The Magazine

A Stellar Eclipse

The fault, dear moviegoers, is not in our stars

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By SONNY BUNCH
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That obsessive self-destructiveness is in all the Scorsese-De Niro characters.  

In the meticulously researched and compellingly written Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, Glenn Kenny drills down into that relationship at much greater length. A quote from De Niro seems to sum up his early alienated outsiders, his Travis Bickles and Rupert Pupkins and Johnny Boys: “You know how a crab sort of walks sideways and has a gawky awkward movement?” 

“Not straightforward?” the interviewer queries. 

“No. Not devious in that sense. Crabs are very straightforward, but straightforward to them is going to the left and to the right. They turn sideways; that’s the way they’re built.”

De Niro, especially in his earlier years, always seemed to be looking for the right crab walk to emulate. It’s why, for a long time, he was a great actor but not a huge star. Audiences are put off by sideways-movements; they need someone coming straight ahead. It’s no real surprise, then, that Kenny’s handsome volume—which features hundreds of full-color photos and 10 essays, each centered on one film from the great actor’s career—focuses more tightly on De Niro’s early years. Seven of its 10 essays focus on films that were released between 1973 and 1988; his most recent quarter--century of work merits just three. 

Kenny writes, gently:

In the movies of this period [the 1990s] in which De Niro’s performances have had the most effect, the critical viewer can detect something different from the absolute immersion that characterized his work in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The emphasis seems less on the idea of “becoming” the character than on identifying and nailing defining or transformative moments for the character.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that these more commercial works—many of which (Goodfellas, Heat, Casino, Ronin) are quite good—are also characterized by a De Niro who is digging slightly less deeply into the roles he has chosen. As his stardom grew, his acting—well, “declined” would be the wrong word, but the absolute immersion was definitely gone. 

Tom Cruise, by contrast, has never wavered in his intensity, the quality for which he is best known. Amy Nicholson’s Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor catalogues the ways in which Cruise managed to become not just the biggest movie star in the world, but also one of the most interesting. Nicholson “tracks the superstar’s smartest and most perilous choices, the roles that could have derailed his career but instead defined it. It’s a study of craft and calculation, of Hollywood’s most powerful underdog still chasing the respect he’s more than earned.” 

Tom Cruise has always been considered a “star” rather than a great actor, a distinction Nicholson believes to be unfair. She catalogues Cruise’s career choices, noting that for almost 20 years he refused to do a sequel—turning down millions to do Top Gun 2, for instance—opting instead for the riskier, less commercial Born on the Fourth of July (1989) or a run-of-the-mill action film (Mission: Impossible, 1996). And yet everyone reacts with surprise when he hands in a head-turning performance, as he did as the pick-up artist T. J. Mackey in Magnolia (1999) or the outrageous studio head Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (2008). 

Cruise’s status is occasionally a bit confounding. “The oddity of Cruise’s career is that his good looks don’t translate into sex appeal,” Nicholson writes. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if that odd asexuality is a reason Cruise—inarguably one of the five biggest icons of the 1980s and ’90s—is omitted entirely from James Harvey’s book. Cruise’s intensity works against him. He’s too driven to be believable as a lover; there’s something missing just behind the eyes. Instead there’s a calculating coldness that never quite disappears. It’s hard to think of another megastar from Hollywood’s past or present for whom this is true.

Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise have both suffered in our modern age. As the clout of movie stars declines, they seem a bit lost. This summer’s Edge of Tomorrow was Cruise’s first nonfranchise picture to top $100 million domestically in almost a decade—and it barely scraped past that mark. And with the exception of 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook—not exactly marketed as a “Robert De Niro picture”—De Niro hasn’t had a real breakout hit (that wasn’t tied to the Meet the Parents series) since 1999’s Analyze This