From 'Mean Streets' to 'Mean Spirits': Robert De Niro speaks out at Lincoln Center salute

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“Thank you, Film Society of Lincoln Center, home of my favorite uptown films,” quipped its 44th annual honoree Robert De Niro pointedly on May 8 after a long film-clip homage to the co-founder (maybe even godfather) of downtown’s Tribeca Film Festival, which just concluded its own 15th cinematic celebration nine days earlier.

A tale of two festivals in one town might account for Lincoln Center’s slowness in acknowledging this local boy making good—not only in 100-plus films in a half-century but also in creating another local launching pad for adventuresome cinema.

Film Society chairman Ann Tenenbaum, in her opening remarks, wrote it all off to scheduling difficulties and getting all the right stars to align at the right time, but even she admitted, sheepishly, how many were shocked he’d never been honored.

Ben Stiller, De Niro’s co-star in the Fockers films (which hardly prompts palm leaves of appreciation), mischievously put out there that De Niro had been scheduled for a Film Society salute in 2000, “but then Rocky & Bullwinkle came out, and they had to wait until enough board members had died before they brought up his name again.”

De Niro, seated in a spotlighted box at the David H. Koch Theater with friends and family (including a hyperactive granddaughter who crawled all over him most of the evening, vying for his attention), roared approvingly at Stiller’s zinger and kept up the gleeful self-deprecation when he reached the stage to deliver his remarks.

Fittingly, the 73-year-old actor was brought on by the man who brought him to the world via Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese. It premiered at the New York Film Festival in the fall of ’73, and neither they nor the world of movies were the same again.

“The Film Society of Lincoln Center is a place that treasures film and, therefore, a place for all of us,” De Niro began somberly (so he could suddenly shift gears into dirt-kicking). “I know you don’t give out this award lightly, but Marty got his in 1998. That’s just three years after Casino, the last of our eight pictures together. I can’t think of anymore who deserved it more—and yet The Film Society of Lincoln Center waited nearly two decades to come after me, until after Dirty Grandpa.”

The Film Society named its annual Lifetime Achievement Award after its first recipient, Charles Chaplin, who got it on April 4, 1972. De Niro used that fact to take a sharp turn into the topical and political. “Every year, when you honor a modern filmmaker at this event, you are also honoring the memory of Charlie Chaplin,” he contended. “Everyone knows Chaplin is a great artist, but he made his movies to entertain. It was only later that they became art. Well, that hasn’t changed. We make movies to entertain audiences. Audiences vote by seeing them; critics vote by writing about them, and then posterity takes its time to decide if they’re art or not.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of our government’s hostility towards art,” he added seriously. “The budget proposal—among its other draconian cuts to life-saving and life-enhancing programs—eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For their own divisive political purposes, the administration suggests that the money for these all-inclusive programs goes to the rich liberal elite. This is what they now call an ‘alternative fact.’ I call it what it is: bullshit.

“By being here tonight, you are supporting arts for everyone. You are supporting the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, the great body of work of Marty Scorsese and Barry Levinson, the dumb-ass comedies of Robert De Niro, the ‘overrated’ performances of Meryl Streep and your own tastes and needs. Give yourselves a hand.” The audience, who laughed uproariously at our President’s slighting of Streep, gladly obliged.

“The administration’s mean-spiritedness towards our art and entertainment is an expression of their mean-spirited attitude about people who want that art and entertainment—people who also want, and deserve, decent wages, a fair tax system, a safe environment, education for their children and health care for all.

"I don’t make movies for rich liberal elites. I got my restaurants for that.”

And you thought Robert De Niro wasn’t funny! Although he didn’t start off funny (Tenenbaum insists Bang the Drum Slowly is “the saddest movie ever made”), he did start off in a comic direction with Midnight Run, opposite Charles Grodin, and gained confidence and expertise in this area. This tribute reflected the best of both.

Sean Penn, who shares a birthday (Aug. 17) and We’re Not Angels with De Niro, evidently didn’t get the keep-it-light memo and began the evening with a leaden, if earnest, eight minutes about how De Niro was the model actor of his generation.

A small sampling: “He is an American actor whose impact, internationally, is unsurpassed in our time or any other. He is also an actor and a man, who—through his talent, intelligence, generosity, shared both through his dazzling cinematic gifts as well as his human clarity—have offered the world and those of us who have been privileged to know and love him a slice of that rare human quality called nobility.”

When Stiller hit the stage, his first crack was “Sean Penn stole all my jokes.”

Not bloody likely. Getting to know him as a friend, Stiller said, “is something I never dreamed would happen, and he assures me it won’t.” They met on-camera, shooting a driving scene in Long Island for Meet the Parents. Every retake required them to drive back to the point of origin—initially, in excruciatingly awkward silence.

