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.