If I had to sum up Robert De Niro and his acting style in one word, it would have to be intimidating. Obviously, I like the "tough" guys. But De Niro has routinely taken this tough guy thing way beyond levels that could've ever been imagined by prototype Edward G. Robinson (an actor I loathe, by the way.) Possibly what's so frightening about De Niro's portrayals is not his vicious outbursts of violence, but, rather, it is in his quiet, simmering moments, when the violence isn't yet even a whisper of a threat. There is a stillness, a calm before the storm with him when the power is coiled, as a snake before striking, which can incite a dread, because you know you've passed the warning stages, and the rest is inevitable, but that cold, calm, twitchless, intimidating menace is nearly palpable through the screen. It's kind of, frankly, a bit psycho, and it's what he's been able to parlay for laughs or turn inside out in his later career to great success.
There have been numerous actor-director collaborations that have repeatedly struck artistic (and financial) gold in Hollywood and set a virtual template and gold standard for their respective genres. Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Howard Hawks and Cary Grant. Howard Hawks and John Wayne, for that matter. But I'm not sure there's ever been one quite like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. It was Scorsese who gave De Niro his first big break as the loose cannon Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. After that, he landed the role of young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II, a role which brought him his first Oscar and major star status. From there, De Niro always gravitated back into Scorsese's orbit over the years, but if you look closely at his body of work, it's almost a sin to brush him with the one-note stroke of "tough guy" considering the roles he successfully tackled. He has, without question, stretched himself and taken on romantic and comedic roles. But I guess the thing is, even when the roles were light, such as in one of my favorite comedies, Midnight Run, De Niro was still kind of thugish. And for as physically good looking as he was in his younger days -- and I do think he was formidably handsome -- I can never get fully behind him in romantic mode as there still seems to be that slight coldness about him. Not quite detachment, but a lack of passion with his leading ladies.
And so it remains that he still becomes most identified with the hood persona. It was Scorsese's Raging Bull that brought him his second Oscar as volatile Jake La Motta, and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver remains a benchmark for aspiring psychos. Personally, I love his performance as the calculating casino ruler in Casino. But that movie is often (unfairly) blown off, as it's considered an inferior bookend to what may forever remain Scorsese's masterpiece -- GoodFellas.
There's not much that needs to be said about GoodFellas. It was the movie that Scorsese was always meant to make, and a role that De Niro born for. As Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, De Niro brought everything together into one of the most complex, cohesive characterizations he's ever put on screen, and yet he made it seem deceptively easy and routine. Summed up, as Ray Liotta's character told us, De Niro's character was the kind of guy who liked to root for bad guys in the movies. And that translated into this -- De Niro's character was the kind of bad guy we wanted to root for in that movie. At first. Before the repulsion set in. He was calm and slick, clever and shady, all with a thick patina of charm. At first. When things went well. But this character was almost a bookend to Vito Corleone, the man who said "never let them know what you're thinking." That's what's so riveting and engaging about De Niro's acting. He understands that people aren't always showing their emotions. Most of the time, most of us, when in pressure situations, expend a lot of energy to disguise our emotions. And that's where De Niro's gift lies. It's in that calmness, and seemingly resolute veneer which has only the subtlest of movements. We see him hiding, and yet we detect what's lurking. So, later, when the paranoia sets in and De Niro as Jimmy The Gent had to go on the offensive, it became chilling to watch him calmly try to coax Lorraine Bracco's character into a darkened warehouse.
And talk about controlled, cold violence? The famous foot kicking sequence, where he helps nearly stomp to death a guy who made a tasteless joke about shoe shine boxes is a quick, celluloid capture of De Niro's frightening essence onscreen. It was brutal and ugly, lacking any remorse, but also completely devoid of enjoyment. The only detectable emotion is that of slight annoyance at the hassle of having to kick the guy while he bleeds on his shoes. It's this exact scene that personifies what people so often quip about the man as actor. Yeah, he's great at playing a killer. But part of the reason he's so intimidating is because he's so adept at conveying someone who's seemingly dead inside.