Sunday, 2 February 2020

Alternate Best Actor 2019: Robert De Niro in The Irishman

Robert De Niro did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a few critics awards, for portraying Frank Sheeran in The Irishman.

The Irishman is Martin Scorsese's return to the mobster genre, this time focusing on a "house painter"'s (hit-man) relationship with the mob and teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman is similar to Scorsese's previous gangster films of Casino and Goodfellas, as the story is told by our main character who tells us of his life with the mob. The difference here is where in those films it was relatively recent events for the figure, here we enter with Frank Sheeran as he lives out his last days alone in a retirement home. This film marks De Niro's return to Scorsese since the 90's, along with his old co-star Joe Pesci. Where Pesci's career was one mainly of absence since then, De Niro's career has often not been one of the most intriguing. This in just slowly sliding returns, with only the momentary relapse towards his older performances, of an actor just going through the motions. This thankfully is a return to a younger De Niro, and not because of the de-aging technology, in that he actually seems to care again. Although one would imagine this would have to be the case as the film itself had long been a passion project for De Niro. His passion project however left him largely ignored, outside of his position as producer, although I can't say I was terribly surprised by this. This as his Frank Sheeran is the often quiet center of the film, and this meek sort of element of his character honestly relates to the overarching thematic place of the character within the film. This is that the film is not this story of a man who made history, really, he rather was someone who was off to the side of it, following the order of others who were the one's who "mattered"

Now this performance is a rejuvenation for De Niro, and not due to the de-aging technology. That technology which I will briefly say is least impressive with De Niro, as opposed to Pacino and Pesci, partially due to Scorsese flying too close to the sun by also giving De Niro blue eyes that don't befit him, and because his role is the most physically demanding. Part of this is more than acceptable as De Niro's physical age mostly works in evoking sort of a hulking man who slowly stomps around, rather than smoothly maneuvers things in his killings. The one scene where this falters is where we see De Niro's Frank beat down a shopkeeper for touching his daughter, although I put this more so on Scorsese who filmed the sequence in a way that accentuated De Niro's age rather than hiding it. Putting that moment aside, De Niro's work though does show a younger De Niro, in that we actually see the actor who cares about his roles once again. There is just an investment and life in his work that we just haven't seen too often in sometime. This is even in the first scene where he casually meets Russell Bufalino (Pesci), at a gas station. De Niro actually reveals a real life in his work once again in the interaction that suggests the beginnings of a friendship, even as it is rather perfunctory, the old life to De Niro's work is once again evident, and a welcome return it is.

De Niro is engaged again, and in turn is engaging again. This in actually bringing any charisma in finding something compelling in his presence. In fact looking at this performance in isolation it actually can make one craft a greater negative view upon some of his other work from the past two decades, as alive De Niro seems almost like another actor here, the man of his prime, though again this isn't referring to anything to do with the de-aging. We also get a return to De Niro working with Pesci, in a way that actually we haven't quite seen before. This as we saw their brothers' difficult dynamic in Raging Bull, the mentor of sorts in Goodfellas, or even the hostile pseudo friendship of Casino, but here we see an actual friendship. De Niro and Pesci manage to strike up a new chemistry naturally between the two, and to De Niro's credit here he is effective in portraying the earnest appreciation of this almost fatherly friend within Pesci's Russell. The two together though are effective in crafting a different type of gangster relationship that is actually built upon by warmth, a warmth that is actually without a real exception within this. Their earliest scenes of speaking, De Niro and Pesci create the sense of the bond the two have, that goes beyond Russell pulling Frank into the underworld he is an essential part of. Although he is doing that, both show it is more than that in their honest moments of a shared camaraderie.

Now with De Niro again here, despite being lead, this is a largely passive performance, which is saying a lot given that Frank does do some very violent things. His actions though throughout the film are almost entirely prompted by others, whether it be due to local thugs, Russell and eventually Pacino's Hoffa as well. The man exists as a man built by World War II, who basically exists by following orders. De Niro's performance is an appropriate reflection of this and not a simplification of it. This in portraying very bluntly that Frank is not necessarily as the deepest thinker or most adamant player. This idea is not simplified though as De Niro portrays the sense of confidence in the man that he gains from basically being...well told what to do. De Niro portrays the comfort of this. This is where De Niro's narration of the film that comes into play most importantly, as like any proper Scorsese narration it is infused with a real character along the words. This is essential because again as the observing thug there are limitations however the additional information of the narration adds a great deal through De Niro's delivery. This delivery that is well portrayed as this nostalgia induced near sort of ramblings of an elderly man, going through his life as a long past reflection. This is important as De Niro remarks and accentuates moments with certain appreciation that both shows the place of where the story is told, but also helps to give us an understanding of Frank as a man almost in awe of the world that he sort of stumbled into. This not portraying the sense ambition of Liotta's work as Henry Hill, but rather this comfort of a life without questions, and the only answers being "yes sir".

