Will Scorsese’s The Irishman Spell Redemption For De Niro?

Robert De Niro's filmography hasn't been great since the start of the decade. Can The Irishman turn that around?

So, it’s finally happening: Scorsese’s gestated The Irishman is moving forward. If you’re not already excited, the film marks Scorsese’s first collaboration with Robert De Niro since 1995’s Casino – yes, it’s been that long. Remarkably, it’s their first of the 21st century (okay, they were in Shark Tale, but that doesn’t really count does it). If you’ve been following De Niro since, you’ll probably have realised he hasn’t much success since his Scorsese period and frankly that’s being polite. De Niro really needs The Irishman to pay off.

Since Casino, Scorsese has gone on to cement his place as one of the all-time greats, with successes like The Aviator, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and finally winning a best director Oscar for The Departed. De Niro has not been so fortunate. A sole Oscar nomination in the following 22 years, and more disconcertingly, two Razzie nominations. Not great returns for someone considered to be one of the greatest actors around. Where did it go wrong? Is Scorsese really so inseparable from De Niro’s success?

De Niro started acting in the late 60’s and came to prominence with the lead in 1970’s Hi Mom! directed by Brian De Palma. You could say De Palma discovered De Niro as Hi Mom! was already their third film together, but more importantly, he introduced him to Scorsese for ‘73’s Mean Streets. The film started perhaps the most celebrated actor-director partnership of all-time with eight films over 22 years, one Oscar for De Niro for Raging Bull, which is generally considered one of the greatest performances of all time and three films making the AFI top 100. Not bad, but De Niro also found success away from Scorsese. His first Oscar came for 1974’s The Godfather Part II and subsequent releases such as The Deer Hunter, Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Mission, Awakenings and his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, cemented his place as an American icon.

It’s pretty clear that De Niro has had a stellar career even when you take his Scorsese collaborations out of the equation. His most iconic roles, Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin may have come out of that collaboration, but he still excelled outside of it. There is perhaps a simple answer to his decline – age. When Casino was released, De Niro had passed fifty, a transitional age for any actor. Suddenly he became too old for characters he became famous for, angsty, tightly wound 30-something types. He had played older before, but only in sections of decade-spanning epics Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America. There is a difference in playing and being older, which saw De Niro having to accept different roles.

He would still get occasional leads, an ageing gangster in Heat and a retiring thief in The Score – you can see they’re age-related already – but it was supporting roles that were becoming more frequent, with roles in Copland and Jackie Brown. He also tried his hand at comedy, which he had shown great talent for in The King of Comedy and Midnight Run. De Niro played an err, ageing gangster in Analyze This and an err, retiring CIA agent in Meet The Parents. Again, you can see the age theme emerging.

But these films were well received, not to the same extent as his greatest work, but still good and showing promise of a new direction for an older De Niro. Though the turn of the century saw the release of precursor of what was to come, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. De Niro plays Fearless Leader and he looks the part with slick hair, false scar and nose, but it’s a performance that features a truly baffling ‘homage’ to his “you talkin’ to me” line from Taxi Driver. Out of context, it might be funny for the film’s target audience, but not so much for parents who were dragged along.

The film flopped commercially, but wasn’t met with critical maulings, rather just indifference, but it started a disconcerting stage of De Niro’s career, where he seemed to be game for anything. It’s clear that he likes to work (he averages around three films a year) increasingly in supporting roles increasingly, which are less time consuming. He managed an incredible six films in 2013, although none were incredible. He seems to enjoy working, rather than being concerned about quality.

The following interview excerpt sheds a little light on this:

“Why do you take roles in movies like Rocky & Bullwinkle and Shark Tale?”
[Smirks]
“Do you not fear you’re tainting your legacy?”
“I had fun in those movies. Erm, I had a good time on Rocky & Bullwinkle.”

The new century saw questionable choices increase: phoning it in with Eddie Murphy in Showtime, dragging out Analyze This in Analyze That, struggling with erectile dysfunction in Meet The Fockers, prancing around in drag in Stardust and ruining what should be screen gold with Al Pacino in Righteous Kill. That only covers the noughties, there’s worse still to come: Little Fockers, Killer Elite, New Year’s Eve, The Big Wedding, Killing Season, The Family, Last Vegas, Grudge Match and Heist. Remarkably all those films came in just the first half; we’ll get to 2016.

That’s a lot of turkeys, leading many accusations of De Niro threatening to destroy his iconic status. So what’s the deal, how can someone who’s had such success produce such failures? It wasn’t just Scorsese behind past glories. Perhaps he’s just not interested anymore. He keeps busy outside acting, running the Tribeca film festival and juggling financial and political interests. But you feel he would’ve just stepped away from acting if the appeal had gone. The easy answer would be he needs the money; those extracurricular activities don’t look cheap. Whilst money may be the answer to many things, perhaps it’s worth taking a closer look at the films on a creative level.

