The recent Chaplin Award tribute to Robert De Niro from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City was a memorable event. The notable guests gave personalized insights into their collaborations with De Niro. Extensive clips highlighted De Niro’s many indelible performances in films like “The Godfather, Part II” (1974), “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980).
Harvey Keitel who appeared with De Niro in films from “Mean Streets” (1973) to “The Comedian” (2016) spoke of the “excellence” of De Niro’s work and told a highly amusing anecdote of a trip to Rome with De Niro. Paparazzi told police that De Niro and Keitel were members of the Red Brigades and the two were arrested. After De Niro was recognized, the two were released. Newspapers said that De Niro was in Rome with his “best friend Keith Carradine.”
More humor followed. Whoopi Goldberg said that De Niro’s attraction to black women made her feel good about the way she looked. She added that she could tell studio executives “Robert De Niro likes me!” Ben Stiller who appeared in “Meet the Parents” (2000) and its sequels with De Niro, joked about how making “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” hurt De Niro’s reputation.
Meryl Streep who starred with De Niro in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Falling in Love” (1984) and “Marvin’s Room” (1996) said that when she was a young actress, the only person she knew with a film role was Michael Moriarty. She went to see him in “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973) and thought that the man (De Niro) playing the naïve ballplayer from a rural background was so convincing he had to be a non-professional.
When Streep saw Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, she was shocked to see the man she thought was a “hillbilly” in “Bang the Drum” portraying an unstable small-time New York hood. With that acting versatility, Streep said she wanted De Niro to be “my teacher for most of my life.”
Both Sean Penn and Barry Levinson, who directed De Niro in films that include “Wag the Dog” (1997), spoke of their high regard for De Niro and his impressive career.
The Chaplin Award was presented by Martin Scorsese who has directed De Niro in many of his most acclaimed films from “Mean Streets” early in both their careers, to “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, for which De Niro received the Best Actor Oscar, “Goodfellas” (1990), and “Casino” (1995). Scorsese spoke of the “lasting trust” between the two of them.
Scorsese mentioned an anecdote that he said illustrates why De Niro is such an outstanding actor. He said that while both of them were preparing “Raging Bull”, they were visited by two United Artists executives. One of the executives asked De Niro in regard to the role of boxer Jake La Motta in the film, “Why do you want to play a cockroach?” De Niro forcefully replied “He’s not a cockroach”.
Scorsese later said the executives had planned to pull financing on the film until the encounter with De Niro. Scorsese added that De Niro “never looks down” on the characters he portrays.
In accepting the Award, and after thanking the previous speakers, Robert De Niro spoke of the importance of the arts and organizations that support the arts like the National Endowment of the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System, particularly in such a “divisive” time with “mean-spirited” government policies.
De Niro joked to the audience that he doesn’t just make films for the “liberal elite”. “That’s what my restaurants are for” he added. He said he makes films “for all of you.”