comedy hurling anti-semitic abuse at co-star Jerry Lewis to ensure that there would be sufficient on-screen tension and hatred between their two characters. After the less than noble final years of the original master of method acting, Marlon Brando – who appeared in a string of bad films during the 80s and 90s, ending his life so obese that he allegedly turned up to film shoots naked from the waist down to prevent the camera capturing just how vast he had become – the fear is naturally there that De Niro may also ruin his memory through an ignominious end to his career.
In other words, De Niro’s decision to take the lead here is a very canny one – by playing a fading Hollywood bigwig who everyone reckons is past it, he’s fully acknowledging the public’s shifting opinion of his talents. Much as with Sylvester Stallone in his surprisingly decent comeback Rocky Balboa back in 2006, with this role so clearly echoing that of The Last Tycoon, De Niro is both acknowledging his fall from grace and mocking what he has become. The only question is, will his performance silence his critics and prove he’s got what it takes – or will this go down as another self-indulgent, self-mocking bit of embarrassment in De Niro’s slow slide into retirement?