Between 1974 when he won Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the young Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II and 1991 when he was contending for Best Actor in Cape Fear, Robert De Niro was nominated six times and won two Oscars (1980’s Raging Bull was the other one) in a span of 17 years. But remarkably it has now been 21 years since that last Academy Award shout-out in ’91, a long Oscar dry spell for the man many consider our greatest living film actor. With the release in November of David O. Russell’s critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro is genuinely contending for his first Oscar nomination in over two decades as the obsessive compulsive, sports-betting Philadelphia Eagles fan, and father Pat Sr.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: David O. Russell
Already nominated for Critics Choice Movie Awards and SAG Best Supporting Actor honors, De Niro is favored to repeat the feat on January 10th when Oscar nominations are announced, and although he is pleased about the buzz for his performance, he isn’t getting his hopes up as he told me when we spoke over the weekend in a rare interview. “Of course I am happy about it all and the reception, but I don’t want to expect much because I don’t want to be disappointed. I have had a lot of experience over the years and then you expect and you think and it never happens. So all I try to do is be even-keeled about stuff,” he says.
One surprising nomination he didn’t get for Silver Linings was for a Golden Globe, this despite the fact that he has always been a favorite with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with 8 previous nominations, a win and the prestigious life achievement honor, the Cecil B. De Mille Award just two years ago when he joked in his very funny acceptance speech that, “We’re all in this together – the filmmakers who make the movies and the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who in turn pose for pictures with the movie stars. More Hollywood Foreign Press members would have been here, but they were deported just before the show. Along with the waiters.” Some media have speculated his omission from the Globes list this year could be retaliation for those remarks. De Niro hopes not.
“I thought (it was funny). I thought (host) Ricky Gervais was terrific. I don’t know but there was something about what he did. I don’t know whether it was just for attention or it was real, but he was terrific. But the most important thing about the Golden Globes is they have to have a sense of humor about themselves and if there is any payback for anything, that is not right”.
Whatever happens this awards season, De Niro is clearly pleased to be in Silver Linings and enjoyed the style David O. Russell brought to it in part using handheld cameras and 360- degree angles for some scenes where he created a looser atmosphere for actors to create their roles. “It was different. I have done some things like that but not really. His style is very unique, specific to him and I think it’s really great because it adds a certain immediacy, a spontaneity, an unpredictability. You don’t know where it is really going to go and it has that energy to it with a lot of the handheld stuff. David will throw lines at you. You already know what you are doing scriptwise but there are times he is going to throw lines at you that are spontaneous and right. And that’s great,” De Niro said.
Working with the SAG nominated ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver and Bradley Cooper was also a big plus for him. He and Cooper had recently made Limitless together, which helped in developing their father/son relationship in Silver Linings. “It was great. Whatever built-in relationship you had before, there is obviously no down side to that. And that was a plus for us, not so much a shorthand but just liking each other. I could feel him as being my son. It’s not a difficult one to have a connection. It certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said. He also liked the real-life comedy the script provided. I pointed out it reminded me of films like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that effortlessly blended comedy and drama.
“I liked Silver Linings. I enjoy it all for whatever category you want to put it in. But this is more like life, irony where the characters might think it’s funny or might not look funny but they are in a very kind of serious situation. There’s interplay with a family member or the whole family dynamic and there’s nothing where they’re concerned that is that funny about it, but the audience can look outside and feel it’s funny, and I think that’s great. That to me is the most interesting material,” he said.
De Niro of course founded the Tribeca Film Festival and is a big champion of the kind of independent filmmaking that Silver Linings also represents. The film is in fact nominated for five indie Spirit Awards. But for an actor who has easily navigated between studio and smaller budgeted fare, which does he prefer? “It depends. Independent films are usually the more risky ones. The other big films are more formula kind of things. That’s fine. It is what it is but the independents have nothing to lose. Some of the independents are trying to just make it special and personal,” he said noting that whatever the form, it is what is on the page that matters. “It’s always hard to find good scripts. Most of them are not so good. That’s just the way it is. You just go through it and find the better things. Unless it is a director like David or Scorsese or certain directors who you know are smart and whatever they do is going to be interesting.”
De Niro has kind words for some critics too, saying he actually learns something from the better ones because friends are not necessarily going to be as honest with him and he appreciates the perspective critics can offer. Many of them have said this is his best work in 20 years. He thinks it has less to do with the work than the film being seen widely. “I don’t know why. I never used to feel this way. I always thought it was on the merits of the performance or the movie, everything. But if you have the support from the people who are producing it or distributing it, that’s a good part of it also. This movie in particular, everybody likes it that I have heard. I haven’t heard from anybody who doesn’t but they aren’t going to tell me obviously. So it is just a good thing overall in terms of being well-received,” he said, noting one film he was very proud of was 2009’s Everybody’s Fine but it was a box office disappointment.
“I think it was frankly left flat by Miramax (post-Weinstein) and the parent company (Disney). They just left it. They said they weren’t going to do that but of course they did. I think the approach in how you present it is important… I don’t know what happened with it. I never say this about myself but I was proud of that and Kirk Jones is a terrific director. I certainly worked very hard on that one,” he said.
De Niro clearly still loves what he does. He has several films of varying types, as usual, in the pipeline (he just finished shooting Last Vegas) and is excited at the prospect of a new project that may come together with his longtime friend and directing partner Martin Scorsese named I Heard You Paint Houses (or The Irishman as it is currently being called). Al Pacino and Joe Pesci would co-star. “I never talk about stuff. I don’t like to because it seems whenever you do it never works out. I’m so careful. But I am feeling good about it and hoping it will all work out, ” he said.
In the meantime he is happy Silver Linings Playbook worked out as well as it did. “You do a movie and you don’t know how it is going to be received. You really don’t. If this movie was received in another way I would say it doesn’t really take away from everything we did. You can’t predict how the public or the audience is going to feel about something or how collectively it is a nerve or something people have. Taxi Driver was the same thing. I just don’t know. I am happy when people like them but you do your best, and that’s all you can do.”