The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Ariel Schudson kicks off a series on this year's Oscar nominees with two unsung roles from the co-star of Silver Linings Playbook.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

So the Academy Awards were announced this past week, to the usual Sturm und Drang. The Internet was ablaze with nomination discussion and subjective opinion. No Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow for best director? Where was all the Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) love? That many noms for Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012)? What’s up, Academy? And so on and so forth. As for my own perspective, I feel that the way we handle the awards shows circuit is much like opinions based on box office quantities: that kind of hierarchy conflicts with the concept of good art. Alternatively, I am quite pleased that a film such as Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) that emotionally guts you like a Romero zombie, leaving you writhing on the floor (in…a good way?) has been given a nice bit of attention.  In the end, what all of this has inspired me to do is have a little theme for The Myth of Macho for the next few weeks leading up to Oscar Sunday. For the next month or so, each week I will be presenting pieces on some of the individual male nominees and their less well-known and underappreciated works.

While many of the men who are nominated have been famous for years, my feeling is that they have some films that really should be sought out and explored or have hit upon some topics that should really be looked into. During this period of Oscar discourse and the regular games of Who Should Get The Award-Ping-Pong, let’s get together and check out some of these wildly fascinating examples of cinema that have not made it to Oscar’s table. While the intention of the next few weeks will still be to look at each man’s contribution to masculinity and film on a non-awards level, perhaps we can also begin to think about these men’s value as actors and how their filmic contributions have created each one’s individual status up to the point of being a male icon in his own right, enough to be an Academy Award Nominee for a film in 2012.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Believe it or not, there are a plethora of underappreciated Robert De Niro films. While the man is not underappreciated as an actor, there are a fair amount of films that he has done that do not get spoken of as readily as, say, The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), or Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990). This year he is being nominated as Best Supporting Actor in a film called Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012), and while I’m not a fan of the film itself, I thought he did give one of his better performances in quite some time and had a role that I enjoyed. If we were to do a full De Niro filmographic dissection, we would be here for the rest of eternity. The man is a legend. Let’s not quibble over this. Not only does his film career span almost 50 years, but also during that time he has created many of the most iconic and legendary performances of cinema history with some of the most influential directors that have ever touched film. Coppola, DePalma, Leone, Cimino. Yeah, they all made stuff together. And that Scorsese fella? Do we even need to go there? Long story short: Robert De Niro is no schlump.

De Niro’s name has come up before in the Myth of Macho column. This should be no surprise to anyone: he is an iconic figure of masculine cinema. And, while it is almost certain that his work and far-reaching influence will come up again, this week we will be looking at specific performances he has given that may not have gotten the attention that they so rightfully deserve. Throughout the years, De Niro has provided the cinema much to work with in the way of masculinity. Whether he was playing testosterone-charged boxers, highly ranked mafia figures, detectives or lascivious criminals, he always appeared as the embodiment of the hypermasculine. Within these works, however, De Niro has had other themes at play. In films such as Backdraft (Ron Howard, 1991), and A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro, 1993) his characters clearly demonstrate the intimate connection that a man feels between work and male identity. These two films closely examine the relationship between employment and masculinity and the effect one can have on the other. De Niro’s characters are dynamic representations in each respective piece.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

In November’s Myth of Macho, I discussed the film Backdraft in some detail. While Robert De Niro’s character was mentioned briefly in the discussion, the bulk of the piece centered in and on the characters played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin and their story of masculine development. Backdraft’s primary focus is on the story of two firefighter brothers and their rocky relationship as it unfolds around a set of arson-related incidents. De Niro plays Donald “Shadow” Rimgale, the arson investigator that Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) goes to work for when he decides that perhaps the actual act of fighting fires is not for him and he would be better off in a “desk job,” having been somewhat bullied into this decision by his older brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell).

