Once upon a time, De Niro was dangerous

In mid-December, Kermit the Frog carried Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live. When the two sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the plucky green amphibian did everything he could to make the duet work. Focusing his golf-ball eyes on the lethargic superstar's barely open ones, opening his mouth wide to put over each lyric while the big mug next to him mumbled through the words, Kermit kept De Niro in the scene. At one point, he even placed his long green hand on the actor's forearm just to steady him. When Kermit wasn't around, De Niro sank without a trace. He lamely read his cue cards and stumbled through threadbare routines, whether as a guest on a bizarre Prince Christmas program or an old lady overrun with her own beloved cats.

These days, the actor's fans have had to wonder: Whither goes De Niro? Has he sold his soul for a late career of frank, lucrative hackdom? If so, he's made a crackerjack Faustian deal. Last weekend his laughably derivative horror vehicle, Hide and Seek, topped the box-office with $22 million, while his long-running comedy hit, Meet the Fockers, hung in at No. 4, passing the $255 million mark to become the 29th biggest grosser of all time (critics might argue, in more ways than one).


He's done his most expressive recent work in an American Express TV commercial where, under Martin Scorsese's direction, he roams through New York as the embodiment of Gotham's battered but unbowed spirit. And even that grimy valentine to a glorious polyglot city has been criticized for citing the persistent pangs of 9 / 11 in what is still, for all its art, a credit-card ad.

It's an odd moment for an actor who burst onto the scene as a dazzling off-the-cuff comedian in Brian De Palma's Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970), then wed his improvisational skills to Scorsese's explosive tragicomedy in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977) and Raging Bull (1980). Pre-Raging Bull, De Niro was actually a lot like Kermit: lithe, flexible and sexy, and always willing to go out on a limb. His performance in Mean Streets as an uncontrollable Little Italy troublemaker was one sustained mad street dance. In the title role of the failed political assassin and would-be protector of the weak in Taxi Driver, he was as thin and dangerous as a straight razor, and he defined a certain urban paranoia when he stared into his mirror and asked, "You talkin' to me?" In the sometimes exhilarating, often maddening New York, New York, he captured the seductiveness of creativity as a jazz sax player whose zig-zag courtship rhythms mirrored the bebop in his soul -- the tragedy was that in love, too, he lost track of the melody.


Weighty changes

In those years, when working for other directors, he could play the noble prince -- most obviously as the deceptively courtly Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather Part II (1974) but also as the wizardly Irving Thalberg-like studio chief in Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976).

But something mysterious happened when he gained 60 pounds to play the gone-to-seed Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. As a fit, then fading bruiser, he gave one of the scariest portrayals of male force in the movies, and the added tonnage made the has-been boxer a pathetic, billowing cartoon of his former self. Putting on those pounds was an act of glorious audacity, of true Method lunacy, but it altered De Niro forever. His sensibility thickened, too; he lost any tinge of glamour and romance and joy.

When he teamed again with Scorsese to play the would-be talk-show host Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982), he was an odd fit for a part that would have been perfect for him in his De Palma days. Even with most of his Raging Bull weight shed, he appeared too big for the role, and his hollow man became more monstrous than funny or pathetic.

The notable De Niro performances to come would be ruminative, even weary. He was both low-key and magnificent as a Jewish gangster named Noodles in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), who keeps circling back in his memory to the scenes of personal crimes. As Noodles he was equally recessive and alert -- dead and alive. It's one of the great held-back performances in movie history, with De Niro showing the merest flicker of vitality in his eyes, like a spiritual pilot light. And in Jackie Brown (1997), De Niro used his thickened, aging body and his capacity to convey mental density to locate the absurdity and the terror in the soul of a just-released ex-con. His final scenes with that firecracker Bridget Fonda, which end with her dead in a parking lot, convey the clash of irritated male pride and prattling female omniscience with a blast of sardonic cunning that remains Quentin Tarantino's greatest achievement.

Often in the post-Raging Bull years, De Niro has been sparked by his co-stars -- like Charles Grodin in Midnight Run (1988), Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990), Dustin Hoffman and the entire cast of Wag the Dog (1997) and Frances McDormand in City By the Sea (2002). Yet, astoundingly, De Niro has evolved into a stand-alone icon. The actor who in his early years was known for having no personal identity has come to seem the archetypal urban man, walking down mean streets, seeking an elusive peace -- or maybe just savoring the struggle. That's what fuels everything from the American Express ads to Saturday Night Live's notion that it would be hilarious just to have him sing along with Kermit.

Lampooning himself

De Niro's own recent choices play off his image. He does a straight burlesque of his gangster roles in Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2003), then puts his penchant for machismo into strait-laced WASP disguise as the uptight patriarch in Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers. In 2005's Hide and Seek, as a New York City psychologist who moves to a small town upstate with his daughter (Dakota Fanning) after his wife's suicide, De Niro undertakes a character that could be tailored for his Analyze This and That costar, Billy Crystal. De Niro gives the man such a balanced, formal, determined-to-be-gentle demeanor that in the face of bloody threats and murder, he comes off defanged and boned.


Pundits have ascribed Hide and Seek's success to the current mass appetite for horror films, no matter how meretricious. But fans may come in hopes of seeing De Niro simmer, then boil over. (The latest Hide and Seek TV ads try to lure them with hammy bits that recall his over-the-top menace in Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear.)

Still, even if De Niro has done a canny commercial job of spinning his persona, it's time for him to stop spinning -- or slumming -- and see if the years have given him new depths to plumb. The recent reports that he and Scorsese want to partner up again for a Taxi Driver sequel may be an act of creative salvage rather than artistic desperation. Has Travis Bickle found new innocents to protect, new imagined adversaries to overcome? Has he broken through his alienation or, like so many men of quiet desperation, merely discovered how to function?

In answering these questions, De Niro may once again find a way of talking to us.