Robert De Niro: Great actor, great comedian

My heart sinks at the thought of the clips that the Golden Globes honchos will probably assemble when they award Robert De Niro the Cecil B. DeMille award for Lifetime Achievement on January 16. De Niro looking heroically intense in "The Deer Hunter." De Niro looking anti-heroically intense in "Raging Bull." De Niro looking ambiguously intense in "GoodFellas."


Let's hope they lighten up, and not just for the sake of the party. I think De Niro is a great actor partly because he's a virtuoso of urgent emotion, but also because he has the talents of a great comedian. When I first noticed him in movies, he stood out as an amazing skit comic in Brian De Palma's low-budget satires, "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom!" And if you look back at the landmark work he did with Scorsese, there's a broad black-comic streak running through all the violent street opera.

In "Mean Streets," De Niro's Johnny Boy is a semi-psychotic in a battered fedora, a human firecracker who smiles whenever he pops. He and Harvey Keitel as Johnny Boy's friend Charlie work out an obscene vaudeville with their improvisational dialogue. Near the end, Keitel only has to say, "Lord, I'm trying" - and De Niro laughs just to hear what's been going on in his buddy's head. And we laugh when De Niro laughs.

Even as the title character in De Niro and Scorsese's breakthrough, "Taxi Driver," De Niro turns alienated cabbie Travis Bickle into a maddeningly mixed figure: both attractive and repulsive and, up to a point, hilarious. When he saunters into a cab office and asks for a job, he's so out-of-it that he doesn't understand the manager's vocabulary. Yet he is so resolute that he gets what he wants. I think that in "Taxi Driver" De Niro is the darkside precursor to Peter Sellers in "Being There" and Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump." He befuddles and sometimes mesmerizes people who should see through him.

In Terry Gilliam's 1986 comic apocalypse, "Brazil," Robert De Niro returned to his comic roots in the De Palma films, playing a a terrorist repairman who dresses like some kind of Maytag frogman and swings from skyscrapers like Batman.

And a dozen years later, in Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog," De Niro reached a low-key comic peak as a presidential advisor named Brean. (His humor comes across even in the trailer, above, especially when he plays off Dustin Hoffman's wily Hollywood producer.) If Jerry Seinfeld is the comedian of "nothing," De Niro's Brean in "Wag the Dog" is the kingpin of nothing. He urges clients to deny controversies that don't exist, and then, when they've been fabricated, 'fess up to them. De Niro transforms Brean's combination of observation and caginess into a treasure-trove of comic surprises, as well as a font of evil wisdom. In "Wag the Dog," De Niro's understated knowingness envelops all the people around him like a ticklish existential blob, whether they're from the CIA or CAA. He sits back and assumes a browsing position when he's actually speed-reading every situation.

You could say that De Niro resorted to self-parody as the Mob boss in "Analyze This." But it was deliciously conscious and skillful self-parody - and, after all, it was parodying only one of the many selves De Niro has had in his career.

And in "Meet the Parents," he is undeniably the master of a mature comic style.

As a Type A - and ex-CIA - dad, he's the perfect opposite to Ben Stiller: There's nothing giggly or boyish or apologetic about De Niro. The only frustration De Niro has in "Meet the Parents" comes from not getting everything his own way. He somehow manages to create a hilarious human monolith.

I wish De Niro hadn't made the sequels to "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents." I also wish he would do more work with directors like Levinson, who understand the full range of his talent. His collaboration with Levinson on "What Just Happened" is a late-career high point. De Niro used to scare people. But if the organizers of the Golden Globes pick the right clips for their award night, he may just leave 'em laughing.