Saturday, September 5, 1987

Robert DeNiro: Shadow of the Chameleon

Robert De Niro is sitting in a corner of Deauville's Hotel Royal bar, half-hidden by: four bodyguards; Brian De Palma, who directed The Untouchables, the stylish remake of the 1963 TV series set in the Chicago of the Prohibition that's already grossed some $200 million worldwide; Art Linson, the film's producer; two press agents; and Jared Martin, formerly a Dallas featured cast member (he didn't get Sue-Ellen), now an aspiring director in his own right, and part of De Palma's travelling entourage at the Deauville film festival. The time is nine-fifteen p.m. The De Niro party is sitting out The Untouchables 's European premiere, prior to attending a private dinner for De Palma's birthday. Outside the glassed-in bar, in the hotel lobby, pandemonium reigns. Paparazzi, Hotel Royal residents, fans, holidaymakers, festival-goers, even participating lesser movie stars, are glued to the bar's windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the most mysterious screen actor of the day.

The problem is that nobody, not even the most dedicated fans, who've been standing for over an hour pressed against the glass partition, is sure of what De Niro actually looks like. The word is out that he's already shed the two stone he'd gained to play Al Capone - for only ten minutes of actual screen-time, and a reported 2 million dollar-fee. But what about the hair? There isn't a French filmgoer in sight who doesn't know that De Niro went through a harrowing, seven-hour hair-by-hair depilation session with his barber, to exactly reproduce Capone's depleted, receding hairline. So the question goes, has it grown back? Could it be long again, the way De Niro wore it in The Mission and Angel Heart? Is the man bearded? Bespectacled? Tall? Short? At one stage, when Art Linson (6'3", longish hair, greying beard) got up to get another drink, there was a lot of craning and pushing and shoving behind the glass: was he the goods? The real McCoy? De Niro himself? The best film actor of his generation (with two Oscars behind his belt, for The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull) is at last in town - and no-one even knows how to recognise him.

"Would you like some more Perrier?" De Niro asks in his soft, low voice. Robert De Niro, at 44, looks almost ten years younger. He is of average height and build, with a shock of dark, short, unruly hair; greenish-brown eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles, which is often - an unsure, hesitant, never-finished smile. This evening, he's wearing a wrinkled suit in dark-blue linen, a narrow tie, a white shirt and a lizard-skin belt. He's hardly said a word for the past half-hour - sitting back quietly while De Palma dissects Alfred Hitchcock classics and Linson mulls over the seven interviews he's given in the afternoon. When drawn into the conversation, De Niro usually nods in ready agreement: "Yeah... yeah, sure...", he says to Linson, apropos the enthusiastic reception the film's crowd just received in the Casino screening room. But mostly, he just sits there, watching, listening, observing - like some kind of negative presence, a mesmerizing shadow on the leather banquette.

"Mr De Niro?" A young man has hesitantly made his way from the other end of the bar to the "Untouchables" party, the bodyguards around us suddenly alert. It's Lou Diamond Phillips, the 22-year-old star of the rock hit La Bamba, come to plug his film at Deauville. "Mr De Niro, don't you remember me? I'm the bellhop who brought you champagne earlier. At your hotel." Two hours ago, Robert De Niro, holed up in the Presidential Suite of the Normandy hotel, opened the door to a bellhop in a gold-braided red uniform and cap, carrying a bottle of Bollinger champagne and two glasses on a salver. The bellhop uncorked the bottle, had De Niro sign a receipt, pocketed a tip and went off without a word. It was the only way, Diamond Phillips explains now, he could meet the actor he admires most, so he'd borrowed the uniform from one of the hotel's bellboys and bought the champagne himself. De Niro smiles: "That's a good one... that was real good, you did it real good..." he tells Diamond Phillips, who's still shaking from the experience. De Niro's voice is very soft, the tone almost unsure. And still, there's no mistaking it - it still echoes with Al Capone's nasal inflexions, those same flat vowels that ring in one of the film's unforgettably brutal scenes, as Capone shouts to his goons: "I want you to find that nancy boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead, I want his family dead, I want his house burnt to the ground, I want to go there in the middle of the night, I want to piss on the ashes!"

