Greg M. Smith
This essay investigates the articles in the popular press that specifically feature Robert DeNiro and seeks to explain the significance of this foregrounded silence. This breakdown in the interview process helps us to see some of the assumptions underlying the normally transparent workings of the system of film publicity. This silence has bearing on the nature of the film star, the status of the film actor, and the literature concerning Western conceptions of the self.
Several important trends in film star publicity date back to the first constructions of film stars in the early 'Teens. Richard deCordova's work on the emergence of the star system reveals that players were first individuated as "picture personalities," coherent personas which could be read from a player's appearances across several films without reference to a player's offscreen life. When the player's existence outside the film was acknowledged, it was briefly depicted (according to deCordova) as
Movie stars in the more modern sense began when the player's existence outside the film became the emphasis of the popular press. Fans began to gain access to information about the star's so-called private life, making explicit the distinction between the actors and the characters portrayed onscreen. However, the two categories were still portrayed as being analogous, with no moral discrepancy between the professional and private selves.
Such portrayals of stars seem to be rooted in the prevailing understanding of the film medium's "realism." The mechanical nature of the film process is considered to decrease the effects of human intervention; therefore, film presents people "as they really are." The American film industry realized the necessity of maintaining continuity between the onscreen image and the "real" person depicted in magazines. To do otherwise would be to emphasize the apparatus's potential to lie.
But what about the actor, the professional liar? Not surprisingly, film realism has traditionally shown a preference toward what Barry King calls "personification" (limiting actors to parts consonant with their personalities and physical attributes) rather than "impersonation" (in which actors suppress the markers of their "real" personalities and take on the role's characteristics). (130) King suggests that this tendency has an economic basis in the oversupply of actors available for Hollywood productions. The rational response to the actor oversupply (given naturalistic conventions) is "an emphasis on what is unique to the actor, displacing emphasis from what an actor can do qua actor onto what the actor qua person or biographical entity is." (King,146)
A minimum of acting ability can be assumed among Screen Actors Guild members; therefore, significant differentiation between members tends to be based on unique combinations of personal and physical traits. In King's terms, acting ability becomes a continuous variable (a criterion which is shared, however unevenly, by all members of a workforce) and psychological/physical qualities are discontinuous variables (present in only some workers). The economics of oversupply favors choices based on discontinuous variables, which supports a preference toward personification. Because Hollywood is oversaturated with actors, casting directors can make choices based as much on physical characteristics, life histories, and personality traits as they do on acting ability.
Another widely held notion about acting emphasizes the opposite trend: impersonation, suggesting that only relatively unskilled actors have to be limited to playing parts similar to their own personalities. In this discourse film is generally considered to be less an actor's medium than theater. Film's editing capabilities can piece together a cohesive performance out of many different takes of a relatively unskilled actor. Editing can eliminate a performance entirely, leaving an actor's work on the cutting room floor. Control over the camera gives control over much of the signification of performance in the cinema, and this control is out of the actor's hands. In the theater the actor's control over pacing, etc., is perceived to be more direct and less mediated, putting an emphasis on the actor's skills.
These notions concerning acting and film remained fairly stable until the revolutionary arrival of Method acting on the screen, most importantly in Elia Kazan's and Marlon Brando's work. When American practitioners adapted Constantin Stanislavski's Method, they emphasized how actors should call on their life histories to provide source material to use in creating characters. This technique grounds the acting in a real-world base, purportedly giving the actor's performance a new realism and emotional truth. At first glance it would seem that the Method as it appeared in film emphasized personification over impersonation. Lee Strasberg, the primary popularizer of the Method in America, describes Kazan's strategy in selecting his actors:
But the Method is not simply a reassertion of personification. Stanislavski's Method is a complex combination of the physical and the psychological, with the intent of bringing these factors under the actor's conscious control. Actors develop physical and psychological discipline so that they can use the raw material of their experiences to create a variety of characters. "Craftsmanship," the artistic ability to forge characters consciously using one's memories instead of merely duplicating those memories, is the other central idea to the Group Theatre's American Method (besides the artist's individual self-awareness mentioned above), according to Adler. The Method's emphasis on an actor's memories is not intended to limit the actor to a simple reenactment of personality but is meant to give the actor a means of consciously reworking their affective memories into different characters.
