Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. (2014) Movie Script

He was the real thing...
my father.
I see his work, I see
how dedicated he was.
He was, to me,
a great artist.
But you can't--you can
never impose that on people.
They have to make
their own decisions.
The thought of what
he's done, all his work,
I can't not but make sure that
it's held up and remembered...
so I just want to see him
get his due.
That's my responsibility.
And he used to always say that
artists are always recognized
after they're long gone.
Part of recognition
is, is luck.
You have no control
over those things,
and so if that's what's
going to happen
then your time, hopefully,
will come later,
and we don't even
know if then.
De NIRO: My father created
all this beautiful artwork.
I only have his stuff.
My mother's--
some of my mother's.
We had a good relationship.
He was very affectionate.
He was paternal.
He just didn't know certain
things as a father, what to do,
but he was a very
loving father.
I respected him a great deal
and knew his art was special.
He started at 5 years old.
He was very young.
He felt he was different,
and he was different,
not only as an artist,
for other reasons.
He was not conventional.
He was from a small town.
And he probably felt
a certain amount of
rejection from his father.
My grandfather was
classic, old-style,
kind of like, you know...
Italian American,
just, you know...
I just think he didn't
understand my father.
I wanted to be an artist since
the time I was in Kindergarten.
There was nobody
I could practically
talk to about painting.
I was very unhappy.
I went everyday and painted,
but I was miserable there,
had no friends.
Then I heard of Hofmann.
I decided to try him, and I
went to him the next summer.
And then it was quite different
because I was enthusiastic,
and I met people
that I thought like,
and it was a whole--
another world.
Prior to the Second World War,
the art scene
was all about Europe.
The surrealists were in Paris,
the Bauhaus was in Germany.
With the Second World War,
an interesting shift
came about here in
the United States,
especially in New York.
You had artists fleeing Europe
to come to New York for safety
and setting up schools.
And American artists are,
for the first time,
really having some
hands-on experience
with the most avant-garde
trends in painting
and architecture and design.
MAN: Hofmann
came from Germany
and set up a school
which then went on
for a very, very,
very long time.
And if you take all of the
Hofmann students, I mean,
it's an enormously long
and distinguished list.
Many, many, many really
first-rate artists
were his students or
proteges, in some cases.
MAN: It was 1942, and there were
4 or 5 of us in that class
with Hans Hofmann.
Not only Bob, but
Virginia, his wife.
Hofmann, when he'd look
at the work, he did say
that his two best students--
and he had so many famous
artists as students--
that Bob and Virginia were the
best students he ever had.
Big compliment.
Bob and Virginia
met at Hofmann's.
Virginia was very impressed
with Bob's work.
And so, they hit it off.
I think he was handsome
'cause he was a little taller.
He had really blond hair
for a long time.
MAN: And they had gotten
married and Bobby was a baby.
He was a baby on the floor.
And she's a very good
painter, Virginia Admiral--
vivacious, good-looking,
very good to Bobby,
and excellent person.
Virginia was the first one who
made it big when we got out.
She had a great exhibition
at a big gallery
called Art of This Century.
The famous critics
gave her rave reviews.
MAN: I think it's very
complex why she didn't
continue to paint.
I think she felt very guilty
that she wasn't painting,
'cause I think she admired Bob
for the fact that he just
didn't let anything
get in his way.
De NIRO: I don't really feel
she gave it up.
She just moved
to something else.
And maybe she felt she couldn't
really do it, ultimately,
or she was as far as she
could go as an artist.
Not that she didn't try. She was
doing things in her studio.
And her argument was always
that she needed to be
practical to support me.
KRESCH: When the son must have
been about a year old,
there was a big rift,
big rift.
De NIRO: Why they couldn't stay
together, they were different.
Maybe his sexuality.
I don't know where
that stood at that point.
My father wrote a lot about
his life in his journals,
which gives me an idea of
what he was going through.
"If God doesn't want me to be
a homosexual, about which I
have so much guilt,
"he will find a woman whom I
will love and who will love me
"or at least create
an interest in me
in women as sexual partners."
Obviously, I realize now
that it was hard for him.
He had a lot of what it
seems like classic
conflicts about all that.
My mother and I spoke
about it a little bit,
and he was very quiet
with whatever he did
'cause I never was--
He's not gonna tell me.
I'm his son, you know?
I'm the last
person to know.
