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Robert De Niro

The Pursuit of Nothingness


In Raging Bull, RobertDe Niro comes into the bedroom where his wife lies asleep and starts asking her about the boxer he is soon to fight against. In an earlier scene Vickie’s made an idle comment about Janiro’s good looks, and one evening afterwards La Motta is sitting with a group of gangsters who talk about Janiro being so good looking that you wouldn’t know whether to fight him or fuck him. The gangster’s comments, and his wife’s casual remark, have sown a seed, and so De Niro sits on the bed and tries to cajole her into saying something about Janiro. The half-asleep Vickie doesn’t know what he is talking about. In the next sequence he beats Janiro less it seems to win the fight than prove to his wife that the beast will always better beauty. “He ain’t pretty now” one of the commentators offers, as the film cuts to Vickie looking particularly troubled.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre gives an example of someone looking for his friend Peter in a café. He can’t find him, so he doesn’t see what happens to be in the café but what isn’t: the missing Peter. …”Now Peter is not here. This does not mean that I discover his absence in some particular spot in the establishment. In fact Peter is absent from the whole café; his absence congeals the café in its evanescence.” For Sartre this helps explain nothingness over being. We see an encompassing absence over a specific presence. La Motta, like many De Niro characters, is a great incarnation of nothingness, a character for whom being can never quite evolve because he sees, usually through paranoia, jealousy and hubris, that which he can’t possess, that which he can’t control. He sees not lack in the Lacanian sense, which might generate on-going desire, but rather nothingness in the Sartrean problematic – where desire always seems secondary to expectation.

The aforementioned scene captures well this desire in La Motta for nothingness over being as he takes a casual remark of his wife’s, a few stray comments from the gangsters, and decides that he must destroy another man’s face. This isn’t about winning a boxing match, which would suggest an accumulation of being, but about searching for the nothingness in the situation. To be or not to be is rarely for De Niro’s characters the question; the non-being is usually taken as some form of given. We needn’t only think of Raging Bull but also Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Last Tycoon, The King of Comedy, Once Upon Time in America and Casino as well; and an interesting variation of it in The Deer Hunter. What matters is the nothingness over the being, and De Niro’s suspiciousness, jealousy and hubris can be understood through this impossible non-being.

If we take Casino, for example, we could suggest it is a film about a man that gets involved with a woman who is dishonest, adulterous and drug-addicted and this is what causes De Niro’s character so much pain. But Ginger is also the one woman whom De Niro cannot quite comprehend and control – as his long-term buddy Joe Pesci says at one stage: she was the only woman who really managed to seduce him.  As he builds for himself an impressive casino career, which suggests being, however dubious, at the same time he generates non-being in his relationship with Ginger. As his character Ace says, ‘When I married Ginger I knew all the stories, but I didn’t care. I’m Sam Rothstein I said. I can change her.’ Hence the hubris that will lead to jealousy and suspicion. He knows from the first time he meets her that it is love, but this isn’t a marriage made in heaven, but in the infernal hell that Ace perhaps needs even more than he desires Ginger. When he proposes to Ginger he asks her if she isn’t tired of her life, tired of all the hustling, the game-playing and she replies ‘what are you trying to do – handicap me?’ Ace replies that he wants to go one better – ‘I want to marry you.’ If this isn’t a marriage proposal of nothingness then what is? In one scene late in the film, far into their messy marriage, and after Ginger’s gone off with her ex who seems to have run through twenty five thousand pounds of Ginger and Ace’s money, Ace takes her out to a bar and interrogates her. How he wonders can her ex have spent so much money, how long would it take someone to get several suits fitted – surely more than three days? Here Ace is, trying to make everything better, and Ginger looks like she wishes she had never returned. He doesn’t desire her, so much as want the truth that eludes him, and yet it isn’t even the truth he desires but much more the anxious pursuit of its probable absence in relation to his own sense of expectation. Ginger isn’t the only reason for Ace’s downfall. His hubris in business proves equally problematic – but it is central to it. Ace may continually say to her that the most important thing is trust; however it seems more that Ginger is the one thing in life he is willing to gamble on, no matter the attempt to turn her into a safe bet.

