It's not like Redford. He's on the other side. Redford holds back. He's not a hero, and he doesn't want you to dislike the people he plays. Redford retains a glamorous remoteness and passivity that doesn't stray far from good American-Eagle values. It's stability and studiness. but DeNiro gets to American from a different angle. He works his way up the spine and into the buzzing, seething mass of semi-methodical madness in the brain. He goes as far into his characters as he can go, always probing for that pure, nuclear core of nonfissionable personality that is at the nexus.
Unlike Redford, DeNiro is Proteus. redford never relinquishes his healthy, Rock-Mountain looks. When you say Robert Redford you know what you will get. But with DeNiro there is a volatility that makes you think of him in many faces and with a little anxiety. In Mean Streets he was nervy, wiry, and speed-driven, in The Deer Hunter aloof and grimly self-possessed, in Raging Bull sinewy, stupid, animal-like, as well as lazy and fat.
While Redford dares to be good looking and a good man, deNiro plays for keeps--for greatness. He plays the megalomaniac's game, and nothing is certain. He makes you worry.
Hell-bent or Heaven-sent [A minor retrospective.]--In the Mean Streets you watch him and feel nervous, conservative. He's out there on the edge, way out there, pushing it, chancing it, going much, much too far, and you wish he'd stop it. He's a compulsive gambler named Johny Boy who flouts all the rules of the petty Mafia, who never shows up even when it's most important, who just won't behave, and he seems live to make it all worse. It's pathological, but he won't quit. It makes you feel mealy and cautious.
But it's pathological individualism that we are given here, and we always go for that. DeNiro exhilarates us in Mean Streets because he's his own man even when geing his own man is absolutely self-destructive craziness. He's burning with it. In this subterranean world of dumpsters and neon and bar-darkness, racketeers and ferret-faced, small-time hoods, he dares to be a total jerk. He's the problem child who won't stop playing, hyperactively needling the frayed nerves of the others, and exploding in careless bravura. He is wired. Johnny Boy digs the risk and the rock 'n' roll, so he half dances through the movie. He enjoys being out of control. He revels in it. We respond because he strikes such a far-out, flamboyant note that we know we could never be that way.
He takes it all so far that the slovenly ne'er-do-well in him burns away and he becomes a hero.
He Can't sleep anyway [Neither can we]-- When he looks out at us from the screen we immediately sense the disconnection, the fact that he is beyond our reach. He's alone, prowling, like we think we are sometimes. But we're not like him.
There he is in Taxi Driver, an ex-Marine from the Midwest who takes a job driving cabs at night because he can't sleep and because he can't find a real life. The city won't let him in even though he'd like to conform, and the fever builds first in his belly and then in his head, making him restless like an animal and nervous like a killer. He hates New York with Biblical fury. Its livid neons, the gaudy robes of the pimps, and the twisting, seething shadows obsess him with a vision of hell.
Travis Bickle cruises this Pandemonium like an animal trying to unwind. He is an underground man for America, condemned to try to live a quiet life in enemy territory. But things won't leave him alone. Ther's no relief from the loneliness and frustration; The city never lets him off the hook. The world is a no-parking zone. All that remains is relentless movement, ugly rooms, ugly people, and dirty minds. No compassion. No grace. It just keeps coming. There's no pressure drop, no possible release. Spoken language is foreign to Bickle, and when he gets a date with Betsy, a political campaigner whose blondness and white clothes represent purity for him, he's so out of touch that he accidently offends her had she tells him to get lost.
In DeNiro's thin face, flexed body and slurred speech we recognize the tension of what it would mean to be cornered, to have no options. The eyes are inflamed, puffed with misery, or else vacant with the unsatisfactoryanaesthesia of TV, and we know something has got to give. We suffocate with Travis; there's no sex, no contact, no fun, just anger and loneliness and introspection.
