Dear Mr. De Niro,
I’ve been a fan since I first saw you in “Mean Streets.” It was clear you were destined for greatness. You were not like any actor I’d ever seen before. You had movie-star looks. But it was your intelligence that drew us in. And your ability to make unlikable — and sometimes tortured — characters more fully human. It was your depth and range of emotion that stood out … your ability to make complex alpha-male characters fully human.
You had remarkable empathetic powers. And empathy is what acting is all about. Actors don’t judge the characters they play. They become them.
And what characters you became: Bruce Pearson in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” Jimmy Doyle in “New York, New York,” Father Spellacy in “True Confessions,” Rodrigo Mendoza in “The Mission,” Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” Rupert Pupkin in “King of Comedy,” Jimmy Conway in “Goodfellas,” Leonard Lowe in “Awakenings,” Neal McCauley in “Heat,” Jack Tiberius Byrnes in “Meet the Parents” — and my favorite, Lorenzo Anello in “A Bronx Tale.”
You played mobsters, a catatonic patient, a retired CIA agent, a comedian, a corrupt priest, a boxer, a thief, a soldier, an intern, a bounty hunter, a baseball player, a saxophone player, a bus driver, and a taxi driver.
The flaws in your characters were never burnished, because you know all of us have flaws, and they can’t be separated from our virtues. There is, in every character you played, a part of yourself. A part of us all.
In what is arguably your best performance, you brought Travis Bickle to life in “Taxi Driver.” You somehow knew his story and lived it. He was a Marine Corps veteran who had trouble adjusting to the world after a stint in Vietnam. We were afraid of Travis. But we were hoping he could keep things together. We understood that at any moment, he might do something bad. Or that someone might do something bad to him.
That scene in the hotel room where you are talking to yourself in front of a mirror was captivating. Watching you playing a character trying to become a character in his own real-life drama was something I’d never seen on the screen.
It was odd. It was ominous. You in your Marine Corp regalia, a contraption strapped to your arm to prepare for a showdown or duel. Talking to the poor imaginary person about to get shot. And then you arrived out of nowhere in that Mohawk. That’s when we knew something bad was about to happen. It did.
The arc of your performance was a thing to behold. You showed us something human in Travis. The darkness and anger. But a more vulnerable side, too. Especially in the scenes where you protected a young prostitute — played by Jodie Foster — from her brutal pimp. She was broken. She was vulnerable. But you never took advantage of her.
You won your first Oscar nomination for that performance. And you won your first Oscar four years later in 1981 for your work in “Raging Bull.” The physical nature of the part was astounding. How you got your body to do what it did — morphing from a muscular athlete with a dancer’s agility and a linebacker’s power to an overweight, over-the-hill stand-up comic — may be the greatest physical feat ever performed in movies.
It was matched by an equally powerful emotional performance. Your alpha male Italian-American prizefighter goes from a damaged young man filled with rage, to a tragic old man filled with regret. You were angry and sad, uncontrollable and out of control, a lonely soul who couldn’t understand himself, let alone trust another human being. You harbored deep and contradictory convictions about women: You saw them as divine until they come into contact with real life, at which point they became sullied, no better than a prostitute. We watched you grow older, but not wiser. Watched you lose everything, ending up in jail for consorting with underaged women. We watched your struggle with sin. With your own demons. You never seemed quite able to conquer them.
In the movie’s powerful final scene, there you were in a white tuxedo, rehearsing the “I Could Have Been a Contender” speech from “on The Waterfront” in front a mirror, all alone. You were psyching yourself up, but this time not in preparation for a fight, but for your tragic stand-up act.
Then came the title cards as the scene faded to black:
So for the second time, [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind and said: “Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,” the man replied. “All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see.”
I’ll never forget sitting in the theater as the credits rolled. I couldn’t move. I was in tears. Though I was a much younger, much different man than LaMotta, you made me feel his pain. And my own pain, too.
That’s the thing about art. It challenges us. It surprises us. And it reveals the contradictions and convulsions within us all. It may be your crowning achievement that so many of your performances did those things.
That’s why I was so disappointed to hear your comments about President Donald Trump this past month. Disappointed because your comments were rude. And lacked your characteristic courage. The courage to surprise us. And yourself.
Let’s start with why the comments were rude.
“This f***ing idiot is the president,” you told the crowd at the National Board of Review’s 2018 awards at the swank midtown Manhattan restaurant Cipriani. The crowd roared in approval. But you weren’t finished. “It’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. The guy is a f***ing fool. Come on.” You then went on to call the president — America’s president — the “jerk-off in chief.”
Then you did it again this past weekend, this time at a World Government Summit in Dubai, where you had this to say about not only our president, but the nation:
I am talking about my own country, the United States of America. We don’t like to say we are a ‘backward’ country, so let’s just say we are suffering from a case of temporary insanity.
What you failed to appreciate was this about the millions of fans you insulted with your rants: They may not have liked Donald Trump, but they voted for him anyway. Because sometimes, people we don’t like — people who offend our sensibilities — are very good at their jobs. Like the character the actress you were honoring in New York, Meryl Streep, so capably brought to life a few years ago.
It was Amanda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and Streep knocked it out of the park. Could that character have become a force in her industry by being anyone but the tough — even cruel — person she was? That’s what made Streep’s performance great. She didn’t judge Amanda. She played her.
Could it be that Donald Trump has similar strengths and flaws? And might he end up being an effective leader, too? And could it be that the people who voted for him saw what you just couldn’t see? And they aren’t “backward” at all?
Your rant also lacked courage. You didn’t challenge your peers: They didn’t boo or hiss you. We know why. They all agree with you. That’s not courage, what you said. It’s moral preening. And preening doesn’t suit you.
I expected more from you. Especially from the guy who played Mike Vronsky in “The Deer Hunter,” a movie that was as much about character as it was about place. And not just any place, but a small working-class steel town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh.
Like the out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia, many of those ex-steelworkers voted in mass for Trump because their jobs had vanished. Your candidate — and fellow New Yorker — Hillary Clinton never talked about their suffering and pain. Trump did. They weren’t racists or bigots because they voted the way they did, and they don’t cling to their Bibles and guns, as your friend, former President Barack Obama, described many years ago.
They may not have cared for Trump’s egotism or his style. But they voted for him because he promised to fight for them. And Trump, like him or not, has done that.
In what may have been the best movie of the past two years, “Hell or High Water,” Jeff Bridges plays an old Texas Ranger who teases his fellow Texas Ranger incessantly about his half-Comanche, half-Mexican heritage. It would be easy to write the Bridges character off as a racist or bigot. But in the end, we learn that he loved his partner, and was willing to die for him.
That’s what art does. It surprises us. Inspires us. Even heals us.
That’s why your rants were so disappointing. They were rude. They lacked courage. And they weren’t edgy. They were obvious. I’d expect such crude rants from Rosie O’Donnell or Kathy Griffin — but you?
Worst of all, the empathetic powers you so generously deploy with the fictional characters you play was not extended to millions of real-life Americans, President Trump included, who see life differently than you. That Trump is a complicated alpha male — your calling card and specialty — only makes your caricature of the man, and your commentary, that much more disappointing.
You failed your own standards as an actor. And this is one case where you can’t blame the writer.
You still hold a special place in my heart. Which is why I’ll give you a pass for now. Because I believe in art’s power to reveal the things not that divide us, but that bring us together.
From a fan for life, no matter what your political views,
This letter has been sent to DeNiro’s agent. The author anxiously awaits a response. He isn’t holding his breath.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.