Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor by Glenn Kenny
Phaidon Press, 2014; 192 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
I wouldn’t begrudge anyone living in 2015 to overlook how dynamic a career Robert De Niro has had. Despite his impressive body of work and an undeniable influence on a generation of actors who followed him, De Niro has coasted on his legacy for a number of years. For every Silver Linings Playbook that appears to spark the old master’s screen energy, you have a number of cash-grab performances in films like Grudge Match, Last Vegas, or his increasing number of direct-to-video output to undercut it. Thankfully, though, we now have film writer Glenn Kenny’s terrific career retrospective Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor to help place perspective on his career and his continuing influence.
This volume comes from the Anatomy of an Actor series published by the legendary French journal Cahiers du Cinema which asks major film authors to choose ten significant roles in a major stars career and how they represent that actor’s body of work as a whole. Kenny hits upon many of De Niro’s most famous roles including his Oscar-winning turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II and four of the actor’s eight collaborations with director Martin Scorsese, offering terrific insight into the method actor’s habits and strategies for inhabiting a character. Kenny mines some terrific anecdotes and details from the era, with one of the funniest coming from when the immersive De Niro started driving a cab to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver. A passenger, recognizing the actor from his recent star-making turn in The Godfather: Part II, quipped that times must really be bad out in Hollywood.
The stories of De Niro’s early highs might be familiar to many fans, but where Kenny’s book is most potent comes when the author chronicles the actor’s ascent from respected performer to bona fide movie star in the late 1980s when he began taking more supporting roles and mainstream entertainment like the action comedy Midnight Run. De Niro had a place as a bankable leading man, which included playing more tender roles like the lead in Awakenings. Glenn Kenny does a remarkable job of connecting the subtle transitions that allowed De Niro to grow in other areas of his art, including his turn towards more comedic acting when Meet the Parents became a box office hit.
In his introduction, Kenny laments that “Even the best, most astute critics have a largely unfortunate tendency to manufacture mythologies for their subjects”. But, as Kenny has done throughout his career as a film writer, the author strips away much of that bullshit to paint a portrait of De Niro that asks us to engage with that mythology that has become emblematic of De Niro’s acting in the latter half of his career. Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, a balance of biography and critical study, offers tremendous insight into the performer that’s unexpected and also necessary to discuss his legacy.