Robert De Niro

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Robert De Niro Pencil Portrait
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The quality of the prints are at a much higher level compared to the image shown on the left.


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Last update: 6/7/15

Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pumpkin in The King of Comedy (1983) signposted today’s toxic desire for fame at any price. In one of the most dedicatedly obnoxious performances ever attempted by a major movie star, Pupkin is a jittery, obsequious bulldozer of needy self-regard, with only one goal in life: to perform his stand-up comedy routine on ‘The Jerry Langford Show’ (the fictional re-invention of Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight’ programme that ran on NBC for decades.)

De Niro himself, has a reputation as a man of few words when he appears before the press. Unquestionably, chat show history is littered with disastrous host-guest encounters – I recall Perry Como’s somnambulistic interview with Michael Parkinson on the BBC in the 70’s – but dear old Perry at least ensured we never suffered again. De Niro, on the other hand, keeps turning up like a bad penny, sleepwalking his way through promotional duties like a man devoid of choices in life. Reacting either with a shrug or a barely concealed grimace, he sits there on the couch, seemingly devoid of an engaging cell in his body. Nobody compels him to do it, but the sheer repetition of it all suggests less an innate shyness and more a perverse nature. I don’t expect any actor to rival the great raconteurs – David Niven, Peter Ustinov etc – but a general air of conviviality aids our viewing experience no end. De Niro, by contrast, appears more like a recalcitrant thespian intent on derailing the whole chat show genre. One wonders why he bothers. Oh, of course, ‘selling product.’ How stupid of me.

Emma Brockes antagonised legions of ‘gangster lore’ fans in her June 2015 “Guardian” article. Not wishing – in her own words -to be too much of a buzzkill about all this, she wrote : mobster tales are fun in the way that cartoons are fun. What I struggle with (which, like the verb “ to find problematic”, has become the polite way to say “loathe”) is the way that mobster movies invite us to believe that they are deeply meaningful in a way that excuses the heroic portrayal of their gratuitous, male-centered violence. Elaborating further, she invited the inevitable readership backlash with a damning condemnation of the genre. All actors become proxies for the roles that they play, and so Pacino and De Niro are, one suspects, loved less for their acting ability than for their status as men who pound heads into tables. The wives in these movies always get pushed down at some point, too, without in any way denting the likeability of the hero.

Recommended viewing

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Taxi Driver (1976)

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Raging Bull (1980)

A 30th Anniversary edition – featuring a host of additional features and commentaries – was issued as a double DVD box set in 2010. My own personal second hand copy cost next to nothing.

Utilising the same transfer as the 2009 Blu-ray release, the film is a visual marvel to behold. Every bead of perspiration, drop of blood, and swirl of smoke against the ring lights, is captured in exquisite detail.

De Niro would go beyond the call of duty, gaining sixty pounds throughout the fall of ’79 in order to portray Jake La Motta as a lumbering night club entertainer. Following on from a year long high intensity training and sparring programme, the strain on the actor’s physique would have been enormous. Eschewing use of a fat suit, the actor tellingly revealed “I just can’t fake acting. I know movies are an illusion, and maybe the first rule is to fake it, but not me. I’m too curious. I want to deal with all the facts of the character, thin or fat.” I can see Laurence Olivier rolling his eyeballs.

I saw the movie on the big screen with my father and cousin, and can recall every gut wrenching thud. La Motta was nothing, if not a brawler, and whilst boxing’s finer points might have eluded him, he more than made up for them with resilience and bravery. Essentially, an unsympathetic hero, De Niro wrings every ounce of angst and endeavour from this brutal, yet curiously masochistic character, who was middleweight boxing champion from 1949 to 1951. Bull-like in the ring, and distinctly unhinged at pivotal moments in his private life, La Motta remains a compelling character and De Niro would deservedly scoop the year’s Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal.

The experience will leave you drained, yet strangely fascinated by these marginal, emotionally ignorant, and screechingly inarticulate Italian-Americans. Fists are more freely traded than butter at the La Motta breakfast table. Watch out for the flying croissants!

The King of Comedy (1983)

Falling in love (1984)

Once Upon a time in America (1984)

Midnight Run (1988)

Goodfellas (1990)