Though discussions of the American Method have perhaps shown somewhat of a personifying emphasis (after all, Adler says that the actor's self knowledge is the first step in the method), the Method contains a counterbalancing influence foregrounding impersonation. Strasberg admits that the American Method has been construed as overly psychoanalytic when he says: "The emotional thing is not Freud, as people commonly think. Theoretically and actually, it is Pavlov." (Roach, 216) But this quote also points out a significant oversight in the American version of Stanislavski's Method. Partly because of the English publication history of Stanislavski's works, the American Method focuses more on earlier Stanislavski and shares his early emphasis on psychological work rather than his later emphasis on physical work. This causes the misconception that the Method is rooted in a psychology of the mind (like Freud's) rather than a mind/body theory (like Pavlov's). As Joseph Roach notes,
Barry King cites DeNiro as
The central difficulty with getting to know this "real" personality through print interviews, however, seems to be DeNiro's reluctance to be interviewed unless "pressured" (always by unnamed forces) to do so. When he does submit to an interview, his reticence to disclose private information and his discomfort with the entire interview process silences the expression of his "true" voice. It is this silence that is foregrounded in the press.
When reporters do manage to pin him down for an interview, he appears as uncomfortable as if "each question tossed at him were some sharp-edged object and he's unable to duck." (Fine) His answers are partial at best, as Bruce Kirkland notes: "Robert DeNiro never completes a sentence but he rarely starts one, so you hardly notice." (81) The reporter is often left with little to report except for a string of unreadable gestures ("He starts to say something, hunches forward, taps the table, sighs, rubs his chin. . . .") (Terenzi) or inarticulate mumblings (when asked by the Toronto Sun what is left for him to accomplish, DeNiro reportedly said, "I, uh, can't, ah, umm. . . . Well, let's, ah, see, uh, I, uh.") (Thompson) The resulting articles pay as much attention to the frustrating, intimidating task of the interviewer as they do to the interview subject himself.
The primary explanation offered concerning DeNiro's desire for privacy is to allow him to create a tabula rasa onto which he can project his different impersonations. In Video Review, he is quoted as saying:
I want to concentrate on a less-commented-on feature of these interviews: those subjects that DeNiro will talk about without reticence. In all the hullabaloo about what DeNiro is "hiding" from the press, one tends to overlook what is freely communicated to the interviewers.
The articles on DeNiro feature anecdotes about his "obsession" with preparing for a role. He gained weight for both Raging Bull and The Untouchables; he drove a taxi for Taxi Driver; he went to Sicily to learn Italian in the proper dialect for Godfather 2, and also went to Brando's dentist to get a mouthpiece made for the part of Vito Corleone (played by Brando in the original Godfather); he trained as a boxer for a year (and became good enough to be a ranking middleweight, according to LaMotta) for Raging Bull; he learned to play the saxophone proficiently for New York, New York. Over and over these stories appear in the articles, full of details about the lengths DeNiro will go to to prepare for a part.
These anecdotes function to promote the "realness" of DeNiro's acting. If these stories are in popular circulation, they strategically help DeNiro establish the verisimilitude of his performance. An audience member who knows about DeNiro's extensive preparation for a role is predisposed to evaluate his performance as being really "real." Whether DeNiro's research methods actually affect his onscreen performance is open to question, but the importance of this information about DeNiro rooting his acting in real life can strongly affect viewer strategies.
Note that the preparation that DeNiro emphasizes is not psychological preparation but physical preparation, exemplified by the boxing training and weight gain for Raging Bull. To say that DeNiro is silent in the discourse about his own stardom is to overlook the fact that DeNiro offers his body fairly freely into the discourse.
DeNiro is not portrayed as being notably camera shy to reporters, though there is a tradition of actors who dislike being photographed in situations beyond their control (from Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich to Sean Penn). Instead, DeNiro is shown as being blatantly tape recorder shy, as being reluctant to having his voice being captured. Celebrity interviewers are accustomed to actors expressing themselves vocally, not bodily. Some respond to DeNiro's vocal silence by offering a fairly detailed transcription of DeNiro's body language, further asserting that DeNiro's participation in the discourse is bodily, not vocal.
However, having access to an actor's body is assumed by the dominant conception of celebrity interview, and it is not enough. After all, we have access to images of the actor's body in the films themselves. The fan requires the celebrity body to speak, to reveal the inner truths it contains. Obviously the celebrity interview operates as part of the modern Western pursuit of the secret truths held by the body, as described by Michel Foucault. The desire for scientific knowledge of sex is the desire to make the body speak, to elicit its confessions. DeNiro's body clearly is communicating both in films and in interviews, but it does not provide the satisfying answers we seek because it does not provide us with interior access.
The relatively free access we are given to DeNiro's physical preparations is emphasized when compared to the lack of access we are given to his psychological preparation. We are told that he prepares for a part by asking real people incessant questions, but we are never told what kinds of questions he asks. Jake LaMotta says that DeNiro learned so much about his inner psychology that he told him things he never knew about himself, but we're never told what those things are. (Kroll, 86) DeNiro's silence extends not only to private information about his personal life but also to the psychological methods of preparation. By telling us that he talked to real people but giving us no more information, DeNiro further imbues his acting with "realness" while simultaneously mystifying the process.