Donald “Shadow” Rimgale is a complex figure. When Brian first meets him, he is screaming at a young fireman, castigating him for making a mistake that will make it infinitely more difficult for Rimgale to prove the situation was arson. The poor young fireman stands there, sputtering, before Rimgale barks at him to leave. Brian then introduces himself and Rimgale proceeds to bites his head off as well.  Brian continues to stand there, waiting for Rimgale to readdress him and give him instructions. He watches as the older firefighter changes his shirt. Through the glass window of the office door, Brian sees that Rimgale’s shoulders and back are horrifically scarred; his flesh resembles a melting candle. Rimgale's anatomy has clearly become part and parcel of his work. While his career may involve fighting what fire is and what fire does to the outside world, Rimgale is a physical embodiment of his own job, carrying it with him wherever he goes as a constant reminder. Unlike many other men, Rimgale’s fleshly form and disfigurement underscore the idea that this profession is not one you can leave at the office: this job makes you who you are.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

The scarring on Rimgale’s back, Brian soon learns, is no average fire-related incident. It stems from an incident that gave him the nickname “Shadow.” This is not a friendly “around the firehouse” moniker, however, it is the label given him by the arsonist Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland). Rimgale takes Brian to an institution for a parole board hearing. Before Mr. Bartel goes before the panel, he tells Brian all about a fire he had set many years ago. According to his story, he would have died if Rimgale, his “shadow,” hadn’t gone in for him. See, during the event, there was a blast of chemicals that occurred which caused Rimgale to go up in flames and left an outline of his body, his “shadow,” against the wall. From that point forth, Ronald has always referred to him as his “shadow.” As Ronald creepily tells the story, Rimgale just stands there, seeming to be mildly uncomfortable with the entire situation, as though he doesn’t like being spoken of or about. It’s not the fact that his body is disfigured, nor that the psychopath is speaking of him in somewhat tender terms. Rimgale’s attitude seems to simply be that he was just doing what he signed on to do, whatever it entailed: arsonist, kitten in a tree, pregnant woman in a highrise. It’s part of the job.

As the film continues, Brian and Rimgale are investigating the various arson-related deaths in the city. As they do so, they realize that one of the main political figures in the city may be involved and they go to his house to examine the situation further. When they enter, they discover that they have interrupted the arsonist mid-game, and he attacks the two men. The arsonist overpowers the men and escapes through the front door while the house looks like it’s about to succumb to the fire that has been set. Rimgale recovers enough to help Brian out the front, returning inside for the politician who he had noticed is knocked out cold. As Rimgale and the politician stumble out the door, the house explodes, shooting the two men through the air, politician landing flat on the ground, Rimgale landing smack-dab on one of the cast-iron fence-posts surrounding the house, alive, but badly injured.

Rimgale’s actions in the film illustrate the kind of supreme sense of sacrifice that many men feel is, literally, part of their job description. The way that his body first became ravaged by fire in the process of saving the life of an avowed arsonist, and now an almost fatal wound while retrieving another person-of-interest (likely guilty). Rimgale’s body plays the part of battleground. His impalement, like his scarred back, is a direct result of going back in for someone who has contributed to the deaths of others. Brian and Rimgale are quite certain the politician has a major role in the arsons they are investigating. That being the case, why would Rimgale risk his life to save him or Bartel? Because it’s his job. It’s what he signed up for. It’s what a man does.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Rimgale’s positioning of the job and its needs over his own represents a certain kind of masculine construction that has a history in the cinematic world. This embroidered quilt of career devotion, loyalty and construction of a “higher order” to which the man in question serves while under employment seems to come up in more than one circumstance. In the past, one could locate this concoction when viewing American war films or classic dramas of the 1940s and 50s. Now, it makes itself known in all kinds of films. Rimgale is willing to sacrifice his body for the larger good, even if it lands him in the hospital, unable to continue pursuing the case with Brian.

