By the time the 92nd annual Academy Awards airs in February, four decades will have passed since Robert De Niro claimed his second win for playing Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Within those past forty years, De Niro has added director, producer, festival founder and activist to his list of titles with which he identifies. As an actor, films since his last Oscar nomination have included The King of Comedy, One Upon a Time in America, Casino, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Meet The Parents and Joker — just to name a few. And still no further win. If Monday’s Golden Globe nominations announcement forecasts the American film industry’s sentiment, the chances of 2020 gold seem slim.
Accolades or not, De Niro has never seemed driven by receiving a pat on his head from the establishment. His choice of roles, genres and productions both major and indie have afforded him a diversified body of work not defined by his earlier achievements. De Niro, as influential and iconic as he stands, thrives as an actor’s actor with less focus on his own interests and more concern over quality. Have there been missteps? Sure, just watch Analyze That, Dirty Grandpa, and The Comedian. Far from his best work but never phoning in a performance or leaving a co-star to pick up his slack. He knows his worth and appears grateful for the job. To even appear in a scene alongside De Niro is a career achievement in itself. A shot to work alongside the master means forever aligning oneself with cinema history. I’m sure Gilbert Gottfried will agree.
After a small yet successful theatrical window, The Irishman uploaded to Netflix on November 27 for the world to stream. In Scorsese and De Niro’s ninth feature collaboration, twenty-four years since Casino, Bob has proven he hasn’t lost his touch as an indelible screen actor. Appearing in almost every scene of the three and a half hour mob epic, playing Frank Sheeran at various stages of his life, De Niro delivers a performance that equally matches those of his youth. With the aid of new CGI technology, we’re able to revisit a former version of him too. Without ego and to the respect of his fellow cast-mates, he smoothly fades into the background of a scene when necessary, allowing others to shine – from Pesci to Pacino to Romano to Cannavale to Maniscalco to even the brief appearance by rapper Action Bronson. The end result is a sign of respect, always.
Robert De Niro is perhaps the last of the original working-class New York actors. The end result of a 20th century plight, generations in the making — from turn-of-the-century immigration to American ascension and acclimation. Later in the century, these American tales would color the career identities of entertainers like De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel, and “New Hollywood” filmmakers Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola, serving as exaggerated folklore in the minds of the general public and sometimes at the cost of stereotype. Depending on the project, De Niro has chosen to lean into his perceived persona when suitable, but never entirely disowning his image.
At 76 years old, De Niro should be considered antiquated, out of style and behind the times. However, unlike actors before him, who have come and gone, De Niro hasn’t lost touch with the modern world. In fact, he’s more relevant than ever before. Tribeca Film Festival has become a premiere venue for technology and innovations in media. His recent “Piece of sh*t Trump” comments sound like the words that should be rolling off the lips of a young, brazen personality. And his appearances in Joker and The Irishman, two vastly different yet emblematic cultural touchstones, have reintroduced Robert to the cinematic world stage, offering new audiences a chance to marvel at a man so relevant his name has collectively been hashtagged over half a million times on Instagram.
The Irishman may be far from his final role, but we may never again be spoiled with the same level of quality by De Niro as we’ve received in 2019. But if age is only a state of mind then De Niro will not be defined by a period of time or approval from the present generation. With distance, he will be remembered as an artist-only, whose work will remain perennial, unrestricted by the need for acceptance. In the end, an award is just a marketing tool anyway.