Monday, August 17, 2015

Birthday Take: Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" (1980)

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Rober De Niro
Born: August 17, 1943 (72 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (Won) for Raging Bull as Jake La Motta

The Take

There is a common notion that anyone who ever watched a lot of movies has: Robert De Niro is among the greatest actors of all time. I know, uninformed audiences who are mostly familiar with his last decade of film will likely question that notion. Even longtime fans will probably admit to not wanting to see anything he has done in the past decade. It all makes sense, considering that he is now best summarized as hammy. While this may inevitably be the case, let me tell you something: he earned it. Maybe I will always hope that he does something above and beyond brilliant in his old age, but consider that he was once one of the most intense and charismatic actors working.

This is most evident in the film of which he won his second Oscar: Raging Bull. Before we dive into the actual performance, let's just look at his regiment to get ready for the role. In the film, we see boxer Jake La Motta in his youthful prime and in his older and more depressing years. It is a technique that few have used, but De Niro defined the role by getting into shape and boxing to the point that he could compete with the professionals. He was phenomenal by many accounts. Then, he had to gain weight in order to play the role of the later years. Suddenly, his physique was gone and he was forced to be more pudgy and out of shape. While he would bounce back, it still reflects a certain dedication that I doubt too many people have. Of course, he would be very intense in another decade when in Cape Fear, he had his teeth broken to better fit the character. 

Then there's the actual performance. As one could likely suspect, director Martin Scorsese brought out the best in De Niro. From their first collaboration in Mean Streets, they were a wild team that captured unhinged characters that could scare you. With Raging Bull - which was a passion project for De Niro - he took things to the next level physically, but also managed to do so emotionally. Simply watch him act. I'm not talking about punching and fighting. I'm talking about when he has a horrid personal life in which he loses his mind and has to deal with corrupt family. It is a performance that any charismatic actor could give levity to. However, De Niro's dedication to physicality along with those nuanced beats made it among the greatest performances in film history.

While I don't consider Raging Bull to be my favorite Scorsese film, there's doubt that I wouldn't respect it. The film is phenomenal, and a large portion is because De Niro's performance is unforgettable. You see the man being beaten to a bloody pulp and suddenly you sympathize with him. You are scared, but you want him to get out of his mess. It is a slide into desperation so believable that you don't see De Niro anymore. Even in the pudgy part of the movie, you get a certain resonating touch from him. It's not wonder that the next film he did was a less nuanced (physically) performance in The King of Comedy. While these all show the actor's range of talents, I doubt any holds a candle to his boxing role.

So, is De Niro the greatest actor still? That is speculative, and also more indicative on if you hold the bad with the good on certain artists. It is hard to deny the impact that De Niro made in his prime, even going into the 90's. Maybe we'll never see another Raging Bull again, but that's for good reason. He's an old man who likely would break in half if he had to physically alter his appearance that much. Even then, you kind of hope that he would turn in one last performance on par with Taxi Driver or Mean Streets that reminds you why he is great. If Silver Linings Playbook is his last Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor), so be it. I don't think it was great, but at least he still clicks from time to time.

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