The questions we must then ask about this archetype is… how far is too far, and is there a “too far”? Is this kind of dangerous and occasionally almost fatal relationship to one’s vocation something that assists in the evolution of one’s masculinity or is it detrimental? While this behavior is chiefly treated as heroic and brave (which it certainly is, I could never run into burning buildings to rescue people), it is also wise to consider the implications of this kind of job dedication when it is so intimately related to gender concerns. It is not the dedication that is the worry, nor the job. It is the attachment to Maleness that comes with it. Rimgale’s regular displays of power and authority within his office and in exchanges with various people show that he certainly ties his gender definition in with what he does on a daily basis. In fact, it seems that what he does is who he is. And therein lies the ultimate danger: when that little line of demarcation disappears, it becomes problematic.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

A Bronx Tale, the directorial debut of Robert De Niro himself, gives a slightly different perspective on the gender/work landscape. Much like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the main thrust of the film is the relationship between a father and son. Based on a play written by Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale is the coming-of-age story of a young man, Calogero Anello (Francis Capra), in New York in the 1960s. The film traces his close relationships with the two men that he idolizes and looks to for guidance on his way to becoming a man: his father Lorenzo Anello (Robert De Niro), a local hard working bus driver, and Sonny LoSpecchio (Chazz Palminteri), the local mafia kingpin.     

As a child, Calogero is given strict instructions not to go anywhere near the bar that serves as the control center and main hang out for Sonny and his underlings. Unfortunately for Lorenzo and his wife, Calogero’s fascination with Sonny’s world is overwhelming, and he cannot stay away. Eventually, this fascination leads to involvement and Calogero (now given the nickname of “C” by Sonny) becomes part of Sonny’s world, but only so much as he is there to assist them in odd jobs: he is never part of major illegal operations or an accomplice to high-level criminal plans. However, being from the neighborhood, Lorenzo is still highly displeased about this situation, especially when he finds $600 dollars in his son’s room and it is revealed to him that Calogero has, indeed, been spending time with Sonny at the bar. Even if the money was “tips” received when assisting in Sonny’s craps games as Calogero insists it was, it was not earned the right way.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Lorenzo seizes his son’s hand and drags him into the bar, throwing the cash down onto the table, telling Sonny that they cannot take the money. Sonny’s response is that he didn’t give the cash to Lorenzo, he gave it to Calogero, but Lorenzo continues to rail against the mobster, discussing all of the small changes that he has seen in his son since he has started hanging out at the bar, as a result of being around Sonny’s “lifestyle.” He argues that the kind of lifestyle that Sonny lives is not one that he wants to raise his son around. After Sonny tells him that he respects Lorenzo and tells Calogero to do things like finish school, go to college, be an upstanding kid, Lorenzo stops him mid-sentence and tells him, “You don’t understand. It’s not what you say, it’s what he sees: the clothes, the cars, it’s the money, it’s everything. He tried to throw out his baseball cards the other day because he said Mickey Mantle would never pay my rent.” Sonny laughs to which Lorenzo retorts, “It’s not funny when your nine-year-old kid has a bigger bank account than you do.”

The discussion erupts into a cocktail of shouts between the two men, fighting over the small boy. Lorenzo and Sonny face each other, blood boiling, culture and local sensitivities at the forefront (in the very beginning, Sonny mentions that both he and Lorenzo are “from the same neighborhood”), and masculine identities built up as high as the Empire State Building.  Both of these men feel the need to be role models to Calogero, however only one has the biological right to do so. Calogero has unwittingly managed to defang his father as a paternal ideal, however, by becoming so utterly hypnotized by Sonny and his wealth and glory. As the two men stand there like undomesticated animals, wild-eyed and Alpha-dog-minded, it is clear that the one thing they have in common is the one thing that is allowing one man to become more confident in his masculine dominance and the other to feel the desperate need to fight for his.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Lorenzo leaves the bar and the altercation with Sonny and grabs Calogero who is waiting by the hand. The young man immediately asks about the money, to which Lorenzo tells him he left it in with Sonny because it’s “bad money.” Calogero argues with his father and yells until Lorenzo slaps him, producing tears.  “Sonny’s right,” Calogero sobs, “The working man is a sucker, Dad, he’s a sucker.” Lorenzo looks at Calogero straight in the eye and says, “He’s wrong. It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger but try to get up every morning, day after day and work for a living, let’s see him try that! Then we’ll see who the real tough guy is. The working man is the tough guy. Your father’s the tough guy.” Calogero looks at his father, crying, “Everybody loves him, just like everybody loves you on the bus. It’s the same thing.” Lorenzo shakes his head and caresses his son’s face, “No, it’s not the same. People don’t love him. They fear him. There’s a difference.”

