Today: fathers and sons and families with gay members who find a way to work out their lives. Remembering Robert De Niro Sr. is On Our Radar.
My son Adam is a big Robert De Niro fan. He likes shows, both fiction and non, about mafia types. He cried real tears when James Gandolfini died, something I hadn’t seen him do since the doctor told him his newborn daughter Madison had to have surgery. In fact, he wanted to name Madison “Adriana” after a character on the Sopranos who was killed for “ratting to the feds,” but thankfully her mother exercised her veto power. To my mind, Robert De Niro fits squarely into that ‘tough guy”category.
Adam often says he thinks Robert De Niro is the greatest actor of our time, to which I always reply, “Meryl Streep”. It would be silly to argue that Mr. De Niro isn’t incredibly talented, he has so many awards I don’t have space to list them all. (See Wikipedia.) But I have never seen him do a warm fuzzy character. I think Meryl has greater range.
We rekindled that argument the other day when Adam chanced upon the De Niro movie Awakenings while he was channel surfing. “You see, here’s another movie he’s not a mob guy.” Adam pointed out, which launched the debate. Had Meryl ever played an action hero? Had De Niro ever done a romantic love scene?” Have you seen Sophie’s Choice? Have you seen Taxi Diver? We were about five minutes in when six-year-old Madison lifted her head from her video game at the sound of De Niro’s voice coming from the TV and said, “I think he’s been a shark. Has Meryl Street (sic) ever played a fish?”
It’s true, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese are voices in the kids movie Shark Tale. So maybe I’m underestimating his range. But this week I discovered that while Mr. De Niro is rarely cast as a character with a soft side, in his real life, he definitely has one.
Sundance, Robert Redford’s movie festival, was in full swing this week, and the crop of LGBT-themed movies this year is impressive. The Advocate listed 23 must see flicks, including John Lithgow’s Love Is Strange and the HBO documentary The Case Against 8, which, along with Tuesdays, have gotten the lion’s share of the buzz in LGBT publications. But there is one LGBT-themed film the Advocate overlooked, perhaps because they felt it is more about being a family than it is about being gay. It’s a documentary called “Remembering The Artist Robert De Niro Sr.” and it was made by the actor we all thought we knew so well by the humanity that leaked out through the characters he played, but who, it turns out, we didn’t know at all.
When Robert De Niro was three years old, his father came out as gay and left the family. I have seen the elder De Niro quoted as saying “I realized I was gay,” a phrase, I have found, that often masks years of suffering. I am sure his son could have made a three hour epic on that phrase and the angst it engendered and its eventual resolution. But the film he chose to make is not really a film about De Niro Sr. the gay man, so much as it is about De Niro Sr. the artist, and the father.
Even after he came out, De Niro Sr. stayed part of the family. He lived within walking distance from his son and his ex-wife, who was also an artist, but who, like most women of that era, gave up her art to raise her son. But the couple met in an art class. The DNA of the baby they gave to the world was twice-blessed with creativity.
The younger De Niro lived with his mother, but remained close to his father. He told reporters he made Remembering Robert De Niro Sr. because he wanted his younger children, who were born after his father died, to know who their grandfather was. De Niro even preserved his father’s studio, so his children could see where he worked.
Robert De Niro Senior was one of the more successful artists of the fifties, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. He was championed by Peggy Guggenheim, who showed his paintings at her New York gallery. His style is described as “figurative”, which I had to look up. (It means derived from real objects.) I have also seen it described as “expressionism,” which I didn’t. (It means charged with emotion.) I guess that means he painted real things that the viewers respond to emotionally.
Then the sixties changed the art landscape. The public clamored for Peter Max psychedelic posters and Andy Warhol soup cans. De Niro’s paintings went out of style. He made no bones about how he didn’t consider the new “pop-art” any kind of art at all. He moved to Paris hoping to get away from it, and he battled depression.
De Niro Sr. was rescued by his son, already a successful actor, who brought him back to America and helped him financially. When the younger De Niro opened his Tribeca Grill, he persuaded his father to allow him to showcase some of his paintings there. He expected his father to say no, but to his surprise the elder De Niro came to the restaurant and hung them himself. The son also talked his father into doing the artwork for the menu. De Niro Jr. says as long as it exists, the restaurant will always use it.
After his father died at the age of 71, De Niro created an award in his name, the Tribeca Film Institute’s Robert De Niro Senior Prize, given to “a mid-career American artist devoted to the pursuit of excellence and innovation in painting.” It comes with $25,000 award.
Remembering Robert De Niro Sr. is a tribute and a story about unconditional love. Though it was never intended to be, it is also a testament to the success of a family with a gay member who made it work. That in itself is a hopeful and inspiring message to a lot of gay men and lesbian women and their straight spouses – and especially their children – who are struggling to figure out their lives.
I feel like I know the very private Robert De Niro Jr. much better now than I ever would have, trying to glimpse the man through his movies. Maybe the next time we discuss actors, I will surprise my son and agree with him.
The documentary airs in June on HBO. Today, Remembering Robert De Niro Sr. is On Our Radar.
Photos via Facebook
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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