Monday, November 03, 2014

Robert De Niro gets the biography he deserves

By JAMIE S. RICH/Special to The Oregonian
October 28, 2014

Shawn Levy
Crown Archetype, $32.50
586 pages

It's impressive that after five decades in the motion picture business, Robert De Niro the man has mostly remained an enigma, even as he built an outsized reputation as an actor. That's no easy trick in the current pervasive celebrity culture. For most of his career, De Niro has let his work speak for him.

And so it's no daunting task that Shawn Levy, a former movie critic at The Oregonian, has undertaken, attempting to get to know the notoriously private performer via the printed page. "De Niro: A Life" is likely as close as anyone can get to figuring out just who the star of "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull" is in private, and the author's respectful tone and preference for art over scandal would likely please the book's subject if he took the time to read it.

Levy starts his portrait before the beginning, tracing De Niro's lineage, getting to know the man's parents, and detailing how they came together. The future icon was born in 1943 to an artistic family, living a New York childhood that could itself serve as an opening act for a generations-spanning movie. "De Niro" shows how the actor's business-minded mother and more flighty father, a well-known painter, set the foundation for a driven artist to get ahead in an entirely different medium.

This is Levy's skill: in making connections between the various facts and anecdotes to create a full history of any given moment of time. He writes clearly and concisely of the many personal detours that De Niro took on the way to stardom, and then the incredible dedication and obsessive nature that allowed De Niro to claw his way to the top of his craft.

The first half of De Niro's career takes up the bulk of the book, and it will likely also prove the most interesting to cinema fanatics looking to get the backstage details on some of their favorite films. Levy covers them all, including "The Godfather, Part II," "The Deer Hunter," and De Niro's multiple collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The prose revels not just in the minutia of the productions but also establishes what else was going on in the world, the kind of tangential events that contributed to how and why each movie got made.

In between, "De Niro" detours into more personal territory, catching us up with the actor's parents, piecing together the particulars of his romantic entanglements and marriages, and revealing how De Niro expanded into being a producer, director, and entrepreneur. It's all rather immersive, and it makes for an addictive read.

The narrative vivacity begins to wane somewhere around the mid-1990s, not coincidentally around the same time De Niro's artistic endeavors become less reliable. This is not a fault of Levy's, and he does his best to divine an explanation for the actor's often-inexplicable choices. If "De Niro: A Life" grows less detailed as it goes on, it's because there is less to report, and for the bulk of the man's fans, far less interest in what he got up to.

Even so, the book ends on a high, celebrating the legendary actor as he turns 70, settling into his responsibilities as a father and a grandfather while still seeking out new opportunities to employ his skills.

"De Niro: A Life" will make you re-evaluate your appreciation of the actor and his art. Don't be surprised if you find yourself digging through your DVD/Blu-ray collection and scrolling Netflix to make your own mini-De Niro film festival when you're through.

Reading: Levy reads from "De Niro" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at Powell's City of Books. He'll present screenings of "A Bronx Tale" at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Northwest Film Center and "Bang the Drum Slowly" on Dec. 8 at the Hollywood Theatre.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist, comic book writer, and reviewer;

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