Robert De Niro is definitely the only Hollywood star to be able, as he actually did last year on Broadway, to walk through a crowd of autograph-hunters that have been waiting for him for over three hours, without anyone recognising him. "Where is De Niro? When's De Niro coming out?" eager New York fans once shouted at Ralph Di Macchio, the former Karate Kid, who co-starred as the drug-dealer De Niro's son in the play Cuba and His Teddy Bear. "He's just behind," Di Macchio would say, and the fans obediently turned away from the young actor and his anonymous, plaid-shirted companion - De Niro himself. There have been times when this versatility has proved hasardous to De Niro - such as the day, back in 1981, in Rome, when he and Keith Carradine, the actor, were arrested as terrorists by carabinieri whom paparazzi, enraged at De Niro's refusal to cooperate with them, had tipped off. It took De Niro over an hour in the police station to be able to prove his identity - this barely one month before he was to receive his second Academy Award for his startling portrayal of the boxer Jake La Motta in his friend Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull. There are many stories like these revolving round the secretive De Niro's legend, and most of them are true. "Why didn't you said hello when I came to your class at the Actor's Studio?" De Niro once reproached his long-time friend Shelley Winters. "I would have, except I didn't see you - you're the invisible man!" Winters shot back. "Well, then, have you seen me in [Alan Parker's] Angel Heart?" "Not yet but-" Winters begins, as De Niro, furious, hangs up on her.

"Bobby only exists when he's in someone else's skin," the director Paul Schrader (who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver) once said. De Niro's oldest friends remember the bulging closets taking up most of a room in his dingy West 14th Street New York apartment back in the 60s, full of disguises and costumes he'd put together, to come out dressed as a subway conductor, as a Wall Street type, as a university professor complete with small round spectacles, as a hard-hatted labourer. At the time, De Niro, the high-school dropout only son of two painters, Robert De Niro Sr. and Virginia Admiral (they divorced when he was 2) was desperately trying to break into the New York theatre world, auditioning for off-off-off Broadway plays, experimental shows, anything. "At first," he says, "being a star was a big part of it. When I got into it, it became more complicated. To totally submerge into another character and experience life through him, without having to risk the real life consequences - well, it's a cheap way to do things you would never dare to do yourself."

What does Robert De Niro know of real life these days? His asking price has gone up to $5 million per film. He is insulated from the press as well as from most of his acquaintances by a barrage of secretaries who pick up the telephone wherever he is - even in his own flat, a large TriBeCa loft in New York. His friends swear he hasn't lost contact - that he is capable of real warmth. He did come to Deauville (he hadn't at Venice) because it was Brian De Palma's birthday, and De Palma and him go back a long way. De Palma gave him his first screen parts in three low-budget films, The Wedding Party (1966), Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970), and even though De Niro left midway through the private dinner party given after the Untouchables screening, to fly back to London (where he'd registered at Blake's Hotel under an alias) he had made the trip especially. He also made a point of attending the spring wedding of his friend Michelle Halberstadt, the editor of "Premiere" magazine. He regularly sees both his parents, each of whom he presented with a large loft in Manhattan. (When the struggling De Niro used to go to casting calls back in the early Sixties, he would always take a portfolio and slides of his father's paintings, showing them to anyone he could persuade to look.) He'll spend whole week-ends talking with his friend Martin Scorcese, who grew up in the same Manhattan Lower East Side neighbourhood, and who directed him in five of his best films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy.) "Martin and Bobby will spend half an hour just discussing the way a character knots his tie," the writer Julia Cameron, Scorcese's former wife, once said with some pique.

Robert De Niro has been living for the past few years with Toukie Smith, a beautiful black New Yorker who owns her own catering company, and is the sister of the late designer Willi Smith. (Smith died of AIDS earlier this year, and De Niro made a point of attending the funeral.) He has two children: Raphael, 10, by the black actress Diahanne Abbott - to whom he remains legally married - and Nina-Nadjea, 5, by the black singer Helena Springs. (He invested in a sizeable trust fund for Helena Springs.) The pattern holds: he has also been rumoured to date the equally black singer Whitney Houston.

He has apparently recovered from the difficult period that started with his friend John Belushi's death, of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood in 1982. (De Niro was staying in the next room and had seen Belushi the night before he died. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, wrote a detailed biography of Belushi, Wired, chronicling his drug-taking, and alleging that De Niro had shared in Belushi's drug-taking. De Niro - who never talked to Woodward and was allowed to give his testimony for the inquest on the telephone - never sued. ) But even two years later, he still indulged in wild parties - such as the ones that got him thrown out of the Carlton Hotel during the Cannes film festival in 1984, when he took to relieving himself in the Carlton's corridors. (De Niro, who was at Cannes promoting The King of Comedy, moved on to the Hotel du Cap ten miles away.) There is a dark side to De Niro - which, at 22, sent him to an analyst's couch where he says he found no answers; and which will make him say flippantly "If I hadn't been an actor, I would have been a psychotic or a murderer."