During De Niro’s heyday, Scorsese wasn’t the only great director he worked with. His early filmography is full of great names: Coppola, Bertolucci, Cimino, Leone, Gilliam, Tarantino and Michael Mann. It helps to have a steady hand at the helm, someone to shape and mould performances and perhaps, more importantly, have the confidence to tell De Niro when he’s doing something wrong. In fact, of all seven of his Oscar nominations, only one – Awakenings – was helmed by a director whom you couldn’t afford the ‘great’ status: Penny Marshall, best known as an actress.

scorsese and de niro
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The difference in his 21st century directors shows a stark decline in quality: Des McAnuff, Tom Dey, John Polson, Jon Avnet, Gary McKendry, and Justin Zackham. Who, you may well ask. The names hardly inspire confidence; it’s easy to imagine these directors being in awe, rather than having the confidence to give pointers. De Niro isn’t afraid to go over the top and needs someone to rein him in, much like Nicolas Cage and Nick Nolte.

Do you think a more established name would have thought the “you talkin’ to me” moment in Rocky & Bullwinkle was a good idea? Surely a great director can create gold with De Niro and Pacino as they were great in Heat, not so much in Righteous Kill. That’s the difference between someone like Michael Mann and someone like Jon Avnet. You could argue Righteous Kill didn’t have material like Heat, but a great director can transform mediocrity.

De Niro’s downward trajectory correlates with decreasing quality of directors, but changes outside of his career are also attributable, namely, the changing face of cinema. De Niro came to prominence during the 70’s American new wave, an era where compatriots Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma flourished and making art was the bigger concern, not box office returns, which dominate today’s cinematic landscape. De Niro’s most famous works have actually never been that profitable, but are ranked as some of the greatest of all-time. Has a more financially concerned industry affected his work? Illeana Douglas-frequent co-star-seems to thinks so:

“Having worked with him on a film like Goodfellas, the environment that was created to play and to make a work of art, that no longer exists. It must be very challenging to be in an environment where it’s like ‘Yeah we have an hour, let’s get this shot, let’s get this shot’, and so if nobody else cares, why should you care?”

In an age where profits trumps art and time is getting shorter, quality is bound to suffer. De Niro’s best work often arrives in years where it’s his only film. The Godfather Part II in ’74, The Deer Hunter in ’78, Raging Bull in ’80 and The King of Comedy in ’83. Greater preparation will invariably bring better results, just look at the aforementioned films of 2013.

But 2013 was nothing compared to ’16 (told you we’d get there). Last year saw the release of Dirty Grandpa. If you’re unaware of it, well, you’re lucky. The film was absolutely destroyed by critics and was nominated for five Razzies. De Niro is the titular ‘Dirty Grandpa’ to Zac Efron and dirty is an understatement – the film features its fair share of gross-out comedy, something that requires a deftness of touch, clearly beyond director Dan Mazer.

Dirty Grandpa was the pinnacle of De Niro’s downfall, the absolute rock bottom. It was one of the worst reviewed films of his career; Mark Kermode was not a fan, putting the film top of his worst films of 2016 list. The film is the culmination of all the reasons his career has fallen so far: age, time, lack of direction and that unfortunate willingness to be game for anything. You have to wonder what made De Niro think this was a good idea. Maybe it worked on paper, but the original script was on Hollywood’s blacklist, which is the list for top unfilmed scripts.

In the wake of Dirty Grandpa, news of The Irishman moving forward could not be better for De Niro. So long after Casino, it’s no surprise the film is a long-gestated project, being slated for many years prior and it isn’t the first time that Scorsese and De Niro have tried to re-team. He was up to star in Gangs of New York and The Departed, but scheduling conflicts got in the way. Now things finally seem to have come together, surely the duo reunited again will equal greatness, right?

The film will focus on the life of gangster Frank Sheeran and his involvement with the ‘death’ of Jimmy Hoffa, and will reportedly include Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. So far so good, gangsters are Scorsese’s forte; he has described the film as “a similar world to Goodfellas or Casino.” The promise of De Niro alongside Pacino, Pesci and Keitel again is also incredibly enticing, although in Pesci’s case it’s worth taking with a pinch of salt; the right word here is definitely ‘reportedly.’ There is also good news in the financial sense. Despite the poor performance of Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, he will still reportedly be given a $100 million budget to work with. He is a director in the enviable position where his work is not judged by its returns.

The early signs may look good, but it’s worth noting some concerning points. Firstly, news that the film will digitally alter De Niro to make him look younger. Digital alteration is a tricky business as there are successful past examples but it is also very easy to fall into the uncanny valley, a term no film wants to be associated with. If not handled carefully, it could threaten to overshadow the film. There have also been early legal issues surrounding distribution rights, which hopefully won’t disrupt production – the last thing the film needs is another setback after so long in the pipeline.

Do these problems cause legitimate concern? Perhaps with a very pessimistic overview; the early signs seem to point in the right direction. The fact that the duo haven’t worked together for so long is probably not worth fretting over, a pair with such a history will not take long to get back into each other’s rhythms. Scorsese’s passion and dedication has been integral to their collaborations in the past, which will be key to resolving the problems that have plagued De Niro’s decline.

So The Irishman could be De Niro’s greatest film of this century and could also find favours during awards season given Scorsese’s Oscar pedigree. On paper, it seems like a surefire winner, a template that has consistently proved successful in the past. At the very least, you would hope it can kick-start an upward trajectory for De Niro because he really, really needs it – one his other slated future releases is the worryingly titled The War With Grandpa. Norbit ruined Dreamgirls for Eddie Murphy; The Irishman will have to be spectacularly good.

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