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.
Picture it. America, late summer 2007. Bob Barker had retired from The Price is Right. Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were nearing their Nobel Peace Prize for disseminating greater knowledge of man-made climate change and how to counteract it. I was wrapping up my freshman year of college, having decided to change my majors and second-guess everything.
And Robert De Niro was five years into not giving a shit anymore.
Perhaps that’s why he took the role of Captain Shakespeare in Stardust, a pirate captain with a fearsome reputation who peddles in illegal lightning bolts he’s harvested on his sky vessel Caspartine but whose penchant for poetry, crossdressing and Offenbach’s “Galop Infernal” was completely at odds with De Niro’s tough guy career. De Niro had simply reached a stage of utter unconcern and did not have to worry about his character’s observation: “Reputations, you know — a lifetime to build, seconds to destroy.”
Months before the release of Stardust, a Gallup poll found 53% of Americans thought same-sex marriage should neither be legally valid nor afforded similar rights as heterosexual marriage agreements. (That percentage is down to 28% today.) De Niro didn’t seem to care much about that once-majority opinion and had already been vocal in supporting the queer community. In 1999, he produced and starred in Flawless, a crime dramedy chronicling a man’s friendship with a transgender woman. In 2002, he helped found the Tribeca Film Festival, which explicitly included LGBT+ films in its annual lineup. After Stardust, his artistic advocacy continued. He shared his father’s struggles with sexuality in the documentary Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. and expressed worry for his gay son amid more currently turbulent events.
I tend to separate intention from art wherever I can, though — not because of some dire, intellectual commitment to Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author but because I often find meaning not tied to intention to be so much deeper and more interesting. Good intentions can show where our assumptions are and where we need to grow. The inverse is often true as well. Even bad or misguided intentions can reveal the truths for which we must work harder.
Such is the case here. As much as De Niro may have felt comfortable taking on roles just because, it’s doubtless that De Niro had good intentions as well. But what is another destination at which we can arrive? After all, movies like Flawless and Stardust can now be critiqued on the other side of two decades through a queer lens for myriad reasons. What survives years later rather than “He meant well” and “Times have changed”?
Stardust’s atmosphere and sense of wonder, a common thread in most things created by Neil Gaiman, is perhaps only rivaled in film by 1987’s The Princess Bride. Both benefit from a writer capable of creating a deep world that feels whole and complete, and one about which we’re eager to learn more. What’s special about Gaiman’s world is that it is steeped in his command of mythology as storytelling. One sees the interpersonal dramas of gods echoed in brothers’ quests for a throne, the pitfalls of magic and the enduring power of love. It’s a sufficiently complicated tale, too. The baddies all aren’t after the same things, but all of their goals overlap with those of protagonist Tristan Thorn, leading to a satisfying climax.
De Niro’s character is an add-on for the film, based on Gaiman’s character Captain Johannes Alberic (a relatively minor character in the book). So, Gaiman purists may raise an issue here, but a queer reading may also.
De Niro plays Shakespeare in a camp style, with exaggeration in his mannerisms and way of speaking. Camp, as an aesthetic, can be a tremendously interesting style that simply points out that everything social is performative. Camp plays, as Susan Sontag wrote, “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” In the queer experience, camp can be seen as history and power and style — and it mimics the performing of cisheteronormative rituals for the sake of remaining safe. It is parody and truth all wrapped up in one.
Reading Captain Shakespeare in this way is a layered endeavor, rewarding in the same way William Shakespeare enjoyed playing with gender on the stage. Male actors comprised all commercial acting troupes until 1661, when female actors were able to act professionally. So, in plays like Twelfth Night, a male actor would play the female role Viola, who is disguising herself as the male page Cesario — calling to mind some lyrics to Blur’s “Girls & Boys.” De Niro exaggerates with camp for a character exaggerating toughness to his peers.
Unfortunately, campness can also look a lot like homophobic actions meant to denigrate the queer experience as well. The stereotypical uncle at the family reunion who might talk with a lisp while dropping the F-slur. Is it camp or is it mockery? Do Captain Shakespeare’s behaviors represent capability with his duties and evidence of layered dualisms or is he, too, ultimately an example of weakness?
