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.