Lorenzo finds hard work and masculinity to occupy the same space within the universe. As Calogero grows up, other situations arise in which his father espouses this belief and he tries to show his son the importance of being able to be proud of what you do and working hard for everything that you have. As Lorenzo says to Calogero at one point, “You want to be somebody? Be somebody who works for a living and takes care of his family…I might not have any money, I might not have a Cadillac, but I don’t have to look over my shoulder and I’m proud of what I do and I don’t have to answer to nobody.”  Calogero rejects this, however, and still walks the fine line between Sonny and his father: caught between Sonny’s glamorous life of danger and (what seems to be) easily-achieved admiration and respect, and Lorenzo’s bus-driving world, where if you want something, it takes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears to get there. And male imagery in the two worlds is quite separate. What it means to be a man in Sonny’s world is just not the same as what it is in Lorenzo’s, which, by the end of the film, Calogero finally begins to understand.

The Myth of Macho: Robert De Niro

Lorenzo Anello is the son of immigrants and the proud hard-working father of a boy-child. In the 1960s Italian-American community in New York, this bears great meaning. Raising a child is one thing, but raising a son is another. He is the figure that carries on your name and by that your history, your culture renews itself. While other cultures feel similarly on this issue, the Italian culture, so heavily entrenched in masculine ritual and custom, is practically overflowing with it. Even today, in a time when it seems that this thought process might be outmoded, it endures. A Bronx Tale carries these things but also shows a richer and more expansive side: Lorenzo loves and treasures his child, showing a great deal more tenderness than many other cinematic fathers. Due to his own upbringing and life experience, his conception of masculinity is intimately engaged in his own feelings on labor and familial dedication, but he does not let this stand in the way of his relationship with his son. He makes the attempt to have it both ways.

Lorenzo is a man because he works hard to be one and he works hard for his family. Sonny’s underworld lifestyle where everything comes for free not out of respect or as a result of having made a difference but out of fear of retribution is the world that Lorenzo wants to keep Calogero away from. His desire to raise his son properly and to provide a better life for him, whether the young boy knows it or not, is what being a man is. This is A Bronx Tale.

Both of the roles that Robert De Niro plays in these films reflect men of sacrifice: Rimgale, a man who is willing to do anything for justice including put his body on the line, and Lorenzo, who works his fingers to the bone and goes up against mob bosses just to give his son the best life possible. What these men signify is the characterization of strong and healthy men who work hard at what they do for the good of those around them. In a cinematic world that gives us a plethora of men who are “too cool for school” or “tough as nails,” seeing a father explain to his young son the difference between a feared man and a hard working man and then hold him in his arms while apologizing for getting excessively angry is an anomaly.  The kind of bravery and professional dedication exhibited in rescuing a known enemy from the very disaster that they were responsible for catalyzing is something that not many people on the planet are capable of doing. De Niro has played many roles in his lifetime, from the lowest of the low to family comedies. Having these characters within his overall body of works only proves his flexibility and talent. As dynamic as he is as Max Cady in the remake of Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) and as remarkably funny as he is in the highly underrated Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988), he is just as poignant in A Bronx Tale and just as powerful in Backdraft.

Thanks for joining me in the first of these nominee natters for The Myth of Macho. And remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.