KRESCH: And Bob said,
"I'm leaving.
"I...that's it.
I don't want to
stay here anymore."
And he got a place. I think
that's when he lived near me.
De NIRO: They divorced
when I was around 11 or 12,
but they separated when I was
around 2 or 3 or something.
My mother and father
were always friends,
and she always
would help him, too,
and be supportive
of him and his work.
I wouldn't see him that often.
Sometimes I'd see him in
the street, I'd run into him,
you know, or I'd
see him on his bike.
He liked to take me to movies.
So, I remember seeing--
is it "Beauty and the Beast"
that was Cocteau?
I can't remember.
Charlie Chaplin...
the original
"King Kong", I think.
And we'd go to movies
on 42nd Street.
He liked me
to go to his shows,
which I didn't want to
do when I was young,
but my kids
are the same way, so...
One of my father's first
big opportunities
was when he had a show at
Peggy Guggenheim's
Art of This Century.
I'm sure it meant
a lot to him.
STORR: Peggy Guggenheim
was a power broker
who had gone to Europe,
befriended most of the
great modernists of Paris
and then came back
during the war
and founded a gallery called
Art of This Century.
It was in this context that
she was first presenting
American artists as the
peers of all of these
famous European artists.
And so, to have Peggy
Guggenheim pick you for a show
was a very, very big deal
and it made reputations.
KELLY: De Niro exhibited
in the Fall Salon
at The Art of This Century
gallery in 1945.
The show was largely made
up of abstract paintings,
but the figures influenced by
Analytical Cubism were still,
to some extent, recognizable.
The figurative strain in
his work soon took over,
influenced by Ingres,
Corot and Courbet.
MAN: His entry into the art
world was that he captured the
attention of this art world.
He would certainly have
gotten reviews
in all of the art magazines.
Clement Greenberg
was a potent voice.
De NIRO: "Peggy Guggenheim
has discovered another
important abstract painter
"at her Art of
This Century gallery--
"Robert De Niro, whose first
show exhibits monumental effects
rare in abstract art."
KELLY: Thomas Hess was the
editor of "Art News."
Hess developed a series,
which became very popular
and which Robert De Niro, Sr.
was a part of.
STORR: In terms of power people,
starting with Peggy Guggenheim
and Tom Hess, you couldn't
have done better in those years.
Right away, when we
got out of Hofmann's,
this is when he started selling.
He got very good write-ups.
And he was still young,
maybe in his early 30s,
he was already painting
like someone very mature.
He found his way very early
and didn't much change
in 30 or 40 years
of painting.
He didn't have the struggle
that many of us had with going
this way or that way
to find our way.
He had known right
away what he was.
His studio, I mean,
this was it.
It was really like this
moving, live, active place.
I remember being little
and him painting me.
I was annoyed, I remember,
that I had to do it that day.
I felt everybody else
was out playing.
But I remember he
kind of dressed me,
put something on me...
a hat...and he'd
just work away.
And as I got older, I was--
and I really learned more
about his work,
I was proud that he chose me
to be one of them because
it wasn't just like
anybody could sit down.
STORR: Robert De Niro's
way of painting...
he was not
an abstract painter.
He was a still-life painter.
He was a landscape painter.
He was a figure painter.
De Niro entered into
still-life painting
at a point where it probably was
thought by many people
as an unexciting option.
But what he managed to do was
to find a way to paint set-ups
that were so straightforward
and so without pretension
that all you thought about was,
"How did he actually do that?"
They don't look like
anybody else's still-life.
I can't name an artist
that they look like,
even though I have seen
an awful lot of paintings.
KELLY: De Niro was influenced by
the masters and he had a keen
interest, especially,
in the French avant-garde--
Georges Rouault...
Pierre Bonnard...
Andre Derain...
Henri Matisse...
STORR: Now, if you take
Matisse as a model,
Matisse made a very
famous painting
"Luxe, Calme et Volupte"--
luxuriousness, calm,
and voluptuousness.
And there's a lot of that
in De Niro, basically.
He paints his pleasure.
Bundle up your cares and woe,
here I go, singin' low
Bye, Bye, Blackbird
[Continues singing in French]
Au revoir
[Continues humming tune]
KRESCH: Bob was very funny.
He would be walking along
and he'd say something,
and it would be
hilarious, you know?