This is the Proustian side to De Niro’s characters: he seeks out not someone who will love him but what will elude him. In Taxi Driver, Travis falls in love with Betsy, an impossible romance considering Betsy’s up-state up-market upbringing and De Niro’s under-educated, over neurotic porn watching pill popper. Yet Travis does briefly find his way in, only to scupper it with a date to a porn theatre. As Betsy walks out livid, she says what he’s offered her is a date that is basically the equivalent of ‘let’s fuck’, and we might wonder why exactly Travis has taken her to a porn movie. After all fucking seems hardly to have been on his mind, and shortly before, while railing against New York generally, he insists that ‘they’ couldn’t touch her – that she is purity incarnate. So why the porn show? Clearly this is a world he knows well, spending his time there when he can’t sleep. But though Bickle’s obviously asocial, unaware of words like moonlighting, and tells his cabbie boss when he applies for the job that his education has been here and there, this faux pas porn scene might seem just a plot contrivance: an opportunity for Bickle to turn against the world and towards murder after so obviously and completely alienating Betsy.

Yet this moment is consistent with a number of De Niro’s ‘seduction’ scenes (so much so that a recent book of lists predicates itself on Ten Worst Dates with De Niro). where whether the gesture is crude or bombastic the point seems somewhat the same: they all suggests a certain empathic limitation, a hubristic self-absorption. In New York, New York the gesture is once again crude as its VE day and De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle is determined to get laid. As he goes round various tables trying to chat up apparently single women, after a few rejections he arrives at Liza Minnelli’s table and despite her protestations insisting he leave her alone, he harasses her for several minutes of screen time. Introducing himself as someone who’s met her before (though he clearly hasn’t) De Niro invades her bodily space as she sits on the chair and crouches over her, even at one moment pointing his finger in what’s usually of course an accusatory, aggressive gesture but in De Niro passes for part of the accoutrements of seduction. As he determines to get her phone number she waves off his attempts with increasing desperation.

This is early in the film, and maybe we can see it as no more than the forthright gestures of a man looking for sex. However, later, after they get married, the needs might be different but the gestures are still pretty similar. In one scene De Niro tries to get her to take a seat in his new car. As he insists she get in, his insistence borders on aggression, and soon enough the pair of them are in yet another argument that also includes another couple – who simply want the parking space. But Jimmy then starts arguing with the couple and states they’ll never get the space as long as he’s alive. So often with De Niro’s characters seduction and aggression intermingle because really the purpose resides in some vague, indeterminate need to get what he wants. But what he wants isn’t a mutual sense of well-being – of himself and other – but a determined sense of determination. His gestures don’t seem to be underpinned by much more than determination. Even when De Niro and Minnelli get married this isn’t a mutual agreement; it is an impulsive gesture on De Niro’s part. In the middle of the night he takes her to a marriage registrar and asks if he and his wife will marry them. Minnelli can hardly believe he hasn’t even consulted her, and looks like she’ll back out until De Niro lies behind the taxi that took them to the registrar, and insists the cabbie drive over him if Minnelli won’t agree to the wedding. Shades of Ace and Ginger; as though Jimmy’s determined sense of determination is stronger than the subject he’s addressing (the issue of getting married), and certainly much greater than the feelings for the object of affection.

This, then, is another example of the crude gesture; but what about the bombastic? The Last Tycoon and Once Upon A Time in America are both great examples of the grand gesture. In the former, De Niro sees one evening after a minor earth tremor at the studio a young woman in the medium distance atop a large prop, floating through the studio lake. Monroe Stahr falls instantly in love and tries to find out more about this young beauty. He manages to secure a meeting, and though she explains that nothing can happen between them he remains persistent. One afternoon he takes her out for a ride by the sea, and there shows her his semi-built dream home. It is in many ways a great folly, a home that his limbo life cannot allow to be completed, for after his wife died he seems to have been without a purpose beyond the professional. Certainly his career is going wonderfully well, and everybody at the studio accepts that Stahr knows how to improve pictures that professional writers and directors cannot. But will this woman, who resembles his wife, not only fail to alleviate his loneliness but destroy whatever well-being he possesses? As De Niro offers the grand gesture of his stalled life, she has already written him a letter that he will only read after the assignation: that she is engaged to be married to another man. But he should have seen this coming; in Kathleen Moore’s body language, in her resistance to his glances and his advances, she suggests a woman already promised to another.