It took Robert de Niro exactly a decade to become the most talked- about actor of the day, an actor whose amazing dedication makes him merge into, and be engulfed by, the characters he plays - to an extent where his own personality, during and after shooting any particular film, is altered by his current part. To play the young Brando in The Godfather, Part II - in which he says only eight words in English - he took daily lessons in Sicilian dialect, spent six weeks in Sicily to work on the part, and studied Brando's performance in the initial film frame by frame. "I didn't want to do an imitation of Brando, but I wanted to make it believable that I could be him as a young man," De Niro said. "I would see some little movements that he would do and try to link them with my performance. it was like a mathematical problem - having a result and figuring out how to make the beginning fit."

To become Travis Bickle, the misfit Vietnam veteran in Taxi Driver, De Niro drove a beat-up cab in New York for several weeks. He learned Latin to be the priest in True Confessions; he trained as a boxer for Raging Bull - building up a magnificent physique and training until, in Jake La Motta's own estimate, he was "among the twenty best heavyweights in the world today," then demolishing all by gorging up in French and Italian restaurants for three months, to gain the fifty-five pounds that would, in his mind, make his ageing, over-the-hill character believable. "A really heavy man doesn't move in the same way," he explained. "He'll walk differently, he'll breathe differently, he won't even speak in the same voice." To play Mendoza, the slave trader turned Jesuit in Roland Joffe's The Mission, De Niro spent six months in the Columbian jungle, bearing up under incredibly tough conditions - mosquitoes, torrential rains, dysentery - as if, like his character, he were doing penance. He actually learnt to play the saxophone for New York, New York.

More than once, De Niro's "instructors" have found it difficult to cope with the magnetic presence of "the goddamn chameleon", as De Palma nicknamed him - the actor-spy who watches and watches and almost seems to want their souls. "My lips were aching and still he was playing," the jazz saxophonist Georgie Auld, who worked with him for New York, New York, said. "Bobby De Niro is as boring as the 'flu!" Jake La Motta's former wife accused him of having caused the breakup of her marriage: "He moved into our house and never left Jake alone, day or night, until my husband lost track of reality, started reliving his whole life of a quarter century ago, and left me. Mr De Niro is a pest!"

The object of those conflicting opinions is still quietly sitting on the banquette of the Royal bar, while snatches of conversation pass over his head: the Untouchables' amazing box-office success (it has passed Beverly Hills Cop 2 on the weekly Variety charts in the U.S.); the profusion of film festivals in France, a country which De Niro loves (he used to live in a Paris bed-sitter 22 years ago, and was given his first screen part ever here, as an extra on film veteran Marcel Carné's Trois Chambres A Manhattan.) A commotion in the lobby signals that the screening is over. The bodyguards then start negotiating our difficult progression across the packed 70-odd yards between the bar and the private dining-room where De Palma's birthday party is to be given. As the crowd presses on all sides, the most striking feature of De Niro's face is that it is totally expressionless. He still smiles his little half-smile, his neck somewhat hunched in his shoulders, while Paramount Pictures security guards make a way for him, and finally show him to his table.

Most of the dinner guests are wary of staring too hard, and only a few dare to walk up to the star and talk to him. (A typical exchange: "The movie is wonderful. " "Thank you." "You really were an unforgettable Capone." "Thank you very much.") De Niro left even before the huge birthday cake was wheeled in, surrounded by bodyguards, a Paramount executive, and the chauffeur. "Is the plane ready to take off?" he asked, still with Al Capone's uncongruous vowels for such an innocuous question. He was told it was. He and his entourage were subsequently swept away, creating a kind of re-pressurisation in the room - everyone's conversation went up several decibels, as if some window had been closed against a cold draft.

Later that night, when the dinner was over, I walked back to the Normandy, and, on the spur of the moment, decided to ask the night concierge to show me the suite De Niro had occupied for a few hours next to my room, on the first floor. It hadn't been cleaned yet, and I hoped to find some sign, some clue, a trace of De Niro's - the chameleon's, the Invisible Man's - passage. There were half a dozen messages slipped under room136's door - letters from fans addressed to De Niro that he had neither opened nor even picked up. But the rest of the suite, under the harsh light of the ceiling fixture, was empty. There were no crumbled papers in the waste basket, not even the imprint of his body on the turned-down bedspread. The basket of fresh fruit from the hotel management were still wrapped in cellophane. The room was vacant - waiting. Like its temporary tenant - between parts.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1987.

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