I’m such a fan of Mel Brooks, that I’ve given short shrift to his fellow filmic Kennedy Center honoree, Robert De Niro. The show airs at 9:00 tonight (Eastern and Pacific), but in the meantime, here are a pair of key moments from 1973, when two performances in smaller films garnered De Niro a great deal of attention and some critic group awards, paving the way for his role in “The Godfather: Part II” and superstardom.
“Bang the Drum Slowly” was a gentle, somewhat thin and corny, sports comedy-drama/tearjerker based on a book by Mark Harris. In it, Michael Moriarty portrays a seasoned major league baseball player who befriends a less successful teammate who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but who also has an incurable illness and whose only wish it to finish out the season. It’s far from a heavy-duty film and De Niro’s magnetic but ensemble-friendly performance is a million miles from the tortured or melodramatic tour de force you might expect. He also generates some extremely nice chemistry with Moriarity, a really outstanding actor in his own right who actually might have received nearly as much or more attention for this film than De Niro did. It also shows that De Niro has the ability to be one of the most hilariously lame dancers you’ll ever see at about 1:38.
Also, given that this is a Scorsese film about quasi-criminal characters in seventies Little Italy, the NSFW warning is somewhat in effect.
And in Martin Scorsese‘s third film and first masterpiece, “Mean Streets,” De Niro pretty much became the De Niro we know today, and I think this scene, which also features a young Harvey Keitel in the leading role as well as familiar-faces-to-be Richard Romanus and David Proval, makes that point about as clearly as possible.
They’ve been linked since 1974 and “The Godfather: Part II.” Al Pacino, with only one major performance behind him, had become a major star with a perfectly modulated performance as reluctant Mafia prince Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” Two years later, Robert De Niro‘s energetic work as the young Vito Corleone in the universally acclaimed sequel transformed the respected working actor into an almost instant superstar. The laws of time and space dictated that they could not appear together as father and son (this wasn’t “Back to the Future: Sicilian Style”), and so the two remained on separate tracks. Even in Michael Mann’s hugely successful 1993 action drama, “Heat,” the ballyhooed Pacino-De Niro collaboration was mostly limited to a single scene over a cup of coffee at a pricey Beverly Hills eatery. It was as if all that intensity could only be contained in a few minutes of caffeine-fueled conversation and posturing.
The release of the new cop thriller, “Righteous Kill,” promises more Bob-and-Al interaction, but there’s no reason these two acting powerhouses with Italian surnames can’t share the screen comfortably. There’s no taking away from the power of their most iconic non-“Godfather” roles: screwed-up vigilante-in-training Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”); hapless would-be bank robber Sonny Wortzik (“Dog Day Afternoon”); troubled boxer Jake LaMotta (“Raging Bull“); ultra-ambitious immigrant gangster Tony Montana (“Scarface“); or quick to kill wise guy Jimmy Conway (“Goodfellas“). And there’s a lot more to these two performers than barely concealed rage, well-wrought angst and occasional bouts of scenery munching.
Take a look at our list of 20 somewhat less well known performances showcasing the less obvious attributes of these two Italian-surnamed dynamos, and then come back and let us know what performances you might have added (or subtracted).