“At one point, after four minutes of total dead silence, we passed a house, and Bob turned to me and said, ‘I tried to buy that house, but the real estate agent—he pulled a fast one on me,’ Stiller recalled. “I knew nothing about real estate, but I desperately wanted to respond because this was literally the first time we were having a real conversation, so I said, ‘Why did he do that?’ And I just saw this face transformed into Al Capone, and he let loose with this really scary Max Cady-Goodfellas-Travis Bickle-Raging Bull monologue about what he wanted to do to this fucking cockroach of a real-estate agent—basically, like how he talks about Trump now.”

Michael Douglas, a relatively recent (2013) De Niro co-star—they played romantic rivals in Last Vegas—talked about the day that Taxi Driver Travis Bickle met God: “We had quite a cast on the movie—Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen and the man who has played God twice, Morgan Freeman. One day on the set Morgan walks in, and I yell, ‘Look who’s here. It’s God,’ and Bobby turned around: ‘You talkin’ to me?’”

Meryl Streep, who can play anything, played Robert De Niro for her opener. “In interviews, Robert De Niro is often asked how he does what he does,” she said, starting on a lofty level. “‘What’s his process?’ ‘What is the source of his working genius in discovering and delivering some of the most indelible characters in our film history?’ His answer is remarkably consistent.” She followed this with 30 full seconds of small mouth sounds that never added up to a word. “He doesn’t want to explain himself, and he shouldn’t have to because his work really does speak for itself.”

She’s been savvy to De Niro’s skills since the summer of ’73, following her first year of Yale School of Drama, which she spent time “waiting on tables at Bedminster Inn in Bedminster, New Jersey, when Bedminster was a nice, quiet little town. My dad had neglected to give me a million dollars, so I was busting my butt busing tables.” The one bright spot: She had a friend who was in a movie—Michael Moriarty in Bang the Drum Slowly. She enjoyed Moriarty’s work, but her heart was won by the guy playing the catcher, clearly a non-actor recruited from the minor baseball leagues, a raw talent not bright or malleable enough to work in another movie. A few weeks later, she was startled to find “that hillbilly” again, this time in urban disguise—in Mean Streets.

“I have learned from you my whole life,” Streep said to the man, opposite whom she gave the first of her 20 Oscar-nominated performances (in The Deer Hunter).  “The lesson that he teaches is very simple, but it’s very exacting. If you hold yourself to the highest, hardest standard, you deserve to call yourself an actor, and if you don’t, it’s okay. It’s fun, but you’re just behaving. The thing he brings to his work is risk.”

Harvey Keitel was also on hand to tell what it was like to hang with De Niro. When the New York Film Critics dubbed De Niro the Best Supporting Actor of 1973, the forgotten star of Mean Streets asked to tag along to the Sardi’s do—and proved heroically helpful when the wife of Saturday Review critic Hollis Alpert choked on a chunk of steak. He rushed forth into the fray and found “two men holding a woman upside down shaking her. Her head was just bobbing. She looked like she was dying. I dropped down to my knees, and I put my fingers in her throat. Then she threw up a big piece of meat on my hand and everything else that went with it. The next day in the New York newspapers: ‘Robert De Niro Saves Woman’s Life at Sardi’s.’”

Keitel also brought the prize piece of film of the evening—a black-and-white TV spot in which De Niro is shilling for his beloved Tribeca Film Festival. At the end, with the camera still turning, he asks if the director wants another take. The director does, with more energy. De Niro responds in the same calm flatline. “I’m sorry. That’s energetic. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Sorry. I’m not selling cars, OK?”

Whoopi Goldberg, who knows De Niro more as a neighbor than as a co-star, showed up to attest to some of his limitless abilities. “He can do anything,” she declared. “I bet you don’t realize this, but Robert has played a black man several times in films, and they haven’t been credited because he didn’t want to blow it for other people.

“He’s been able to do things that most actors just pray for. He’s had the career that most people would kill for. And, for him, it’s just what he does. When he and Craig [Hatkoff] and Jane [Rosenthal] created the Tribeca Festival, he did it because that’s what he does. He saw something that needed to happen. He saw an area that was devastated and instead of running, he said, ‘No, we got to do something.’ So he gathered up a bunch of folks, including myself, and put together something that has endured and become truly a mainstay here in New York City. He’s an amazing New Yorker. People from all over the world know Robert De Niro’s from New York.”

Late-blooming activism seems to have made De Niro extraordinarily articulate. For a nonverbal guy, he capped his night with real eloquence: “All of us in film—directors, actors, writers, crew, audiences—owe a debt to Charlie Chaplin, an immigrant who probably wouldn’t pass today’s extreme vetting. I hope we’re not keeping out the next Chaplin. I love Hollywood, but what makes this award so special is that it is in New York with a number of my fellow New Yorkers. For the movies, Hollywood is a place and an industry and a state of mind, but New York—New York is home.”