Violence is his only means of breaking through the impasse. We watch him grimly purify his body and prepare to kill, coiling himself up to lash out, then arming himself to the hilt in order to strike at his enemy, the whole of New York City. After the blood-splattering eruption we see Travis looking pacified, his system freed of the rage. We know there can only be one conclusion: that there was never any solution.
From Sea to Shining Sea [Jets and Jeremiads--And he is American as apple pie, DeNiro.
In The Deer Hunter he plays an American ubermann, an Eagle-Scout of sorts obsessed by the boy's-book values of self-reliance and will power. He's an American hero of camaraderie who withholds himself from the weakening influence of women at the margin of his life for pure commitmentto the mystic bond of men in the wilds. Never defiled by desire, he stays aloof, ordered, and self-possessed, triumphant in his wiry celibacy. He's Hemingway's man, and he's that Dearslayer from James Fenimore Cooper. He's one of the real men you see at the hangout trying out a few High Lifes in the Miller commericals. He wears flannel shirts, boots, and a down hunting vest. He shares a mobile home with one of the guys. He drives his '59 Cadillac into the mountains to hunt deer one last time before he has to go to Vietnam.
This Michael that DeNiro plays is one of those great American heroes who has it both ways. He is both perfect model and one of the guys. He is the leader of the group, but also a man apart, emotionally cryptic. He walks a narrower road than his buddies; we see him gracefully climb a mountain above their heads and, with snowcapped peak behind him, a male choir singing, and rain clouds swirling, stalk a buck and drop it with one shot. Then they're back in the bar listening to Chopin, his Teutonic supremacy affirmed. He relaxes with the guys, but he's never out of control. The scout motto of "Be Prepared" has become a compulsion, and he seems too ready. It smacks of adolescence.
But when Michael goes to Vietnam he confronts his real test of manhood. He can play Russian Roulette in the Heart of Darkness, and win, because he is disciplined. He always understood life in terms of will and courage and manliness, and now he saves himself and his friends. He forces his superior ethic on his companions, inspiring them to develop the grit and sacrifice necessary to survive. The way director Michael Cimino sets things up, it's understood that they will win DeNiro always is a winner, and here with his boy's-book sensibility and see-to-shining-sea masculinity among the racially-stereotyped Vietcong it's just another case of manifest destiny.
In The Deer Hunter DeNiro is the Minuteman within us. He makes Americans think in the primitive terms on which our country was founded. Somehow he gets at us, and brings all our liberal thinking back to war games and heroism and the call of the wild.
Fast Track [Highways and Heroism]--It's still the same game in True Confessions, though now DeNiro is not only in complete command of himself as a Catholic careerist, but he's even distinguished, a commanding member of the Establishment.
In Monsignor Spellacy there is none of the explosiveness of earlier DeNiro roles. The smoldering fire is banked, and DeNiro reins himself in until he is the most potent presence on the screen because the others sense his premendous superiority as a contained, pressurized neutron bomb. But it is still a matter of who is the better man, the most commanding man, and though DeNiro is a celibate priest, he is the winner. He has that intangible, the almost spiritual worldliness of great character, of a Caesar or a Kennedy. It compels everyone he meets. This priest is not only a man of the world but a champion of the world. He's always at the center, controlled, impeccable, graceful. Though his gestures are small, disciplined, and almost delicate, they somehow compel, whether he is saying the High Mass or taking his shoes off. It's all whittled down this time, pressurized but not explosive as it is for his brother Tommy (Robert Duvall), who shouts, cusses, paces, insults waiters, kicks file cabinets, and prowls around the underside of DeNiro's archdiocese like a rhino. While his brother butts heads and creates scenes DeNiro is the man of greatness who always remains smooth, suave, and political. They are Iago and Othello, in a way. And, of course, DeNiro falls, but he falls with style. He never twists or shouts or disclaims. He won't flinch. DeNiro is a hero for a time that suffers from loss of nerve.
Possible Ending #1--That damnable ineloquence. These things never translate. You can't talk about them. DeNiro. Dean. No memorable lines. Just a memorable style; faces, gestures, shrugs. The beauty of futility.