On my recent rewatch of Stardust, it’s hard not to see those prongs in De Niro’s performance. Perhaps it’s because of his history of a tough guy or perhaps my perception of an older, white male who looks very similar to the folks who do not celebrate queerness. The initial reaction is to cringe, even if only slightly. It is easy to be on guard.
Obviously, his performance was well-received enough for Stardust to win GLAAD’s Media Award for Film — Wide Release that year (and perhaps contribute to De Niro’s eventual special award for Excellence in Media later). Of course, queer critics may point out that GLAAD also awarded Bill Clinton, who signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so it’s not as though the organization’s opinion is unimpeachable.
Ultimately, literary (and film) theory makes us return to the medium itself and look at the explicit evidence the art gives us. It’s more than De Niro’s individual choices and how we view them. It is these choices in this particular script with these particular characters in this particular story. And, here, Captain Shakespeare’s relationship with his crew needs some attention.
De Niro leverages all of that tough-guy reputation in Captain Shakespeare’s attempt to be perceived as such to his crew. It’s arguably Sontag’s definition of camp. It is performance. It is a degree of artifice. Captain Shakespeare believes this is what a pirate captain is supposed to be.
But it’s well-known among the crew that Captain Shakespeare isn’t the person who will throw someone from an airship. In fact, they breathe a sigh of relief when they land safely with the captain at the helm, and some of his not-very-good-at-all attempts at performative toxic masculinity, like appearing to gift Tristan with Claire Danes’s Yvaine for “entertainment,” provoke an eyeroll from the first mate. Still, they mirror back his performance. They pretend not to recognize Tristan when he reappears after his faux defenestration. They grunt and cheer at the captain’s attempts.
Despite their recognition that this is a captain who shouldn’t pilot a ship and who only plays at violence for a reputation, the crew trusts him. He is a shrewd negotiator for their goods. He railroads Ricky Gervais’s Ferdy when selling him lightning. It brings to mind HBO’s recent series Our Flag Means Death. If the results are good, a pirate crew will tolerate a lot.
After Prince Septimus attempts to extract information from Captain Shakespeare, we may see a queer man in weakness, unable to physically overpower an intruder … or we may see someone demonstrating strength and integrity, willing to sacrifice his life to protect people dear to him rather than speak and betray them. Captain Shakespeare’s only concern is for his “reputation,” of which his all-male crew reassures him. They elevate a standard of loyalty and protection rather than abandonment. “You’ll always be our captain, Captain.” It is healthy masculinity that hits a certain beat because of De Niro’s over-the-top performance paired with real-world reputation (and the reputation of pirates as well).
Stardust, then, might be considered one of those transitionary films where irony begins to fall away in favor of authenticity. I would say my biggest disappointment as I tack toward this sort of viewing is actually Captain Shakespeare’s wink to the character Humphrey at the end, which leads commentators to speculate on the captain’s sexual orientation when there is no other evidence otherwise. If omitted, Captain Shakespeare’s queerness stakes out what Mary Nardini Gang described as “the qualitative position of opposition to presentations of stability — an identity that problematizes the manageable limits of identity. … Queer is a total rejection of the regime of the Normal.” A shrewd sky pirate who loves feathered boas and Earl Grey tea that can’t be explained away as a humorous “campy, gay man” would have been extremely delightful. What if he is “straight,” whatever that label would mean? What comes up for us with Captain Shakespeare’s performative gestures, then? How do we merely accept a complex character capable of holding what we may view as “contradictions”?
In 2007, I was far from my current iteration of my own identity, but I remembered such joy in seeing De Niro’s performance and showing people the movie simply because of his scenes. In that memory, it isn’t because it was funny to see a tough guy in a dress. In that memory, it is simply the awe of anything that came close to queer joy. It was seeing strength and whimsy combined into one and comfort to operate within both. It was some of the first water on the first green sprouts of possibility for me.