But is this what nothingness would demand: a woman whom he cannot possess whilst ignoring all those that he can?  For example Cecilia (Theresa Russell) is the daughter of a studio boss, is in love with him, possesses shrewd judgement, a moral sensibility in a world of sex, greed and alcoholism, but Monroe Stahr cannot see her qualities, or at least the qualities that would make her a wonderful wife. As he loses himself one afternoon and evening in the grand gesture of seducing Kathleen Moore, so his life will unravel; the rest of his existence cannot compensate for the absence of Kathleen. Once again we see nothingness over being as films, meetings and even the sensitive company of Cecilia can’t help. When early in the film Cecilia says she thinks maybe she should get married, Stahr replies, “I’d marry you. I am lonely, but I’m too old and tired to undertake anything.” “Undertake me”, Cecilia suggests, before pausing for a few moments and beseechingly repeating the phrase. But her desirous body language has put Stahr on the defensive. After she first arrives at his office she goes over and sits on his table and Stahr has to shift his position to stop the moment becoming too intimate. When she stands over him and offers affection, he tries to laugh it off. It’s as though De Niro cannot absorb another’s desire; he has to pursue another’s non-desire. While Cecilia offers all the qualities a man might desire in a woman, she provides Monroe with no drive towards nothingness – towards nihilation.

At the end of the film Monroe has lost Kathleen, and can no longer, it seems, run a studio. Other members of the production company believe he’s lost his instincts for the movie business. But instinct here is replacing the term drive: what Stahr loses is his desire for the film business because the positive drive of his career takes second place to the negative drive of loving someone who will remain outside his control, and who in this instance refuses categorically his affections.

The film closes with Monroe entering a cavernous studio and disappearing into the darkness as the credits come up. Has he re-found his positive drive, or is this the end of his life? Moments before Stahr has repeated dialogue from an earlier scene where he’d brilliantly shown Donald Pleasance’s drink-sodden writer, Boxley, what it takes to write a good film. This time the person he imagines in the scenario he acted out for Boxley is Kathleen, and we may wonder whether this is a move towards the health of productivity or the ill health of absent-minded fantasy? In the broader scheme of things, and within the context of De Niro’s career, we might plump for the latter.

Especially if we think of Ryan Gilbey’s belief in It Don’t Worry Me “that De Niro more than any other performer remains in constant communication with his past”, and of Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America, who pursues his lifelong love, culminating in hiring an out of season Long Island hotel and renting the entire hotel and staff. Here Noodles can afford the gesture but can’t quite live up to the social demands placed upon him when ordering. As the waiter hands them the menu, Deborah orders, and Noodles says he will have the same. He wonders where she learnt to order fancy food; and it carries more than a hint of insecurity: Noodles has spent most of his adult life in prison; Deborah escaping from her Brooklyn background. “Where’d you learn those parlez-vous Français dishes” Noodles asks, before adding, suspiciously, “who’s teaching you that stuff?” The whole scene is a typical gesture of luxurious nothingness, as Noodles hires the hotel, and yet quickly finds himself insecure inside it, while the woman he desires proves equal to the occasion and thus leaves Noodles feeling undermined. We seem to be back in the scene from Casino, where Ace takes Ginger to a bar only to grill her about her behaviour, in The Last Tycoon, with the grand gesture hiding a greater unease, or Taxi Driver, where De Niro faux pas with a woman clearly above his station. Pauline Kael suggested in her review in State of the Art that she respected “De Niro’s decision [to play Noodles over the more dynamic character of Max], because he may have thought that the passive Noodles, whose urges explode in bursts of aggression against women, would be a reach, would test him.” But how often has De Niro played variations on this very character?

