***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and King of Comedy

Oh my goodness RBCers, do we get a treat this week: Movie recommendations from someone who knows the business from the inside. London-based Ian Jentle had a long and successful career as an actor; Americans are most likely to know him as Josef Goebbels in the epic War and Remembrance television mini-series. I asked Ian to explain from an actor’s point of view what makes a great film performance, and he has kindly agreed to do so using the example of the legendary Robert De Niro. Over to Ian:

When people ask me, as a retired actor, what I think constitutes great acting, I tell them to rent Raging Bull (1980) and King Of Comedy (1983) and watch them back to back. Both are directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro. In the former, De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a man of immensely powerful physical presence who is emotionally unstable, intellectually limited and sadomasochistic. He is huge, lumbering, frightening and yet pathetic. In the latter film, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a small, weasely loser obsessed with other people’s fame, a stage door hangabout whose very presence is sphincter-clenchingly embarassing. If you removed the credits from both films and showed them to somebody who had lived a cinema-free life, I would bet a large sum that they would not believe the same actor played both roles.

First, De Niro has that strange quality known as presence or charisma. Film professionals will say of a particular performer that “the camera loves him/her” and it is true. But screen presence is not always linked with great acting skills: Charlton Heston had tremendous presence, but his acting was rarely better than wooden, and although one could not accuse John Wayne of creating a wide range of characters, he undoubtedly had presence and was always believable and entertaining. De Niro clearly demonstrates his presence in the scene in Raging Bull in which LaMotta is thrown into a prison cell.

But De Niro brings much more to the screen than mere presence. What marks De Niro out as a truly great actor is the integrity of his approach to his characters, the depth of his observation of human behaviour and the skill he brings to the performance of these characters in the context of a film narrative. Two more clips, one from each movie, demonstrate these skills.

In the clip from Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta repeatedly challenges his brother, played by Joe Pesci, to hit him in the face. Here, De Niro gives his character the objective of “control”. He tries several strategies to persuade his brother to hit him in the face: simple request, provocative insult, older brother authority, even slapping. By the end of the clip his brother demands “What are you trying to prove? What does it prove?” De Niro’s triumphant smile and brotherly tap on the face show that he has “won”, which is the whole point. As he does repeatedly throughout the film, Jake LaMotta uses violence, even the receiving of violence, to exercise psychotic control over others.

In the clip from King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin sneaks into a car with his comedy hero Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, to ask for help in becoming a comedian. (The scene in question occurs around the 6 minute mark in this clip.) Once Pupkin invades Langford’s car, he embarks upon non-stop babble with the objectives of impressing Langford with his comedy potential and recruiting his support for his non-existent career. What he reveals is an embarrassing blend of passionate desire to succeed with not a shred of comedic talent. He tries to behave as if Langford is his equal while saying that Langford is his hero. The scene is shot head-and-shoulders but with only his face, shoulders and arms De Niro produces a painfully recognisable character.

For me, these two movies demonstrate De Niro’s ability, flexibility and imaginative range, but don’t take my word for it based on these few clips. Watch the two movies back to back and they will make the argument much better than I can.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and King of Comedy”

  1. 3 of the movies that were nominated for the 1990 Best Picture Oscar were Goodfellas where DeNiro plays a major character, Awakenings where DeNiro plays a major character, and The Godfather: Part III where in one scene on Michael Corleone’s desk there is a picture of young Vito Corleone played by Robert DeNiro.

  2. I continue to have images in my head of De Niro in Awakenings that plague me with the question “How did he know how to do that?” His ability to capture the physiological deterioration of the patient with catatonia whose positive response to medication is wearing off I still experience as unbelievable. That’s not the kind of thing you learn how to do standing around on a Brooklyn street corner or even by observing in a hospital ward. That he knew what to do with what he saw so that I could see it too is the magic of the man.

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