ELLIS: I knew him to be
this kind of energetic,
dazzling guy
with a great sense of humor.
He loved music.
He'd have a song that he
became fixated on,
and he wouldn't be able
to hear it enough
and he'd dance and sing.
KRESCH: He liked
going to parties.
Bob loved to dance, and he
was very good at that time.
I think it was called the
Jitterbug or the Lindy Hop.
Very fast on his feet.
I remember he loved Paris.
He always had a real
thing for Paris.
KRESCH: He taught
himself French.
He didn't go to any classes.
So that he wrote poetry.
We used to go to
foreign films.
And, of course, Greta Garbo.
He was insane
about Greta Garbo.
Give me a whiskey.
Ginger ale on the side.
And don't be stingy, baby.
KELLY: A subject that De Niro
returned to repeatedly
was Greta Garbo,
specifically in her role
as Anna Christie.
His depictions of her are
always that first scene
in the bar when she delivers
her famous first line.
Garbo, and her melancholy
that she depicted in films
that she also experienced
in her life,
there was something about that
that really fascinated him.
And it could have been that he
saw in it a relation to his own
struggles with melancholy
and with depression.
Bob was going to a show
of his on 57th Street.
He was going up
in the elevator,
and she's in that
elevator with him!
And he had paintings
of her upstairs.
And he chickened out.
He could not get to talk
to her and tell her,
and she got out and left.
That was a big thing
that he missed on.
KELLY: The expressionist element
in Robert De Niro Sr.'s painting
developed gradually and
a little bit later.
He first showed with the
Abstract Expressionist artists
at the Charles Egan Gallery.
And later, he
came to be associated
with a group of figural
and colorist painters,
which included Nell Blaine,
Leland Bell,
Al Kresch,
and Paul Resika.
The Abstract Expressionists
were actually not a movement.
They were a group of artists
that were given that label
by art critics, and they were,
by and large, gestural,
painterly painters who
had learned a great deal
from Picasso,
a great deal from Miro,
a great deal from Kandinsky.
They broke through the
dominance of European painting
in the history of modernism
and established the first,
internationally recognized
American school of painting.
The fact of the matter is,
though, that they couldn't
have been more different,
one to the other.
They painted in a way that
looked that they were totally
plugged in to what was
new and lively.
He enters the art world
with the older generation,
the older artists of the
New York School--
the Abstract Expressionists:
de Kooning,
He shows with the greats and
he's identified with them,
but then that doesn't last
long and somehow he doesn't
really connect with the
artists of the New York School
although he has many close
friends among them but doesn't
sort of join any
of their groups.
KELLY: There came in the late
1940s into the early 1950s--
there became a real shift in
New York, in the art scene.
The Abstract Expressionists
were really hailed as
the new generation,
and De Niro
was a part of,
and yet separate from
that group of artists.
He was never an Abstract
Expressionist painter.
He was always a
figurative painter.
They left him behind.
They left him out.
He didn't fit.
He wasn't abstract.
In a certain way
he wasn't abstract.
He was very abstract...
in a certain way.
"Too French,"
they all said...
you know,
"not American enough."
All that bullshit.
"I feel tense and resentful.
I should be showing now.
"At our last meeting,
he said that de Kooning makes
15,000 a year from his work.
"I am possibly jealous.
God save me from that."
I remember vividly walking
with him one night,
and as we approached
the Cedar Bar on
University Place, I said,
"Let's go in, Bobby."
He said, "I never cross
the threshold of this place."
And that was the artists'
bar, you understand.
The Cedar Bar was the place
where the whole thing--
where Franz Kline was
and de Kooning and
Jackson Pollock
and everybody was in there.
But he wouldn't even
walk into the bar,
is what I'm saying.
He considered
himself superior.
And that gives you
a picture of Bobby.
He thought quite
highly of himself.
And since I thought
so highly of him,
we were good friends.
Ha ha ha!
KRESCH: De Kooning and his
friends, they had this
competitive thing,
so you didn't hear him
talking much about Bob.
And since Bob wasn't
going out of the way
to go to their openings,
they didn't go to
his openings, and so on.
So...there was a coolness.
And Bobby, who was younger
than those guys, had arrived
at the kind of New York
painting before them--
painting in
a meaty style.
So, in a certain way,
he's the first of
a certain kind of painting
even though he's been
marginalized by the art world.
What was going on
in painting at that time,
I did not agree with.