The discussion on DeNiro, therefore, may be seen as an attempt to reassert the importance of the actor's physical preparation to the American Method. Actor Chazz Palminteri says
This silence extends even to the psychological processes of characters. DeNiro talks about the process of developing the characterizations for Raging Bull with Martin Scorsese:
DeNiro passes along only one piece of advice from either of his well-known acting teachers Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. Several times he quotes Adler as saying, "Your talent lies in your choice." ("Dialogue," 40; Grobel, 85) This quote has a very specific meaning in acting contexts, but DeNiro also seems to be using it in a larger sense, positing an ego that makes life choices. DeNiro portrays himself as making choices as to who has access to what kinds of information. Reporters and fans can have access to information about his body, but he denies access to information about his private life, his psychological preparation, and his characters.
His extraordinary physical preparation becomes a discontinuous variable which distinguishes him from other actors, giving him what Robert Brady calls a "personal monopoly" (129) with the accompanying economic power. Articles consistently emphasize his hard work, and this entitles him to a kind of status traditionally denied to film stars in a capitalist country founded on the Protestant work ethic. Film acting is considered not to be "real work" because of the tendency toward personification acknowledged in the pop song: "They're gonna put me in the movies/They're gonna make a big star out of me/. . . And all I gotta do is act naturally." But DeNiro sweating and punching is a man obviously at work.
These discourses work in conjunction with the silent psychological discourse to make DeNiro a more valuable commodity, one that allows him to exert a kind of control rarely extended to film actors. His hard work differentiates him from other actors, while his silence creates a mystery that this entire discourse wishes to solve. Normally film stars have to trade privacy for control. Stars like Clint Eastwood become producers of their own images, but they must follow the traditional rules of star publicity to do so. DeNiro's choices have given him a collaborator's status with Martin Scorsese and more recently as head of an ambitious lower Manhattan film collaborative. Elizabeth Kaye situates DeNiro's recent interest in directing and producing as "an extension of the interests and skills that preoccupied him from the start, when he sat through long production meetings, paying rapt attention to discussions on where to store the costumes, where the trucks should be parked." (45) Starts usually have to trade increased public visibility for the power of directing, but DeNiro has used his silent acting mystique to gain status as a director (A Bronx Tale).
His strategy has given him power over things which are outside the normal film actor's control, but it also seems to imbue DeNiro with discursive power over portions of the self that are traditionally considered very difficult to change. His refusal to discuss his past in detail allows us to assume a past that seems to fit his persona. He is often assumed to have grown up in a lower class New York environment, but actually his father was a fairly successful modern artist. (Dickey, 70) An emphasis in the popular press on the cultural capital of his upbringing might make playing Johnny Boy in Mean Streets difficult, but his silence frees him discursively from the class constraints of his past. Usually the actor's body is considered as providing the actor's basic "look," a given that can only be recast slightly through cosmetics. However, DeNiro demonstrates an ability to break free of the traditional restraints of the body, reshaping it for different roles.
DeNiro's ability to change the unchangeable (his past, his body) functions as part of a larger set of present-day discourses on changing one's own past (recasting it through psychotherapy) and one's body (through exercise and dieting regimens). These discourses acknowledge that society makes judgments based on the same assumption underlying personification in actors: that there is a unity between the body/personality and the social identity/role. People judge you when they see your body or when they detect traces of your past in your personality. Modern society posits that we, like DeNiro, can change our pasts and our bodies, and therefore we can choose a different social identity: "In America it is almost as if, democratically, any actor can play any role naturally, just as any citizen can aspire to be President." (Le Fanu, 49)
The positing of some entity who is following Stella Adler's advice, choosing to speak or to be silent, choosing discursively a past or a body, still leaves the principal celebrity interview question open: who is the "real" Robert DeNiro? Who is doing the choosing? One common answer is disturbing for reigning Western conceptions of the self, even ones that acknowledge the possibility of reshaping a modern social identity. The explicit answer provided by some interviewers is that there is no "real" Robert DeNiro, that there is no one at the wheel choosing life directions. An old girl friend suggests: "The thing is, once you penetrate all the paranoia and secrecy that Bobby surrounds himself with, you'll find out that at the bottom of Bobby is really . . . nothing." (Brenner, 118) This DeNiro is perhaps nothing but the roles he portrays. Shelley Winters says, "In between pictures, Bobby doesn't exist. I don't know where the human being is." (Brenner, 121) Michael Moriarty, who worked with DeNiro on Bang the Drum Slowly, passed up an opportunity to speak to DeNiro on the Taxi Driver set: "I don't know that guy at all. I knew Bruce Pearson [DeNiro's Bang the Drum Slowly role]. I don't know Travis Bickle or Bob DeNiro." Elizabeth Kaye suggests, "No one, perhaps, is better suited to being an actor and less suited to being a personality." (45) Interviewer Paul Gardner muses: "The Method school uses acting for self-knowledge. DeNiro's acting runs closer to self-escape." (34)
This silence poses a threat for one of the founding Western beliefs: the utilitarian egoism of the individual. According to the philosophical tradition of Hume and Hobbes, a person's identity can be determined without reference to roles and social positionings, and this person can be trusted to act to promote his/her own best interests. The possibility that DeNiro is nothing but his roles, that there is no central agent making decisions based on his own self-interest, is a very modern phenomenon. Clearly this is where DeNiro's celebrity differs from other reclusive film stars with which he is sometimes compared (Garbo, Brando). In the publicity about these stars, the existence of a "real" though elusive personality is never brought into question. With DeNiro the silence is portrayed as a lack of an ego at the center of the individual.