However this doesn’t mean we need to chastise De Niro for limiting his range; the point is to enquire into how he deepens the persona, how he expands and finds new areas of nothingness within his characters. When Kael refers to Noodles as a loser, it is a word that could be used towards many De Niro incarnations, but with a strong proviso: they are losers capable of winning but who possess within them some quality that makes the losing inevitable. Even Travis Bickle initially charms Betsy as he turns up at the campaign office and confidently asserts that he wants to sign up with Betsy and with no one else, and then asks her out.

Thus the question worth asking isn’t so much why does De Niro play so many losers (though this is hardly irrelevant), but why do so many of the characters he plays move towards loss rather than gain: towards nothingness rather than being? A couple of anecdotes might be useful here. One from Alan Parker who worked with De Niro on Angel Heart and who said “when he acts, his sheer concentration permeates the whole set”. Parker added “I’m not sure I could work with him on an entire film; it would be an exhausting experience. De Niro would constantly ask questions on the set, and then ring me up every day with new possibilities and ideas.” Then there is Georgie Auld, one of his music teachers on New York, New York who worked intensely with De Niro for three months. “Hardly an hour went by when Bobby didn’t feel the need for more information” biographer Patrick Agan says in Robert De Niro, quoting Auld insisting, “he asked me ten million questions a day. He got to be a pain in the ass.”

Such perfectionism has its place in one’s work, but is it useful in relation to love? De Niro’s characters have a habit of asking questions of his lovers or would be lovers that kill the moment they’re potentially building towards. “Do you like the guy you work with?” Travis asks Betsy over afternoon tea in a diner. This is their first ‘date’ and Bickle offers comments and observations that can hardly add to the romance. Whether De Niro takes a woman to a porn theatre or hires a Long Island hotel the problem remains the same: the inability to experience the moment because of his need, if you like, to intensify it. To experience the moment may require no more, and no less, than two absorbent people capable of mutually appreciating each other, but intensifying the moment is where one person eclipses the other, over-determines the situation by anticipation, purposefulness and expectation. The very admirable qualities that can go into De Niro’s acting are in many ways the opposite of those required for generating space for another to be absorbed into a mutually satisfying emotional experience. It is as if De Niro’s importance as an actor lies in working out the nature of that intensity.

One of the great achievements of King of Comedy resides in the way Scorsese utilises this intensity in the direction not really in relation to love (though there is the disturbing first date with Diahnne Abbot’s character) but work, and takes the sort of claims made about De Niro by Parker and Auld to a new level: as if De Niro wanted to explore the problem of intensity in new formulations. Here Rupert Pupkin wants in on the American Dream, and believes kidnapping a famous talk show host, whom he’ll release if he gets a comic slot on the show, will give his career the necessary boost. Scorsese takes the usual De Niro intensity and applies it not to love but to the demands of a vacuous career. If Raging Bull seemed like almost a documentary on De Niro’s thespian will power as he put on 60 pounds to play the aging La Motta, then The King of Comedy does the same in relation to De Niro’s drive. As Pupkin practises his act in front of the mirror, as he so determinedly propels his career forward by kidnapping a talk show host, ransoming him for a stand-up slot on the show, it’s as though while De Niro is acting the part he is also commenting on his own professional motivation. Scorsese, though, then imposes on top of that drive a critique of a sort of content-less American Dream, where people’s success has less to do with talent than focus. So, just as purpose superimposes itself on love in so many of De Niro’s films, so here focus superimposes itself on talent.