When I showed at Peggy
Guggenheim's, finally,
I was showed with Pollock and
those people, and I did not
agree with their thinking and
their painting and so on.
And I saw them all become,
you know, famous and rich,
and I could have followed that
path, I suppose. I had the...
if I had gone along with
Greenberg and the rest.
I didn't want it and
I couldn't have done it.
I couldn't see it
make any sense to me.
SANDLER: Being on the scene
would have been important.
He was a loner.
He was known to be depressed
or have periods of depression.
KRESCH: He was very touchy.
If he even misunderstood that
someone said something that
went against him, that person
was no longer a friend.
And I think there wasn't one
of his friends that he didn't
have that with.
I think he obsessed
about things
and about things that
weren't going his way.
He did talk about some analyst.
He saw a psychiatrist,
gave him some medication--
anti-depressants? Who knows?
that I've hardly the courage at
this moment to wash my brushes,
"which have been standing
in turpentine for days.
"It may be true that
love finds you, or one
doesn't search for it,
but I don't think it'll
come knocking at my door."
"The pills don't help
or the prayers either.
"God, God, God...
I am past the point where
I can walk the streets
looking for a gallery
or a lover either,
for that matter."
I remember I was instrumental
in getting him into a gallery.
It was in Graham,
Graham Gallery.
He was a very good dealer.
He had several shows there,
and then he heard
there was some problem,
that Graham had done
something to some artist,
and he quit the gallery.
Absolutely. Turned out
that Graham was actually
very scrupulous
and loved his work
and was excellent,
but it didn't matter.
He hated every dealer he had
anything to do with.
But then what happens
around 1958, really by 1962,
certainly by 1960, is--
I've always referred to it
as a "Blood Bath."
There is a radical
change in style.
A young generation of artists,
led by abstract painters like
Frank Stella and pop artists
like Andy Warhol,
hard-edged painters
like Ellsworth Kelly--
what they do is they suppress
the painterly quality in their
work, and this is really what
most interested De Niro--
the energy of paint, the sweep
of paint, the movement of paint,
rather...always his emphasis.
And suddenly this becomes
very unfashionable.
In large measure, Bob De Niro
was a victim of his time.
I began to think, "I don't know
what's going on today."
I mean, I could never...the
whole scene was beyond me.
And I didn't know what to
think because you never know
how it's gonna turn out, and
you have such a hard time that
you sometimes think badly,
you know what I mean?
It's a very difficult
it just wasn't good.
And the money was a big,
big problem.
It was hard times,
especially 'cause he had
all these reviews from
the "New York Times"
from his first show that
were magnificent, you know?
Sometimes when I visited his
studio, he'd have a couple
of them on the floor,
I guess to remind him.
"Not enough sales to live like
a human being and to help
"Bobby and Virginia.
"Everything depends on money,
of which I have little.
Has my prayer been all for
nothing and is there no God?"
He was very particular
about what art is
and was not in favor of
what was happening
after, you know, say,
the obvious one is
like an Andy Warhol
or something like that.
He would just go on,
you know, talking to my mother,
about this or that.
SANDLER: And he wasn't going to
change his style just because
what I'm sure he considered
a fashion--probably hated it.
And I know other artists
who did and that anger
sustained them,
you know.
STORR: There's no question that
it was profoundly disconcerting
to have the Pop Artists
come along and change
the look of art,
the rules of the game, and--
and this is a crucial thing--
to make popular culture,
commercial Americana,
the subject of painting.
And that was a huge shift.
KELLY: In the face of that,
why not go to Paris and
immerse yourself in the art
with which you've been
so completely enthralled
for decades
and work on your own art
and see how you can grow
in that environment
and then bring it back.
De NIRO: He went to France.
I remember there was,
like, a going-away party
for him on the boat.
And I was 17,
and he went away.
KELLY: It was a challenging time
for him, I think, emotionally.
It was a productive
time for him.
He made a lot of art.
But the shift of focus of
contemporary art was here,
not only in the United States,
but in New York.
De NIRO: My father was
having trouble in France.
He was not doing well,
so he'd send me letters.
And this is one of them:
"Dear Bobby, I hate
to bother you again
"but I've become sick
with all the trouble
I've had recently.
"I'm trying to prevent
being hospitalized.
"When I get in better shape,
I would like to come back.
"You know how much I love
you and always have.
