I don't exactly love Pacino and De Niro. I'm not quite sure why everyone does
But one suspects that they are loved less for their acting ability than for their roles as men who pound heads into tables
18 June 2015
mong the many inviolable rules of film criticism - that Nic Cage is a genius; that Terminator 2 was better than the first Terminator; that Kevin Costner will never, ever not be absurd – the most inviolable of all centres on Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the holy trinity that, whether you like their films or not, must be bowed to as towering luminaries.
There’s no question that we owe these guys a debt of gratitude, not only for the mob movies of the last 40 years, but for the equally strong tradition of name-dropping Marty or Bob as a sign a young actor has made it. Old guys whose paths they once crossed nurse the anecdotes like gold. Cameras at awards ceremonies close in on their faces, which are often baffled in the manner of a monarch so grand he can’t make sense of the mortals around him.
I’ve had cause to think about this reverence twice in the last week: first when Kyle Smith wrote a piece in the New York Post claiming that women, to their detriment, don’t get Goodfellas; and then again after a run-in with De Niro, the star of that movie, who is promoting a new film. (Our interview was brief. De Niro was either out of sorts, or, after a lifetime of being toadied to by everyone he meets, is simply too celebrated to conduct a normal conversation.)
Smith’s piece was roundly mocked for being silly and reductive, and, sure, lots of women love Goodfellas. After re-watching it, however, I’m not one of them – and if I never have to sit through the Godfather again, either, I’m pretty sure I’ll survive.
These films, so often cited in best-of lists and lip-synched to by legions of fans, are long-winded, dimly lit and over-rated. And while their narrative arcs might be great (guy kills other guy, gets killed by first guy’s friends, who kill each other ad infinitum until the Feds yell “Stop!”) and the acting convincing, they are also jerk-off movies – in this case, for the kind of man who mourns the end of the age of machismo – passing themselves off as profound or insightful.
I don’t want to be too much of a buzzkill about all this: mobster tales are fun in the way that cartoons are fun. What I struggle with (which, like the verb “ to find problematic”, has become the polite way to say “loathe”) is the way that mobster movies invite us to believe that they are deeply meaningful in a way that excuses the heroic portrayal of their gratuitous, male-centered violence. Years ago, I remember running into a friend after she’d been at her boyfriend’s for dinner. “He made me watch Once Upon A Time In America”, she said miserably of the Sergio Leone love-letter to New York’s violent past. “That horrible rape scene seems to go on forever.”
All actors become proxies for the roles that they play, and so Pacino and De Niro are, one suspects, loved less for their acting ability than for their status as men who pound heads into tables. The wives in these movies always get pushed down at some point, too, without in any way denting the likeability of the hero. (This happened in the recent James Brown biopic, Get On Up, in which the soul singer casually batters his wife and goes on to win the movie.) But presenting a slightly more complex understanding of violence – let alone domestic violence – doesn’t have to be limited to a Movie of the Week or a Ken Loach vehicle, and actors worth universal acclaim and admiration should be able to portray violent characters as anti-heroes, not just heroes.
Calling out movie stars for self-importance is like asking a dog why it scratches its fleas - it’s the nature of the beast. But in the case of Pacino-De Niro-Scorsese, do we have to collude with them in such slavish devotion to the work? Because even if you love Goodfellas and the Godfather, Little Fockers and Grudge Match should act as a natural break to hero worship and bring you resoundingly back to your senses.