This isn't to say Frank is an empty shell but rather someone who lives almost vicariously through those around him who leave a great impact, and in this De Niro's work is again so much more alive, as it has to be given that so many scenes are where he is almost adjacent to the action. This becomes particularly true when Pacino's Hoffa enters the picture, and Frank is assigned to him first as a henchmen of sorts then his personal bodyguard. De Niro's work in these scenes is very much as the listener, this as we don't even see him scheme to drink in front of the teetotaler Hoffa for example, we see him just follow along, just as we see the man there to observe and listen. De Niro doesn't waste these moments though in managing to reflect the sense of admiration within his reactions to Hoffa, and the growth of a sense of kinship with the man. De Niro is effective in creating the growing connection between them just as he brings this greater ease, with the admiration as a constant for sure, but with this brotherly connection. This is when Frank begins to speak more, which De Niro always delivers initially with a modesty. This is even in a scene where he is angry at Hoffa, for thinking Hoffa was yelling at him, De Niro's portrayal of Frank's frustrations are rather hilarious by how meekly he actually depicts the reaction. This again though emphasizing that more than anything Frank defers so even in disdain. De Niro shows the same acceptance of an apology of Hoffa with as much ease, as a true follower who will do exactly as he's told. Even as the follower though, De Niro accentuates those connection as he becomes a minor consultant to Hoffa, as Hoffa begins to lose power.

De Niro's depiction of Frank even in Hoffa's fall though is with these weak willed moments of trying to encourage Hoffa one way towards safety. The fiercely willed Hoffa obviously taking little of what Frank says too strongly, though De Niro's effective in showing that even in that there is that constant respect in Frank as the man who has that confidence in his new "General Patton". De Niro's work though is reflective of the difficulties of this relationship, along with his almost conflicting one with Russell and the mob, as Hoffa loses favor with the mafia. With Russell, De Niro is good in portraying sort of the blindness of loyalty to Russell, as he makes earnest pleas for Hoffa, against Russell who in turn only has a minor concern for him. This against his scenes with Hoffa where De Niro is terrific in portraying the slowly growing unease for his friend's safety. I love for example his laughing delivery of "Jimmy have you lost your mind" when Hoffa throws away negotiations with mobster Tony Pro (Stephen Graham) by falling into verbal insults and physical aggression at a negotiation. In that scene we still see the observer, but the observer trying to make any little influence he can make by trying to diffuse the situation, and of course failing to do so. The sense of the divided loyalties comes to a head at a gala to honor Frank, where the mob brass is all present, as is Hoffa. De Niro's work again is one of reflection as his eyes do capture still the deep appreciation of both Russell and Hoffa, but now marked with an anxiety as he sees Hoffa refusing to step down and moving towards his death. In his final two conversations with Hoffa, before he tasked with killing him, De Niro offers a scene partner to Pacino's work, in accentuating in his eyes only the most genuine concern towards his friend in these moments, and his words as the most explicit warning to his old friend. De Niro in this sequence portrays well the weight of the friendship in just his subtle expressions of his growing pain that he knows things are not going to end well with for his friend. This until Russell calls for Frank to kill Hoffa himself, where De Niro is able to convey a man protesting entirely through reaction, because he can only follow orders in words. De Niro shows the tear within the man's soul as Russell gives the command, and gravity of the moment of the acceptance of Hoffa's fate, which he himself is told to deliver. This again accentuating a man who does have his own thoughts, but is willing to forgo how he feels to follow orders as he always has done. This is right within his later call to the widow of Hoffa, that De Niro delivers as man fumbling in every word, tiptoeing around his guilt, and more than anything failing again to take any stand. I will say until his last scenes with Pacino and Pesci, this is a very good performance by De Niro. It is just nice to see him properly verbally accost a guy again, bring some real menace just in a single expression, or even portray joy in his performance. That is nice, but more than anything his performance acts as a facilitator to the masterful work of his co-stars. This is not a criticism against De Niro, he delivers on being the man who listens and does based on others, rather than acting himself. Now that is essential for the epilogue of the film, which is solely De Niro's show, and what the rest of his performance leads to.