"You saved my life last
summer and I hope you
will do it again now.
"You are an angel
and you always were.
Love, Dad."
I went there when I was...22,
and I knew that he was there
and I had to see him
and make sure he was OK.
I said, "We have to
get out there.
We got to bring these
paintings to show to people."
We had some of his
I literally was carrying
his paintings in the
Left Bank to art galleries
and dragging him along to
show them to art dealers.
You don't come in
unsolicited that way.
It's just not done.
And me, what did I know?
I just said,
"Let's bring it around."
So, we did that for a while,
and that didn't--a week or two--
and then finally
that wasn't...
there was no response.
He was not happy.
We were having a hard time.
He wasn't getting any kind of
recognition, if you will, there.
I knew he had to come back,
and I made him come back.
"Bobby has always managed
to visit me in Europe
"at the opportune moment to
help me through a shock,
"such as the one in Paris,
and to give me courage
to leave an
unbearable situation."
"It was he who practically
pushed me on the plane
to return to New York.
Thank you, God, for Bobby's
having turned out so well."
As I started doing better
and better as an actor,
I was happy that things were
going all right with me
'cause it could help us all.
The obvious one is I say
that my mother and father
certainly wouldn't be happy
if I was selling insurance.
They would never not approve
of me wanting to be an actor.
"We ran into Bobby
on the street.
"He is tan from a sunlamp
for his new movie part.
"I wanted to run my
fingers through his hair
and to kiss him,
but I hardly think he
would have appreciated it."
I know he was proud and
also felt probably
resentful on one level
that he was not getting
the recognition that
he felt he deserved,
but he was always
proud, you know,
and would never
say anything to me.
You know, once, he got mad,
and was yelling and ranting.
"You know, I should have
gotten recognition."
And I went, "Ah, well..."
But then he would
always say how artists
don't get recognition
till after they're dead.
He would always say that.
And I said, "That makes sense,
from what I know."
"Being a painter
is an affection,
like being a homosexual.
"One has to have the strength
to continue working without
"the thought of recognition,
either before or after death,
"just as one had to have the
strength to accept life alone
without the thought of
a romantic attachment."
With reference to Bob De Niro,
about his need to paint
in spite of lack of
recognition, whatever...
he just had to paint.
Sure, you go on painting.
After all, there's
Michelangelo back there,
Pierro della Francesca,
These are your gods.
You're painting for the
greater glory of art.
Not for anybody
out there, really.
You're painting for the big
guys up there and you're
trying to emulate them and,
if possible, to beat them
and hopefully to live for
the ages like they do.
De NIRO: Then he did have it and
then he was not dealing with it,
and the doctor would
call me and say,
"Have him come in.
Have him come."
And I was busy
with everything in my own life
that I didn't think of
sometimes--I might have
called him and said,
"Dad, you gotta go there.
You gotta go."
"Yeah." And he would avoid it.
He was avoiding it.
He was scared to go back
and even deal with it.
I regret that to this day,
because I think if I had
really been on him...
All I know was that later on,
he was bed-ridden, sick...
then he went to my mother's.
We had nurses there and so on.
He died on his 71st birthday
and died of prostate cancer.
But I wish that I'd been
more--because I think
he would have lived...
he could have lived
till now.
SANDLER: Even today,
I don't think he's gotten
the recognition he deserves.
STORR: De Niro's legacy is
still, in a way, up for grabs.
Individual artists
have moments.
It has nothing to do with
whether they're good or not.
It has to do with the
culture's taste
and appetites shifting.
But everybody who has a way of
making something is like
the actor who's on stage and
the spotlight shifts to them
and then shifts away, but if
they're still doing it when
the spotlight comes back,
they'll have another
great moment.
That would have happened to
De Niro, very likely.
"Will I be recognized
in my lifetime?
"Have I delusions of grandeur
by believing that sometime,
"someday, someone will be
interested in reading
what I write here each day?"
The reason I kept this
studio is for my kids...
for them to know what
their grandfather did. I say,
you know, being a kid I
wasn't that interested in his,
you know, going to shows and
all that but I realized
how important it is for children
to appreciate the things
that your parents did
if they want
to share them with you.
'Cause I regret certain things
with my parents...
that I didn't follow through on.
I feel it's my obligation to
kind of document what he did,
to keep it going.
The whole reason to do
it is for my father...