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Thursday, December 4, 2014

De Niro : A Life by Shawn Levy


At an early stage in his career, Robert De Niro, Jr wondered why anyone would be interested in his life, specifically what he had for breakfast. That wonderment partially explains why he has never been particularly forthcoming through interviews or public appearances about his personal life. Though this book, by its title ,purports to be a biography of the man it is more accurate to say that it is an analysis of an actor and his methodology in his career. While it is true that some of the personal aspects of his life are interspersed or included tangentially in the story, the basic skeleton of the work is how De Niro researched and prepared for the major roles of his early career.

At one point in the book a director is said to have over 3000 hours of footage to edit to make a cogent movie that fits within the attention span of the audience and production costs of the studio—one that is about 2 to 2 and 1?2 hours long. Well, the author had copious amounts of information from which to draw a cogent book that does the same and at 551 pages it could have been edited even more and been easier to read. There is a great deal of overlap and repetition. Though De Niro’s career took off with his appearance in Godfather Part ii, released in 1974, he had been studying and acting in New York long before that. Yet, the work he did in the 1990’s does not appear until well past the halfway mark of the book. Granted, by the author’s and many critics’ views his best work was done in the late 70’s through the 80’s and he seems to have given up digging deeply into his talents in movie choices. Interestingly enough it is the work done in these later years that has been most universally embraced by audiences, nationally and internationally. Most especially the Focker movies have, with Shark Tale , brought in the most money combined of any of his previous work.

The bottom line for me about this book, which I read primarily because Bobby, as he is called by friends and family, and I are of an age and we grew up in the same general area of Manhattan. I left around the time he went off to Italy at 19 and did not return. Actually, I’d forgotten how small and discreet the neighborhoods were in the City of our youth. I lived in Chelsea, only 7 blocks from his 14th St neighborhood, but by ethnicity and culture it might as well have been 7 miles or more. Although he came to believe that it wasn’t important to his fans what school he went to or what his early life had been like I was curious to see what similarities there may have been between us before we grew up and became our adult selves. This book gave me none of that but then again, perhaps it did. Scorcese grew up about 7 blocks south of 14th around the same time in Little Italy and, as the book points out, there was little in common between their lives either—De Niro lived a more Bohemian life as the son of artists than either of the two of us, Martin or I.  That speaks to the truth of the big metropolis known as New York City—it is a place of little neighborhoods which in another geographic area would produce little towns very different from each other though located fairly closely.

Despite this lack of fulfilling my original expectations of content, it was not very far into the book that I didn’t care that this was not a tell all, birth to old age, saga of one famous man’s life. The story of how movies come to be, how they are written, the people whose hands they pass through, the method of casting, the personalities involved in the release of the final product was fascinating. As mentioned earlier, some of the movies were described endlessly it seemed, but the minute detail taken by De Niro to produce his role in each was remarkable.

The names of other actors with whom he played on stage,or in the movies brought back to mind some who have died or whose careers have died. Through the years as women’s roles needed to be cast the roll-call of actresses was telling. Though some, such as Meryl Streep appeared very early on, as in the Deer Hunter, and remained right into the 21 century as possibilities in his work, others came and within a few years were gone from the lists for consideration.  Yet, Harvey Keitel and other male actors lasted for decades. Certainly supports the claim that males are considered physically attractive much longer than females when it comes to show business.

Bottom line, the book is too long, it isn’t a biography, the material does not result from any input from De Niro or anyone truly close to him, as stated in the acknowledgements at the end. You will NOT find out what he eats for breakfast, though you will learn what he likes to drink,that he is something of a womanizer, that he has a few children, he’s made lots of money in real estate, much like his mother and that his father was a well known, somewhat well respected artist who never made a great deal of money. He can be incredibly supportive and encouraging and generous to his costars. He can also stiff a carpenter for work he did, stiff a guy at lunch for the tab and stiff a nanny of overtime hours—he’s cheap. He can be abrasive and carry a grudge. But, he can be moved to tears. He coined the name Tribeca for a warehouse neighborhood in lower Manhattan, made it the new costly Greenwich Village and sued a guy in London who used TriBeCa in the name of his bar. ( Funny, growing up in NY the only SoHo I ever heard of was in London and my grandmother who would be over 125 now lived on Houston in her youth.)

Two other comments in the book explain for me why the focus is not biographical for the most part; a fellow working on Backdraft with him told a journalist “ to know him as a person is grabbing at smoke. He came to the set and unknown quality and, on a personal level, he kind of left it that way.” “ He still protected his privacy zealously.”

With that kind of reserve, which from what little the book reveals, seems to extend even to those most close to him, there is much about Robert De Niro that only De Niro will ever know and in the long run that is fine. It is true of all of us and a public figure should not have to expose more that the rest of us to the world. If you can live with that and if you have a real interest in movie making , particularly De Niro movies, then this is the book for you. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

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