Mar 31, 2011
The key to De Niro: people are bad actors
The 35th anniversary of Taxi Driver, together with the publication of Richard Schickel's thrilling book of Conversations with Scorsese, has prompted the following thought about De Niro's collaborations with the director and how his performances rest on a single insight: people are bad actors. Just listen to the flat, affectless delivery with which he reads Travis Bickle's dimestore-Dostoevsky diary entries in Taxi Driver ("All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people"). Or the imploded powers of projection he gives Rupert Pupkin, every joke fizzling just inches from his face; or — best of all — the dud epiphany of Jake La Motta delivering Marlon Brando's I-coulda-been-a-contender speech to a mirror at the end of Raging Bull ("Some people aren't that lucky... like the one Brando played in On the Waterfront, an up and comer whose now a down and outer. Remember the scene in the car with his brother Charlie? It went like this..."). It's the same tone a construction worker might use to recite a self-penned poem about his wife (with apologies to construction workers, but you know what I mean). In each case, De Niro resists the temptation to give his lines any kind of flair, or lift, or affect, or charisma. He doesn't invest the characters with his own powers of projection or acting ability — which are, after all, those of a professional actor. I've often noticed this very blind spot with other actors, who when their character is asked to lie, or improvise or pretend, bring the full weight of their abilities to bear on the task, as if thinking "this, I can do. This it would be embarrassing of me not to get right," all the while forgetting what crummy fabulists most of us are. Not de Niro. He hangs us out to dry! He's trying to catch his humans in the act of imposture — to show the gap between who they think they are and who they really are — and he does it by subtracting his own skills entirely from the equation. His performances are extremely skillful acts of self-abnegation. He gives us anti-actors, over-actors, creative duds, amateur stylists, hams, showboats and bores, their heads rattling with cheap cliche and secondhand poetry, all of which sounds to them like Shakespeare at his most fluting.