In both instances there is propulsion propelled by nothingness, and so when David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film says “De Niro reminds you how genteel American movies are”, we might add that he doesn’t simply show up their gentility, but also their false optimism: false in the sense that the narrative purpose in so many films has ostensibly an end goal but is it not really the means that we follow rather than the result? That whether the film is a romance, a western, a gangster film or an action thriller the teleological is stronger than the eventfulness; because though the film obviously leaves the result till the end, the entire film has been moving towards that end goal. This is no more than to say many American films have an anticipatory dimension, but what is so often interesting about De Niro’s work is that the anticipatory dimension is less in the narrative drive of the film, than in the personal drive of the character. If we think of Taxi Driver, New York, New York and The King of Comedy, the narrative drive is almost non-existent. The urgency to sort out a metropolitan problem in Taxi Driver is hardly of the magnitude of Escape from New York or the LA of Outbreak, so partly what makes us feel American movies are genteel is that the narrative drive is equal or stronger than the character drive. Characters are forced to act quite externally to the immediacy of a situation. But De Niro’s characters in Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and other films want to generate a situation much stronger than the problem, which is why Bickle, say, can so quickly move from deciding to kill a liberal politician to the pimps on the street.

Now in New York, New York of course the problem is different, and what makes the film so exhausting is that De Niro’s character’s drive has little to do with ambition (it is Minnelli who goes places), but that so much of his focus goes into the relationship, evident in the scenes quoted above. In The King of Comedy, Pupkin ostensibly possesses almost conventional ambition, but his late blooming, relative lack of talent and desperate kidnapping gesture obviously illustrates the extraneousness of the drive. Again we’re at one remove from the purpose: De Niro’s character is obsessive rather than purposeful, and as so often in De Niro’s films there is little alignment between conventionality of plot and conventionality of character. He pushes the narrative more than the narrative pushes him, and this is where he ‘shows up’ the teleology of so many American films by himself being more driven than the story. Thus when Thomson suggests De Niro makes us see how genteel American movies are, we have hopefully explained why.

But then where do we place The Deer Hunter, one of the key examples of De Niro being equal to rather than imposing himself upon a situation? Even Michael’s interest in his friend Nicky’s partner Linda (Meryl Streep), in the film’s initial stages, seems full of pathos rather than psychosis, and as we see Michael often surreptitiously glancing at Linda, we know also that this is a man for whom desire and drive will always be secondary to president and country, friendship and camaraderie. He may in many ways be once again a loner figure, but this time he seems to be protecting a space of his own: he keeps his own counsel rather than desperately trespassing onto other’s lives. We should always remember, however, that The Deer Hunter is a war film, and whether the film shows us events before, during or after Michael and his friends’ tour of duty, he is primed for action. Even after he comes back from Vietnam, it is as though he is preparing for another mission: to go to Saigon and find Nicky, who’s been missing in the city for what must have been several years. De Niro’s character finds justifiable purpose for his drive, and where Bickle generates situations perhaps out of disturbing war memories, Michael is always equal to the situation and never feels the need to project upon it. But even so, his interest in Nicky’s partner seems unusual in a man so apparently mature. If there had been some history between the two of them we might believe in this heroic figure who covets his friend’s partner, but shouldn’t Michael suggest to us someone whose maturity in war is also present in his day to day life?

But we should also remember that De Niro’s greatest quality is to explore the problem of nothingness within being, and while war can generate this nihilism, and De Niro can explore it ‘rationally’, through Michael being an heroic figure within an heroic context, in relation to love it proves futile. And yet there is a curious logic in the trajectory of Michael’s feelings for Linda – initially he loves her whilst she loves another; later as they make love after Nicky’s gone missing, he loves her and makes love to her presumably well aware that she still loves Nicky, but now through Nicky’s absence rather than in Nicky’s presence. Michael loves her within her loss as Michael takes her body but cannot have her mind, If The Deer Hunter feels like such an empty film, empty in the sense of offering us an excavated community with excavated characters, it resides not least in De Niro’s pursuit of a woman who mourns another. As with many other women in De Niro’s films, we watch as De Niro desires women who either will not or cannot finally love him back, or who create in him a self-destructive drive. Whether that is Ace in Casino, Bickle in Taxi Driver, Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America, or even, as we shall see, his character in Heat, De Niro is not a man made for love and marriage. (One of the central jokes in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers is that De Niro runs his family as he might run a military mission.)

