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Like Mona Lisa’s smile or Jimi Hendrix’s greatest riffs, Robert De Niro’s performances in his nine Martin Scorsese films maintain a mysterious allure — even as they capture one of the greatest collaborations in film history. From 1973’s “Mean Streets” to “The Irishman,” Scorsese and De Niro have inspired book-length interrogations, influenced generations, won awards, and even landed their own Wikipedia page. There have been masterful Scorsese movies without De Niro, and brilliant De Niro performances without Scorsese, but they retain a sacred power imbued in the elusive bond between the filmmaker and his subject.
Even DeNiro has a hard time explaining it.
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“These are just characters we have some understanding and feeling for,” he said on a recent afternoon at his Canal Street Prods. office in Tribeca, his walls buried in photographs and mementos, books that inspired him, even the scale he used to track his weight in “Raging Bull.” “It was always one film after another.”
Later, Scorsese elaborated via email: “Nothing was ever planned or stated,” he wrote. “Things just happened, and along the way we’ve found ourselves gravitating toward themes and emotions that have obsessed both of us, and toward characters that were really considered ‘the least among us.’ I think that with ‘The Irishman,’ we reached a kind of culminating point.”
Call it kismet, dumb luck, or the intrinsic connection between two Lower East Side kids from immigrant families who grew up on grimy city streets in the early 1960s. Whatever it is, most anyone familiar with the De Niro-Scorsese oeuvre can identify a very special something at its core — in the gritty wistfulness of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” alike — and it’s part of the reason why “The Irishman” finds De Niro topping decades of achievements with one of his greatest performances to date.
As wayward hitman Frank Sheeran, who may or may not have killed his longtime pal and crooked Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), De Niro embodies a man defined by the conflict of loneliness and tough-guy restraint. Some of that stems from the men who push Sheeran into a downward spiral of criminal allegiances, with fellow Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel as mob boss Angelo Bruno and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino. Enhanced by costly technology and, bankrolled by Netflix in the most expensive adult drama ever made, “The Irishman” allows Sheeran to age through decades of personal and professional wrongdoings.
But its greatest moment comes down to the simplicity of Scorsese’s camera and De Niro’s face, in the movie’s most tragic scene. Some two-and-a-half hours into the drama, after Sheeran caves to mob pressure and puts two bullets in the troublemaking Hoffa’s head, the hitman calls Hoffa’s wife in an attempt to quell her concerns about her husband’s sudden disappearance. Sheeran collapses into a puddle of half-formed sentences, trailing off in a vain attempt to bury his guilt with lies. As De Niro mutters through the scene (“Maybe he… maybe he…”) the actor delivers some of his finest work. The actor said that he and Scorsese, so in tune after all these years, didn’t even bother talking it through.
“It was pretty clear what was needed,” De Niro said. “While talking to her, he didn’t want to mislead her, he wanted to be positive, but it was impossible. He couldn’t be flippant about it. It’s a horrible situation he’s in, but it it’s all he can do.” He started to stammer, much like Sheeran himself does in the scene. “It’s all he can do,” he said again. “All he can do is comfort her.”
Scorsese’s filmmaking precision, the gliding steadicams and bombastic music cues, are well documented. However, De Niro’s insight into character so complements Scorsese’s vision that he needs minimal oversight. To prepare for “Taxi Driver,” De Niro drove a cab; to play the psychopathic dreamer in “The King of Comedy,” he hung out with autograph seekers. For “The Irishman,” well, De Niro spent half a century playing wise guys, and knows a thing or two about how to get into their headspace.
“Part of it is about people being loyal to each other,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it’s harsher in this world than in other worlds. If you don’t do what’s expected of you, and you make some kind of transgression, then you pay with your life. It’s a terrible situation that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It’s so final.”
It takes a lot to pull that out of De Niro in an interview. The format has never suited him — there’s a whole genre of profiles out there that don’t end well, and fixate on reporters who are terrified from the outset — but the reality is De Niro has a hard time delivering self-reflection on cue. Like his characters, he internalizes the depth and personal connotations of his vocation, which makes it all the more exciting when he punctures that reserved quality with sudden bursts of inspiration. This suggests a documentary quality inherent to his process, and likely why he almost never plays against type.
Analysis is not his forte, but anecdotes are; he calls up any given project’s history as if he hasn’t done it thousands of times before. But on this day, the grueling “Irishman” schedule had taken its toll: De Niro was sick, his legendary baritone reduced to a raspy whisper, his stories often dovetailing into coughing fits. But he shrugged it all off: In a few hours, he would be catching a plane to the Los Cabos Film Festival, doing double duty to promote “The Irishman” and celebrate the opening of another Nobu restaurant. “I like to work,” he said, grabbing a fistful of tissues as he relaxed into his chair. “I like to keep busy. What else you gonna do? I don’t like to sit around too much.”
De Niro and Scorsese met at a holiday party hosted by critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cox. (Some versions of this story credit Brian De Palma for making the introduction, but nobody seems too sure.) Scorsese and De Niro had been aware of each other through mutual friends since their teen years, and De Niro admired the way that Scorsese’s first feature, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” captured the city. While De Niro jockeyed for the lead role of debt-collector Charlie in “Mean Streets,” Keitel already had it, so the actor settled for Charlie’s combustible younger brother Johnny Boy. “He was actually based on the brother of a friend of ours,” De Niro said with a smirk. “I didn’t know this kid well, but I knew of him. His younger brother really was crazy!”
