Tuesday, September 07, 2004

A few words about Robert (Bob) De Niro's Mastery

I've always wondered at length what went into making Robert De Niro such a wizard in the acting trade. By all accounts, he clearly doesn't possess those 'leading male' looks of a Brad Pitt or the newer-on-the-scene Colin Farrell, to wit. Yet what he lacks there he more than makes up in spades through his unswerving dedication to the craft, and his leading methodologies for the profession of acting.

In my continuing quest to master the art of Story (capitalisation quite intended!), I've revisited various classic tales from the course of the past three decades. Filmmaking of the 70s, in particular, has rarely been duplicated in our modern era of the "big bang boom knock 'em up blow 'em up conjure 'em up blockbuster." Take Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver of 1976. A film about Travis Bickle and his struggle against the day to day loneliness he suffers from life in the big bad scummy (in his words) metropolis -- the metaphor of a 'taxi driver' chosen by writer Paul Schrader as representative of the epitome of the solitary man's struggle against an overbearing society (Taxi Driver had been written over the course of 10 days, during a rather depressing phase in Schrader's life, which he speaks of poignantly in the Special Features).

Jodie Foster -- then 12 -- playing the young prostitute Iris - recalls one day's shooting in New York with De Niro then. The scene called for a heartfelt exchange between Travis (De Niro) and Iris in some diner, where Travis cajoles - nay - entreats the impressionable girl to give up hooking, her infatuation for her pimp 'Score' (played by Harvey Keitel) and to get back to school and her parents - occurring somewhere in the middle of the story. (Minutes before Travis begins his long slide down [for those who still haven't seen it, I will withhold the rest, spoiler I am not!].)

Foster recounts how the real De Niro would - over coffee and cake - slam the called-for scene over and over and over with her. They must have reviewed the scene at least twenty times. Foster, being a child actor, knew her lines cold. She couldn't for the life of her understand what the hell De Niro was doing. But, being De Niro, she wasn't exactly going to call him on it. (At least not then, years before her first 1988 Oscar). De Niro suddenly slips in an improvisation here and a gesture there, which took the then-child actor totally off guard. He had her do the scene several times more, continually throwing in newer and zanier improvisations into the scripted dialogue until Foster - as she fondly recalls thirty years on - realised what he his greater plan was. She admits De Niro's mastery in placing her into such a position of comfort in the scene, that uttering the called-for lines became secondary to their improvisations. It wasn't in the static lines of text where the brilliance of acting was to be revealed; rather it was in the improvisations where an audience would really connect with characters. De Niro understood this. He was teaching a valuable lesson to a young kid.

Playing the scene back over several times after learning this new information gave me an even greater respect for actors and, in particular, Robert De Niro. In countless films since, his ability to impress filmgoers the world over has been in his keen ability to take plainjane static lines on a page come alive with the actor's version of the 'value add' - improvisation.

Jodie Foster learned a valuable lesson on that day, one that's served her well since. Her two Oscars (for Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and The Accused, 1988) are proof enough.


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