Heat would seem in many ways to be De Niro’s most romantic film. Though he moves towards falling in love in the first half, what is interesting is how transformative this love comes to be. We know it is healthy; and that this middle-aged man, Neil McCauley, who lives for his work, has finally found something greater than his criminal activities. When asked if he is married, he tells his new lover ‘the last thing I am is married. I’m starting at zero going the other way…Then all of a sudden someone like you comes along.’ With another actor in the role we might have seen an unequivocal transition; we might have seen almost a caper aspect where the recklessness of love imposes itself upon the recklessness of crime as the couple take the money and run, disappearing to some South American enclave. However we always have De Niro’s nothingness to contend with, and while in this instance he creates no seeds of doubt in relation to his lover, there is an identity to protect, a behavioural code that can’t readily be dismantled. The storyline of the movie may be based on director Michael Mann’s own TV film, LA Takedown, but the generally accepted superiority of the cinema film doesn’t only reside on the bigger budget and the double length. It resides chiefly in De Niro’s persona, as we’re reminded again of Gilbey’s comment about De Niro in constant communion with his past. As he goes to meet what turns out to be his maker, in the form of nemesis Al Pacino’s cop, he dies, leaving a woman behind who really did love him, and whom he very much loved – just finally perhaps not quite as much as an identity predicated on nothingness over being. ‘A guy told me one time, “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat.”‘

This is not to say, obviously, that the film is a vehicle simply to explore the complexity of De Niro’s persona. There are undeniably plot mechanics as well, with McCauley determined to kill off the ruthless waste of space gang member that the narrative needs to follow through on: we’ve been waiting for Neil to get his man. But even then, Neil doesn’t get away. As he returns to the car his lover waits in, he see Pacino coming towards the car and runs for it. Pacino quickly catches up with him and De Niro is shot dead. There are plot devices here, but if De Niro’s death means more than the conventions of the story, does it not lie in this final sense that he is an actor never quite entitled to the comfort of being with another?

This, then, hopefully covers the range of De Niro’s pursuit of nothingness, a sort of inverted notion of the American pursuit of happiness, and helps explain why he is too much for the genteel films the US usually produces. But there are several things worth addressing before we conclude. One is to ponder De Niro’s body language, and how it lends itself so badly to ease and comfort. Another, is to muse over how De Niro differs from other major anti-heroic actors of the seventies, like Nicholson and Pacino. The third is to say something about nothingness in relation to motive and reason.

If we think of several of De Niro’s physical attributes – his smile, his neck, his walk and his voice – we notice how they do not generate a conventional sense of romantic charisma. When he first sets out to seduce Kathleen in The Last Tycoon, as he stands outside her house trying to persuade her to go out with him, he offers that schmuck smile, a smile that moves his visage from one extreme to the other – it totally changes the composition of the face from a stern, pensive one to that of a brainless hick. As Pauline Kael suggested in When the Lights Go Down, in relation to Taxi Driver, “his tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost an idiot.” There is nothing in the smile that can move from thoughtfulness to seduction, from a preoccupation with self to engagement with another. De Niro, unlike actors like Cary Grant, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, cannot use his smile as an instrument, and this ‘failure’ works well in relation to the characters he plays.

Then we have the De Niro neck. Obviously longer and narrower in Taxi Driver and The Last Tycoon than in post Raging Bull work like The King of Comedy and Once Upon a Time in America, but still tense in a similar way. Take for example the moment in Taxi Driver where he is sitting with the other Cabbies and they ask him a question. De Niro sits there and all the nervous energy resides in his neck as he twice abruptly moves his head and prepares to say something. We also see it for example as he offers the comments quoted above in the coffee shop scene in Heat with Al Pacino. Frequently this nervousness also suggests suspicion and paranoia, where in so many films we see De Niro doing double takes as if there is something behind him, something to which he should warily attend. Watch how it is there in an early scene in a restaurant with Diahnne Abbot in The King of Comedy as he shifts his neck as if looking for something that he can’t quite see lurking behind him.