On a somewhat less earth-shaking scale, the silence also calls into question the normally invisible workings of the Hollywood film industry publicity apparatus. When denied access to DeNiro himself, the reporter often has to put secondary communications at the center of the piece. Several articles have more quotes by other people about DeNiro than they have quotes by DeNiro. When DeNiro refused to talk to Vanity Fair, the interviewer (Bosworth) pieced together a portrait of "The Shadow King" from interviews with 50 of DeNiro's associates and friends. For an Esquire article, Mike Sager prowled the Tribeca area, asking residents about their famous neighbor, some of whom were about as forthcoming as DeNiro himself ("'Whaddya, stalkin' him? . . . Why don't you fucks just leave him alone? Everybody knows: Bobby DeNiro don't do interviews."). This strategy further emphasizes the absence of the star's voice as it tries to fill that absence with other voices.
Another strategy is to focus on the difficulty of the DeNiro interview process. One article in GQ (Richman) consists of a long discussion of the reporter's trepidation at the task of interviewing such an elusive figure, followed by a brief chat with DeNiro in which the star auditions the interviewer and turns him down. In his Playboy (Grobel) interview DeNiro turns off the tape recorder eleven times, looks at his watch seven times, and indicates he wants to leave five times. Here the awkwardness spotlights the assumptions we carry concerning the celebrity interview. The reporter does not have to justify his/her right to ask questions, but DeNiro must justify his right to refuse them.
A related strategy (briefly noted earlier) is to emphasize DeNiro's inarticulateness by delivering a fairly literal transcription of his words: "Yeah, well. . . I think that. . . umm. . . you know. . . uh-hah." (Schickel, 68) Usually a reply in such halting "naturalistic" speech would be cleaned up, and awkward false starts would be edited out. The inclusion of such markers of distinct speech patterns transforms the interview subject into an Other (for instance, when someone provides a phonetic transcription of Southern accents or African American speech patterns). Thus the considerably-less-than-smooth interactions between star and interviewer emphasize the constructed nature of the seemingly seamless interview usually proffered by the film publicity apparatus.
Even though DeNiro's silence problematizes both the film celebrity interview and Western conceptions of a unified utilitarian ego, these ideas still exert their power. It is possible to recoup much of the popular discourse on DeNiro into a unified concept of self. In spite of the emphasis on DeNiro's versatility of impersonation, one can reincorporate his work as personification.
The prototypical DeNiro role is an angry, violent, obsessive, urban, alienated, lower-class, repressed loner, epitomized by Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta. DeNiro comments in some interviews on characters that he would not play, particularly historical figures (he turned down the part of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ). This acknowledges that, despite the discourse on versatility, there is a recognizable core to the DeNiro persona. This onscreen persona bears great resemblance to the DeNiro depicted in the interviews: a silent, brooding, obsessive loner. Paradoxically, DeNiro's offscreen silence, which supposedly allows him the freedom to remake himself into many different onscreen characters, also ties him to those characters in a rather straightforward personifying manner.
The onscreen and offscreen DeNiros differ from each other in a key way. In an offscreen situation, DeNiro's silence is read as nonsignifying, as a refusal to communicate. However, when DeNiro is silent onscreen, his silence speaks. The magnified scrutiny of closeups allows a film actor to signify without words, with very subtle movements. "If DeNiro's silences tend to be a little awkward at parties, they explode on the screen. . . . In his silences, I see storm clouds on the horizon." (Braudy, 13) Barry Paris notes:
Here is where the signifier "DeNiro" takes
on one of its most radical critiques of modern society. The silent DeNiro,
not a utilitarian agent yet not purely reducible to situational roles,
acknowledges the omnipresence of impersonation in our society. In order
to survive, one must be able to adapt oneself to an increasingly varied
set of situations. In such a society, older conceptions of self-interested
agency may get lost in the chaos. DeNiro, by carving out a structuring
absence in his own discourse, is "released, at last, from producing an
identity card in an absurd world where, he knows, most lives are fraudulent
anyway." (Gardner 33)
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