Saturday, July 13, 2002

Swell folks (Source: Entertainment Weekly)

Bob Dylan is a trickster troubadour, a backyard absurdist whose lyrics are as expressive of feeling as they are evasive of understanding. (Even after a zillion spins, ''Rainy Day Women #12 & 35'' remains beautifully inscrutable.) Yet the contours of his lines – of lyrics that are intimately surreal, minutely narrative, and dapper with verbal innovation – suggested possibilities to other artists: most immediately to the Beatles and other '60s counterculturists, and later (to name a handful of heirs) to neo-traditionalists like Williams and Tracy Chapman, confessionalists like Joni Mitchell, and shrapnel surrealists like Beck.


In a half century of film, no actor – certainly no American actor – can touch Marlon Brando, although many have tried to eat off his plate.

You always knew, watching Brando fill the screen as working-class hero or ruthless Mafia don or walrus-like sexual predator, that he had opened the door to a world beyond mere performance or role-playing. Not that Pacino and Hoffman in their day, and Edward Norton, Johnny Depp, and Sean Penn today, haven't all had at least a glimmer of the understanding Brando had. But it's just that – a glimmer.

Only De Niro approaches a screenplay in a similar way, as nothing but a set of clues, a treasure-hunt map in a search for the truth of a character. Brando's own demons edited whatever script he was handed, and Brando, who understood that character is everything, gave life to doomed, dangerous, fatally flawed men.


Robert De Niro's paranoid diatribe from Taxi Driver – ''You talkin' to me? You talkin' to ME?!'' – has turned into a scrap of pop-culture boilerplate by now. It's a slogan; you see it on T-shirts. Frat boys blurt it out after too many beers. Ironically, though, the magnificence of Robert De Niro's acting has very little to do with showy verbal eruptions: His most magnetic scenes suck you in at that savage moment when nobody's talkin' at all.

De Niro communicates with his limbs, his knees, his fingers, his belly, his grin, his pupils, his fists, his neck, that weird mole on his cheek; as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, he speaks volumes with the simple, slow nod of his chin.

He was a skittering bundle of nerves as Johnny Boy, the cherry-bomb hooligan in 1973's Mean Streets; he dropped his muscles into deep freeze as the catatonic Leonard in 1990's Awakenings; he slipped into an armor of sinew and skin art as a skeezy ex-con in 1991's Cape Fear. And most famously, he toned into fighting trim – and then let his body crash and burn into blubbery gluttony – as boxer Jake La Motta in 1980's Raging Bull, the most furious aria in the actor's ongoing opera of duets with director Martin Scorsese.

''Marlon Brando changed acting when he walked across the stage in A Streetcar Named Desire,'' says Chazz Palminteri, who sparred with De Niro in 1993's A Bronx Tale. ''De Niro changed it with Raging Bull. At that time, no actors transformed themselves the way he did. They do it now. But they do it because of him.'' Talking? Hell, when Robert De Niro WALKS, people listen.