This leaves us with the walk and the voice. There is of course the iconic image of God’s lonely man walking along the New York streets in Taxi Driver, disconsolate and bow-legged, but also physically striking and impeccably proportionate. But when we see him walking alongside Betsy later in the film on their first date, he seems slightly stooped and deferential, like someone looking after rather than going out with a woman. In the early stages of New York, New York,as De Niro and Minnelli get together, De Niro doesn’t so much walk with as encircle her. Again in Raging Bull Vickie might be the love of his life but how are they together, walking alongside each other? When La Motta first takes her back to his apartment, they pass from room to room and it is almost as if De Niro is saying this is what she will get in return for what he will get – namely the sex he’s moving towards and the marriage they will soon share along with the apartment. As Scorsese films it in creepy, cold, longish takes, we sense less the coming together of two bodies than a transaction between the beauty and the beast. Just as we have proposed there is little in De Niro’s smile that suggests seduction; equally there is little in his movement through space indicating intimacy: he seems here much more to be predatory.

One of the ironies casting De Niro in New York, New York is that of course he is the least ‘musical’ of actors, the least given to letting go of his consciousness and becoming part of a bigger, almost dream like movement of romance that proves so central to the musical and the romantic form. When for example Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image suggests that the musical is the great “depersonalized and pronominalized” genre, and “believes the dance…outlines a dreamlike world as it goes”, then we can see why De Niro is an actor so unsuited to the musical. It returns us to our point about De Niro’s neurotic agency versus conventional action oriented agency, where he instigates narrative event rather than acts within it. The musical is perhaps the ultimate example of the latter, where not only do the characters act within a given narrative, but taking into account Deleuze’s comments, they act within a dream-like narrative that works not with individual consciousness but collective consciousness: hence the depersonalization. De Niro. However, is the opposite of a depersonalized actor, and every physical movement indicates not a collective consciousness but an individuating thought process: the thoughts that can lead to the paranoia, jealousy and hubris we proposed at the beginning of this piece. We might think of the scene in Heat where he tells a gang colleague’s wife that she has to stay with her husband no matter if she is in the process of taking up with another guy. How often when De Niro’s characters have any power – in The Last Tycoon, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino – do they use it paranoiacally and hubristically.

It is indeed this individuating aspect we often find in the voice; it is a voice that offers singularity in two ways. One is that it suggests a curious form of often intimidating intimacy; the other is that we notice De Niro, like many fine screen actors, including Brando, Stewart and Beatty, doesn’t have an especially strong voice. It is as though what we expect from a screen actor is not the relatively objective qualities of the stage – a voice’s range, the capacity for vivid exaggerated movements and a command of the theatrical space – but more the ability to suggest a perspective on the world: the Brando-esque, the Beatty-esque etc that can take us into a private world rather than where the actor opens himself up to theatrical demands. De Niro seems to have gone further than most into the ’esqueness’ of persona; and he might be the most imitated actor since Brando. The voice, though different in accent and emphasis to Brando’s, shares that need to draw people into his space, to be listened to rather than merely heard. When Bickle tells Betsy in the diner in Taxi Driver that he felt she wanted him to come and talk to her, and the desire he sensed between them gave him the courage to do so, he offers the comments in a slightly whiny, beseeching tone, and though he occasionally shouts in his films, he often does so like a man very much raising his voice, rather than someone who lowers it when he talks quietly: his natural pitch is quiet. He is, like Brando, surprisingly softly spoken. His is not a voice that shares space with others, but expects others to move closer to him, to try and hear him. In body language and vocal pitch De Niro doesn’t indicate the social, but a strange, slightly creepy intimacy, and thus is again opposed to the depersonalization of the musical, or the agency of the action film. This is an ‘intimacy’ however closer to the threat of a darkened room one ventures into with wariness. De Niro’s ‘intimacy’ is rarely charming or safe.

