Art-making is too often discussed in terms that implicitly liken it to magic, thusly neglecting the truth that it involves work that resembles the day-by-day toils of many other ostensibly plainer occupations. With Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, film critic Glenn Kenny quietly pushes against that mythology. A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors. In his introduction, Kenny writes of “De Niro’s reluctance to do interviews, and his seeming stumbling while doing them, his famous taciturnity in contrast to his preternaturally vivid presence on screen, created a mythology that itself spawned a counter-mythology. It made De Niro as famous for being an enigma, a code that a journalist or critic with just the right amount of persistence and perspicacity could crack. But what if the answer is right in front of our faces, and always has been?” The author follows that with a quote in which director Elia Kazan (who worked with De Niro on The Last Tycoon) claims that the actor is among the hardest working that he’s collaborated with, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.
In other words, Kenny brings De Niro down to earth as a working artist, which serves to somewhat ironically reawaken your awe for the actor and the profound emotional nakedness that he once achieved reliably in one performance after another. Reading this, one wonders, not why De Niro drifted toward less immersive a-job’s-a-job roles, but how he plumbed himself as deeply as long as he did. The author emphasizes detail, connecting physical gestures from one role, sometimes mercilessly, to their repetition in another film (such as the reappearance of a “shoo” motion from Goodfellas in Awakenings.) He paints De Niro unsurprisingly as a master craftsman who’s intensely devoted to analysis and rehearsal, which he, somewhat, ineffably fuses with his personality and his soul. (I’m indulging my own mythology.) Following the familiar Cahiers du Cinéma “Anatomy of an Actor” template, Kenny discusses 10 “iconic roles” in De Niro’s canon that serve to shape the actor’s career as he evolved from galvanic acting titan to controversial “sell-out” to an inevitably mellower character actor who’s still capable, nevertheless, of imbuing a questionable project or under-respected performer with a bit of prestige by association.
Accounted for are films that you’d expect, such as Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, along with more eccentric choices like Bang the Drum Slowly, Midnight Run, and Stone. Though he doesn’t directly voice this, Kenny’s refuting the distasteful idea that De Niro “owes” us anything, a notion that fuels quite a bit of the vitriol that now greets many of the actor’s admittedly bizarre and depressing performances. Also combatted is the classist condescension—which Kenny does directly identify—that likens artists like De Niro and director Martin Scorsese to intuitive, resolutely un-self-conscious natives unaware of the effects of their art (for more of this, read his second review of The Wolf of Wall Street, on his blog Some Came Running).
Kenny’s critical acuity is particularly sharp in the first half of the book, where the author discusses films that are presumably close to him. His treatment of a few of the actor’s key, oft-discussed films is as striking, and as rooted in nourishing specificity, as any work on the subjects I’ve personally read, including reviews penned by legends such as Manny Farber, who’s cited here. Kenny memorably describes Johnny Boy’s mischief as “coarsening” throughout Mean Streets as the film rockets toward its ambiguous and doom-laden finale. There’s also a pivotal reading of a scene in Bang the Drum Slowly that bolsters a recurring parallel assertion that De Niro’s funnier, and shrewder, a performer than is sometimes allowed:
“When he grins and drawls, ’Yes sir, that was how I always felt’, there’s a very slight hint of disingenuousness there that almost encourages multiple readings. Is this Pearson making fun of himself? Making fun of the coach? Is it De Niro making fun of the character? Is it De Niro making fun of Gardenia? In a way, the line and the reading are funniest when seen from that last perspective. It’s a pretty astonishing moment. Something about what he’s doing leaps out in a way that he may not be necessarily controlling.”
The humanity of the entire book is in that observation, which merges several planes of projective empathy—for the man De Niro may or may not have been at the time, for the character De Niro’s playing—with a discerning eye for the actor’s methods of translating behavior into gestures that have the misleading tenor of spontaneity, but that are often painstakingly arrived at (a notion that’s supported by quotations ranging from Jodie Foster to, most vividly, Jerry Lewis). Kenny’s aliveness to these nuances reaches full bloom in his piece on Taxi Driver, which dissects the masterpiece as an “irrational film” that emerged from studious control on the part of its three primary authors (De Niro, Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader), as well as from an incoherent merging of three obsessive, troubled men’s autobiographies.
Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor takes a subtle stylistic turn in its second half that might bear quasi-meta significance: The writing grows less detailed. Partially, this is unavoidable and understandable, as there’s more to express about Taxi Driver than, say, Midnight Run. But it’s hard to not see this change as Kenny’s way of practicing his own in-character editorializing in the vein of De Niro’s delivery of that Bruce Pearson line-reading: His prose’s generality reflects De Niro’s. As the performances become less intense, so do Kenny’s observations. The book gently recedes from the actor’s proximity as De Niro grows seemingly more distracted and polished in his career, more informed, not just by art, but by the full life of a very successful aging man with family and regrets and promises. This strategy only disappoints with the piece on Stone, an unheralded film that Kenny clearly respects, though his emphasis on physical brick-by-brick detail still isn’t quite there in the fashion that it is in earlier passages. Yet even that dissonance deepens the overall effect of the book, which is obviously not just about De Niro, but about Kenny, serving as our surrogate, trying to understand De Niro. The critic takes you closer, only to recognize the idea of artist proximity as not just an illusion, but as one of the great confounding illusions of our interactions with art.
Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor is available July 28 from Phaidon Press; to purchase it, click here.