If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.
Throughout his long and varied career — about 135 films and still counting — Robert De Niro has graced movie screens in a variety of roles.
The ones for which he is most remembered are for the tough guys, the men who exuded menace and danger: the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas, Neil McCauley in Heat and Max Cady in Cape Fear (1991).
De Niro has played rogues and rascals; he has done dramas, comedies, thrillers and period pieces. For me, one of De Niro’s most memorable roles was that of Dwight Hansen in This Boy’s Life.
The movie, based on the memoirs of writer and literature professor Tobias Wolff, is set in the 1950s, mostly in the small town of Concrete, Washington.
Unlike the majority of his other performances, De Niro’s Dwight is a weak, insecure individual. He is a bully, an emotional, physical and verbal abuser to his stepson, Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first collaboration with De Niro), as well as Toby’s mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin).
De Niro instills Dwight with a swagger and bravura he uses to cover up his inadequacies and insecurities. The elaborate way he opens his lighter when chivalrously lighting Caroline’s cigarette, his over-the-top and courteous manner when wooing her are obvious veneers disguising a troubled individual.
De Niro begins showing Dwight’s defects on his first night with Caroline after they are married. He refuses to consummate the marriage in the traditional missionary position, insisting that they make love doggie-style because he does not want her to see his face and he also wants to have power over her.
He immediately begins a reign of mistreatment over Toby, forcing him to get a paper route and giving Dwight his earnings, ostensibly to put away as savings for his stepson.
No matter how Dwight tries to portray himself as a big man, circumstances undercut him to reveal his true nature. When he and Caroline attend an NRA-sanctioned shooting competition, he fails miserably, receiving a low score. Caroline, also an NRA member, insists on competing and betters Dwight by earning a much higher score. Instead of complimenting his wife, Dwight is embarrassed and humiliated. He begins to grouse how his rifle has not been working properly and fails to congratulate his wife.
To cover up his inadequacies, scriptwriter Robert Getchell has Dwight repeat, “I know a thing or two about a thing or two,” as a way of insisting that he is not a loser.
Throughout This Boy’s Life, the actor De Niro is very generous to the actor DiCaprio. Despite their age differences, there is a spark that ignites between them. They are very similar in their technique and approach. The pair have worked together one other time, in Marvin’s Room, so it will be interesting to see how they fare together in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon.
The high-point sequence in This Boy’s Life’s collaboration between De Niro and DiCaprio is near the finale — the uncomfortable and abusive “mustard jar” sequence.
Toby is making a sandwich and believes the mustard jar is empty. Dwight insists the jar still contains enough mustard for Toby to use. An argument escalates into a physical battle with the much larger Dwight pummeling Toby, with the boy — releasing years of frustration — fighting back.
Dwight punches and kicks Toby with scant regard to the boy’s smaller size and age. Finally, Caroline intercedes and smashes furniture over Dwight’s head, knocking him to the kitchen floor.
Caroline finally has had enough of Dwight as well and, at Toby’s urging, decides to leave with him. When Toby demands the money Dwight had supposedly been saving for him from his paper route and other jobs, the stepfather admits he had spent it all.
In disgust, Caroline belittles Dwight’s manhood, at which point Dwight starts whining like a little bitch — asking when it is going to be his turn and when is someone going to care about him. It is a pathetic sequence, in which De Niro nakedly displays Dwight’s vulnerabilities and insecurities under the sham bravado that has, for years, masked his weaknesses. De Niro plays the scene so magnificently that, despite how reprehensible Dwight is, you almost feel sorry for him.
The movie ends with Caroline and Toby running from the house, leaving a broken Dwight to his comeuppance — a lonely existence, realizing that he is a basically an exposed little man with real future.
This Boy’s Life is Toby’s story but it is De Niro’s characterization that makes the movie unforgettable.
Bob Bloom is a founding member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I review movies, 4K UHD, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (ReelBob.com), The Film Yap and other print and online publications. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow me on Twitter @ReelBobBloom and on Facebook at ReelBob.com or the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My movie reviews also can be found at Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com.