This as we see the old hit-man, no longer around the big personalities and "great" men of history. He is now just a man. De Niro's work is technically still largely of reaction, but there is such a power in this reaction now. This as he delivers the sheer anguish of the years that have left him alienated from his family particularly his daughter Peggy who refuses to speak or even see him. De Niro's portrayal is heartbreaking as we see the hollowness in his eyes of a man who is essentially now just fading. This as we see him slowly failing physically and essentially only preparing for his own death. De Niro's work in the scenes of picking out his own coffin are harrowing in the matter of fact resignation of this existence as he speaks now only of this preparation. This as he has nothing left otherwise. This as we even see him asked about his past by the FBI as we still see the front of the loyal soldier, and the perfect smile that comes to De Niro's face of a man laughing at himself, still following now meaningless orders for long dead men in his silence. De Niro reveals a vulnerability in his work that has not been seen for some time, and is particularly poignant as he does so within the idea of aging towards nothingness. In his scenes with his priest, De Niro's work captures such a moving sense of internalized regret, that he makes particularly striking by showing in his face a man torn inside, yet still remaining silent in voice based on those old meaningless loyalties. This creating such a vivid painful state of a man who essentially lived a life at the behest of others and the detriment to his own, yet still unable to break from it. De Niro's best moments are in his final one where we just see a doddering old man, this with a pleasant little reflection on the good things of his past in looking at pictures of his daughter and Hoffa, but still a oh so palatable sorrow that evokes all the regrets without saying a word to them. These regrets being a finality though in De Niro's eyes, as we see the man weekly trying to find solace, but failing to do so in his last days. De Niro's work in the epilogue is among his best, where there is to be no distraction of effects, or even other actors. Where Casino, and Goodfellas, end with the leads regretful just over being back to being near nobodies, here De Niro crafts the portrait of the man whose whole life is a regret, and is just left there to await the end of the meaningless existence he let consume him.

35 comments:

Luke Higham said...

Amazing performance and great to see him finally at his best again.

Louis: Your thoughts on this. One of my all-time favourite chat show moments.

youtube.com/watch?v=yuXGpUR7fXA

Aidan Pittman said...

Phenomenal performance. My favorite leading performance of last year in my favorite film of last year. Still can't believe he didn't take off awards-wise for this.

Calvin Law said...

Excellent work.

Calvin Law said...

So glad MacKay got a chance to speak at BAFTA. Also to be honest besides the acting wins and Score I love the rest of the wins, so really can’t complain!

Calvin Law said...

Also Joaquin’s speech was great, honestly I’m fine with these awards if he keeps giving em lol

Emi Grant said...

He's making the top 5, no doubt.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Hoping he takes it over the Lighthouse duo. Easily my favorite performance from him.

Mitchell Murray said...

That's quite the claim, Robert.

But yes, De Niro's excellent here, and it's so satisfying to see him revisit the greatness of his early work.

Luke Higham said...

Going through the entire review, doesn't seem to be strong enough on the whole to take the top spot.

Calvin Law said...

Probably my #4 favourite performance of his, behind Deer Hunter, Goodfellas, and King of Comedy.

Calvin Law said...

And yeah I get the feeling Sandler is taking this one.

Luke Higham said...

I'm still hopeful for one of Dafoe or Pattinson.

Calvin Law said...

Same, I’m just basing this gut feeling on Uncut Gems being higher ranked.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I can understand that but here's hoping.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your ten best uses of pre-existing music from the 2010s.

Luke Higham said...

A Real Hero from Drive is my #1.

Mitchell Murray said...

Louis: I'm sure I can guess a great deal of them, but what would be your top 10 acting moments of Scarlett Johansson? And what would be your level of interest for her upcoming "Black Widow" film?

Mitchell Murray said...

Also, if its showing at a nearby theatre next weekend, I "might" be seeing "Birds of Prey"...if its actually enjoyable, then kudos to all involved. If not, well....I'll take the bullet for you lot.

Luke Higham said...

Mitchell: I'm seeing it too and it can't be any worse than Suicide Squad.

Mitchell Murray said...

Luke: That's more or less what I'm thinking as well, but I'm still keeping my expectations in check.

Calvin Law said...