Their particular actor-director synergy began to take shape, one steeped in the authenticity of the world they sought to portray. “He got what I was trying to do in that picture,” Scorsese said. “As we kept working together and became close friends, a kind of artistic partnership came into being. It had to do with our shared experience, building from that, but always exploring new territory, always wanting to surprise ourselves, to discover values and colors that we’d never envisioned.”
It also led to some wilder swings as their professional bond took flight: After the genius of “Taxi Driver,” with Travis Bickle becoming the greatest loner since Holden Caulfield and “You talkin’ to me?” solidifying into the best movie monologue of all time, Scorsese jumped at the opportunity to make a splashy musical on his own terms with 1977’s Irwin Winkler-produced “New York, New York.” It’s a dazzling blend of old Hollywood showstoppers and darker relationship dynamics, but it flopped at the box office. And after they regained their mojo on “Raging Bull,” the pair dove into “The King of Comedy,” a pitch-black satire about celebrity envy and media dysfunction that gained cult status.
On “King of Comedy,” the collaboration hit another snag: In 1981, while they plotted out the idea for aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) kidnapping TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), John Hinckley Jr. fired a bullet at President Ronald Reagan that nearly killed him. Later, the would-be assassin said he was trying to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d grown obsessed after watching “Taxi Driver” at least 15 times. Suddenly, the idea of crafting another misadventure around a disturbed mind felt too subversive even by their own standards. “Marty and I were talking during rehearsal about the kidnapping part of it,” De Niro said, “and we just felt like we weren’t in it. He was like, ‘I don’t know how we feel about doing this.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but we gotta do it. It was just a moment of reflection.”
De Niro and Scorsese may have clashed behind the scenes, but it only fed the end result. “It hasn’t been a seamless collaboration,” said Paul Schrader, who helped fuse the bond through his “Taxi Driver” script. “There have been films Marty wanted Bob to do and he didn’t, and vice versa. And it hasn’t been without friction. No creative collaboration is. But when Scorsese and DeNiro are in sync, something unique happens. Looking back at ‘Taxi Driver,’ I’m surprised how natural the collaboration was between the three of us. It wasn’t ‘Who is this guy?’ but instead, ‘I know this guy.’ I suspect it was the same with each of Marty and Bob’s collaborations.
That relationship has sometimes had an inverse effect on audiences who look up to the flawed antiheroes of “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” and see their masculine posturing as a life goal. It has extended even beyond De Niro’s collaborations with Scorsese: In the recent court case against Trump henchman Roger Stone, emails revealed he’d referenced “The Godfather: Part Two” by urging radio host Randy Credico to “practice your Frank Pentangeli,” in a not-so-veiled hint at how he should lie to federal investigators.
“That was kind of surreal,” De Niro said. “These guys that want to be like those guys, and dress and talk the way they do in the movies, it makes some kind of sense. People are always comparing themselves to the movies, especially this wannabe gangster in the White House.”
De Niro doesn’t need a prompt to address his displeasure with the 45th president. From his “SNL” portrait of Robert Mueller to his various public missives against Trump, De Niro has emerged as one of the most vocal figures in popular culture to take aim at the president. Even here, his professional background gives him some insight into the problem at hand: De Niro is the first to acknowledge his limited political prowess, but he knows a thing or two about the city that gave him his career.
“Trump is a certain type of New Yorker,” De Niro said. “He feels everyone’s a sucker, including himself, because he’s trying to pull one over on people. He’s a weird person.” Asked to assess whether his movies might have some political implications of their own, however, and De Niro doubled back. “Marty might be better to address that,” he said. “They’re not meant to be political. Indirectly, there might be some connection.”
De Niro regularly defers to Scorsese on big-picture issues. The actor admired Scorsese’s much-ballyhooed editorial in the New York Times, which took aim at Marvel movies for coopting the multiplexes with CGI-riddled spectacles. “I thought it was great,” Scorsese said. “I understand what he’s saying. Marty is a true cinephile. Thank god he’s with us.”
De Niro brought “The Irishman” to Scorsese some 12 years ago, after their idea for an adventurous meta-story about an actor-filmmaker relationship fizzled. “He was starting to show me some black-and-white footage for this project and feel his way around stylistically,” De Niro said. But the movie was a tough sell, even with their pedigree, and De Niro saw a fresh opportunity in Sheeran’s story as told in the 2004 memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses.” As usual, De Niro put the concept in simple terms: “I said, ‘Marty, you’ve gotta read this book,” De Niro said. “‘It just feels right.’”
While it took time, technological progress, and a disruptive streaming entity to get the movie made, the prolonged gap between their previous collaboration with 1995’s “Casino” and “The Irishmen” allowed them to grow more attuned to the new movie’s insights into the aging process. The last hour of “The Irishman” finds Sheeran meditating on his life as it gradually fades around him. “How could I not relate to that?” De Niro said. “Me and Marty both. You get older, and what’s it all about, Alfie? That’s it.”
Unlike Sheeran, however, the Scorsese-De Niro saga has yet to wind down. The pair are already gearing up for another historical drama, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which unites De Niro with Scorsese’s other muse — Leonardo DiCaprio — for the first time. He shrugged off questions over whether their 10th movie together might be their last. “I don’t know where we’re gonna be in 10 years, in 15 years,” De Niro said. “But with Marty, I will always say yes.”
“The Irishman” is now in theaters. It will be released on Netflix on November 27.
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