These days it’s pretty much accepted wisdom that Robert DeNiro is flushing his legacy down the toilet. “Why does he continue to appear in terrible comedies like Dirty Grandpa?” the argument goes, “he was so great making dramas back in the ’70s.” Which pretty much answers their question for them: good luck naming another actor who was big in the ’70s who’s still headlining movies today.
The sheer fact that in 2016 he’s appearing in any kind of movie that’s getting a run in cinemas is a triumph; Al Pacino certainly isn’t putting bums on seats, Dustin Hoffman is in the same boat, Clint Eastwood is retired from front-of-camera work and that’s pretty much it for his generation. “But what about the damage to his legacy?” the argument goes. “Playing a potty-mouthed old guy in bad comedies can’t be the way he wants to be remembered?” For one thing, maybe he’s less interested in how he’s remembered than he is in still getting work? And it’s not that he’s not still doing dramatic work: he had a supporting role in Joy over Christmas, and that was serious stuff. But these days most of his dramatic work is in films that go direct-to-DVD, because there just aren’t that many people who want to see films about 70-year-old men getting into shootouts or dealing with serious issues (and also, the films themselves often aren’t much good).
Audiences who go to the movies are basically either teenagers/people in their 20s, or people over 50. Considering people over 50 don’t want to see the kind of films DeNiro can get work in (for all DeNiro’s reputation as a serious quality actor, he’s not really the guy you hire for The First Exotic Marigold Hotel), it’s a sign of his skill and ability that he’s managed to remain bankable in films aimed at teenagers… even if those films feature him as a foul-mouthed grandpa where the appeal isn’t so much in his acting skill as it is in seeing an old guy act inappropriately. But even when those movies are bad – and they’re almost always bad: Last Vegas was the worst movie of its year, and Bad Grandpa is probably going to be a solid competitor for the crown this year – DeNiro himself is almost never bad in them, usually managing to find some small details that manage to turn his comedy cliché character into something closer to a human being than you’d expect. And realistically, when people talk about the damage these comedy roles are doing to his “legacy”, what they really mean is that it’s damaging their warm fuzzy memories of DeNiro as a guy playing a well-rounded violent thug in Martin Scorsese movies.
If DeNiro’s real legacy is going to be that of a brilliant and versatile actor, which it will be, then doesn’t it make sense that in a 50 year career he’s going to play a variety of characters? If you’re a DeNiro fan, it should be cause for celebration that in 2016 he can still star in a movie that makes it into cinemas – even if that movie isn’t one you have the slightest interest in seeing.
Written by Anthony Morris