Here’s mine not counting television (in which cast Twin Peaks’ use of Otis Redding would be here)

‘Fare Thee Well’ - Inside Llewyn Davis
‘A Real Hero’ - Drive
‘Wayfaring Stranger’ - 1917
‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ - You Were Never Really Here
‘Volver, Volver’ - Lucky
‘La Mer’ - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
‘Starman’ - The Martian
‘The Immigrant Song’ - Thor Ragnarok
‘The Last Rose of Summer’ - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
‘All Out of Love’ - Animal Kingdom

HM to Perks of Being a Wallflower for Come on Eileen

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

This is my favorite performance by De Niro. Incredible work.

Emi Grant said...

Calvin: For some reason, I actually didn't like the use of Starman on the Martian. Guess I'm more of an ABBA fan...

If anything from this year deserves any particular honorable mention, may I suggest both the German versions of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Heroes from Jojo Rabbit? The first one nearly had me screaming of laughter just at the sheer idea of its use, the later one nearly brought me to tears.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Hilarious and any thing that can break Crowe's resting steely gaze is quite impressive.

Mitchell:

Johansson:

1. Fight - Marriage Story
2. Being a father - Jojo Rabbit
3. Breakdown - Marriage Story
4. With Jojo under the bridge - Jojo Rabbit
5. Divorce Court - Marriage Story
6. Tense phone call - Marriage Story
7. Goodbye - Her
8. Looking at those hanged - Jojo Rabbit
9. Mock interview - Marriage Story
10. Speaking with Elsa - Jojo Rabbit

Black Widow is the only one I have a minor interest in other than Thor (I was interested in Strange before they fired Derrickson, not that he seems infallible but I'm tired of generic "competent" Marvel), mostly due to the cast and the fact that it seems less effects heavy comparatively. Hoping for the best which would be a companion film to Winter Soldier.

Lucas:

Must be major character/force, not just the enemy.

1. Schindler's List
2. Army of Shadows
3. Come and See
4. Inglourious Basterds
5. The Pianist
6. The Great Dictator
7. Conspiracy
8. Jojo Rabbit
9. Sophie Scholl
10. Downfall

Luke:

"Oh My Love" - Drive
"Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 - II. Allegro molto" - Birdman
"A Real Hero" - Drive
"La Mer" - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
"Birthday Ode for Queen Anne" - The Favourite
"In the Hall of the Mountain King" - The Social Network
"Whiplash" - Whiplash
"In Ginocchio Da Te.FLAC" - Parasite
"Fare thee well" Inside Llewyn Davis
"Wayfaring Stranger" - 1917

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

One of my favorite uses of pre-existing music this decade (outside of the ones already mentioned), has to be the use of 'Take On Me' in Deadpool 2.

Jack Narrator said...

10 actors who will enter Louis's Overall Rank (without order):
- Adam Driver in Marriage Story
- Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
- Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
- Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse
- Robert De Niro in The Irishman
- Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
- George MacKay in 1917
- Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy
- Aaron Paul in El Camino
- August Diehl in A Hidden Life

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

My predictions for Louis's top 10:

1. Dafoe
2. Sandler
3. Pattinson
4. Driver
5. De Niro
6. MacKay
7. Paul
8. Labeouf
9. DiCaprio
10. Diehl

Anonymous said...

My predictions for Louis's top 10:

1. Dafoe
2. Pattinson
3. Sandler
4. De Niro
5. Driver
6. MacKay
7. DiCaprio
8. Paul
9. Labeouf
10. Diehl

Omar Franini said...

Louis: three excellent reviews for The Irishman. I got the chance to attend a press conference with Scorsese when i saw the movie back in September, and he stated that Touchez pas au Grisbi was a great inspiration for the movie and in particular he told De Niro to take inspiration from Gabin’s performance. Any thoughts on it?

Anonymous said...

Louis, you forgot to put Matt Jones for El Camino in you Best Supporting Actor list.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Do you plan on watching Zombieland 2?

Calvin Law said...

Did anyone else see Rebel Wilson’s speech at the BAFTAs? I thought it was quite the corker.

RatedRStar said...

Calvin: It was the only corker lol =D, I was shocked how bad Graham Norton was.

Louis Morgan said...

Omar:

I honestly can see this as Gabin's killer's glare from that film is essentially the same as De Niro's here, as I can easily see how he kind worked in sort of the same assumed menace/intensity.

Tahmeed:

Probably not.

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