Watching Robert De Niro win the Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award Sunday night, I recalled the first time I saw De Niro, in Brian De Palma's "Greetings" and "Hi Mom."
Those satires about a young man avoiding the Vietnam draft are forgotten today in light of later ground-breaking De Niro performances in "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." Watching "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom" in the long-gone Varsity Theater near LSU's campus, I had no idea that De Niro would be the towering star of the next 50 years, although he burst from the screen with lunatic energy in those fledgling roles.
Only rivaled by Jack Nicholson, De Niro has dominated movies during his career, even in his many roles in lesser films. At age 76, De Niro remains prolific, recently appearing in Martin Scorsese's lauded "The Irishman" and Oscar favorite "The Joker." De Niro at the end of his warm and politically charged SAG acceptance speech looked ahead to appearing with Leonardo Dicaprio in Scorsese's new film, "Killers of the Flower Moon."
De Niro and Nicholson rocketed to fame when movies held a central place in American culture. Later stars like Dicaprio and Brad Pitt haven't reached De Niro and Nicholson's prominence. The early films of Nicholson and De Niro possessed a creative originality that ebbed as theater attendance declined and Hollywood turned to special effects and superhero sensationalism.
This year's Oscar nominations reveal that creative exhaustion. While "The Joker" is provocative, its shock value is more gratuitous than visionary. "The Irishman" treads the same ground as Scorsese's dazzling early work. "Little Women," "Marriage Story" and "Judy" recycle traditional Hollywood genres. The South Korean film "Parasite" stands out for its originality.
De Niro likes to think of himself as just another working actor. In his best performances, he reached heights achieved by only the greatest artists.