So what we have looked at is the way De Niro’s aspects don’t lend themselves well to the social, but is that not also true of other anti-heroes of the seventies, actors like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino? Nicholson was undeniably an anti-hero in films like Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Last Detail, but he seemed less the outsider than the gregarious rebel, determined to create micro-social events out of oppressive situations, evident in playing the piano during the traffic jam in Five Easy Pieces, determining to get Randy Quaid’s character laid in The Last Detail, to get everybody to watch the baseball game in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Also, Nicholson has one of the most perfect smiles in cinema, a grin ripe for social interaction, and a lip-smacking sense of the pleasures to come. He also always knew how to move through cinematic space ready to seduce, and any reservations in his mind seemed to have less to do with rejection, than with the problem of how easily seduction could take place – from Five Easy Pieces to The Witches of Eastwick. Nicholson is an anti-hero, certainly, but by no means anti-social.

Pacino, meanwhile, possesses a voice that is nothing if not commanding, a determined bark from a very small dog, and the caricatural element of Pacino resides in the roar of a lion from the body of a mouse. His nickname is ‘Big Al’. Frequently in Pacino’s work responsibility is thrust upon him, or he seeks out power, whether in The Godfather films, Serpico, his docu-film Richard III,  or Scarface.

One would be hard pressed, then, to suggest Nicholson and Pacino, along with De Niro the most focused and driven actors of seventies film, are possessed by nothingness. Nicholson’s smile and Pacino’s voice demand and command respectively. Nicholson may often self-destruct but this is rarely because of nothingness, but much more something outside the realm of the conventional. He is exploratory, searching, curious. Often exhausted, yes – in Five Easy Pieces, in The Passenger – but he still has an energy level that is active rather than passive. The same is true of Pacino – whose desires come out of a quite determined situation; whether that is as a cop or criminal in The Godfather, Scarface, Heat, Serpico or Carlito’s Way. What we’ve suggested, then, is that not only is De Niro one of the greatest of seventies actors, he is also the great actor in cinema of nothingness, an actor who during his key period questioned American narrative form, psychological conventionality, and even the notion of where desire might come from.

Now before concluding it might be useful to say a little more about how De Niro captures this sense of nothingness. When for example Sartre talks in Being and Nothingness of motive and reason he looks at how the terms are usually defined.  “Generally by ‘reason’ we mean the reason for the act; that is the complex of rational considerations which justify it.” “The motive, on the contrary, is generally considered as a subjective fact. It is the complex of desires, emotions and passions which impel me to accomplish a certain act.” Sartre goes on to say that reason and motive are correlative, but from the perspective of De Niro what is important is how the motive in his work so often feels stronger than the reason, where in many American films the reason is stronger than the motive, and yet in De Niro’s films the motive is somehow half-hidden, as if De Niro’s subjectivity is too subjective to pass for motive but is nowhere near objective enough to pass for reason. Whether in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Once Upon a Time in America and Casino, De Niro doesn’t suggest a character dragged along by the narrative, but neither does he have the sort of single-minded ambition we expect from a character like Tony Montana in Scarface. If De Niro’s characters were more conventionally ambitious, if they were more driven by something other than the abstract notion of the drive itself, then reasons and motives would cover their behaviour. There would be if not the pursuit of happiness then at least the pursuit of somethingness. But there is an aspect to De Niro’s characters that is often weaker than nothing, as if there is a vacuum in them greater than the sum total of purpose, pleasure and satisfaction. De Niro’s greatness certainly resides in the transformative dimension attached to the roles he plays (the weight gain in Raging Bull, the couple of stone he lost for The Last Tycoon, the mastering of the sax in New York, New York, training to middle-weight standard in Raging Bull). But it seems even more formidably to arise out of that lack of genteelness Thomson talks of. If Brando proved the great exploratory actor and opened up American film to so much more than its narrative possibilities, De Niro is the black hole that closes narrative down, becomes too heavy a psychological mass for film to develop around. Certainly in recent years De Niro has played up the ironic possibilities in this forcefulness, but no amount of self-caricaturing over the last decade or so can quite dispel the significance of that earlier achievement.


©Tony McKibbin