Almost a generation separates Mel Brooks, born in Brooklyn in 1926, from Robert De Niro, born in Manhattan in 1943. And it’s also evident that their respective strong points have been distinctively different: Mr. Brooks, essentially a gag writer and comedian, has thrived on a gift for gab, while Mr. De Niro has demonstrated a genius for embodying troubled, brooding and explosive personalities.
The fact that they’ll share an evening as Kennedy Center Honorees makes one wish that the coincidence had been anticipated by a shared movie credit or two during the 1970s. That was the transitional filmmaking decade in which each man became a stellar attraction within his area of specialization — Mr. Brooks as a ringmaster of genre parodies and Mr. De Niro as an emerging dramatic virtuoso.
Their careers have overlapped in bemusing ways. Mr. Brooks finally became a director of commercial hits in 1974, when “Blazing Saddles” appeared early in the year and “Young Frankenstein” arrived over the Christmas holiday. That was also the year that placed Mr. De Niro in contention for his first Academy Award — playing the young Vito Corleone, mostly in Sicilian dialect, for director Francis Ford Coppola in “The Godfather, Part II.” It was also a holiday season release.
In retrospect, the likeliest mutual project would probably have been Mr. Brooks’ cheerfully absurd “Silent Movie” from 1976. He recruited numerous stars for bit roles while denying spoken dialogue to himself and the cast. In its harebrained way, this caprice was the closest Mr. Brooks came to a contemporary satire of the film business. As a rule, he settled for making fun of movie genres and cliches that were out of date. I kept wondering what prevented him from targeting the “Airport” thrillers; ultimately, a younger comic apparatus seized the opportunity in “Airplane!”
Director Brian De Palma complimented “Silent Movie” by observing that it reflected studio politics of the period with remarkable accuracy; to him, the farcical elements seemed more realistic than exaggerated. There should have been room for a De Niro appearance on that occasion; after all, he played a vintage movie producer, Monroe Stahr of “The Last Tycoon,” in the same year.
It tends to be forgotten that Mr. De Niro’s film acting career began as a precocious, insinuating young farceur for Mr. De Palma, who directed him in three early comedic features (“The Wedding Party,” “Greetings!” and “Hi, Mom!”). Mr. De Palma was also a midwife to the great De Niro movie of 1976, “Taxi Driver.” The director had recommended Paul Schrader’s script to his friend and colleague Martin Scorsese a few years earlier. It took popular breakthroughs by Mr. Scorsese with “Mean Streets” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” for the project to be approved. Mr. De Niro’s Oscar was also a reassuring factor.
When assembling highlights for Sunday night’s ceremony, programmers could confine themselves to “Young Frankenstein” and “Taxi Driver” without shortchanging their subjects. These two movies may preserve more choice examples of inspired Brooks and inspired De Niro than any other single credits. The most recent DVD editions are a boon to admirers and collectors: “Young Frankenstein” was enhanced with outtakes and a Brooks commentary, while a 30th anniversary reissue of “Taxi Driver” incorporated impressions from all major cast members (including the notoriously tight-lipped Mr. De Niro), director Scorsese, writer Schrader and cinematographer Michael Chapman.
Mr. Brooks has spoken of “Young Frankenstein” as his best movie. It was his fourth as a director and the first that seemed stylistically compact and assured — in part, because he elected to shoot it in evocative black-and-white. This decision may have precluded pictorial clutter and sharpened the comic potential.
A definitive sampler would include Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein introducing Peter Boyle as the monster to theatergoers in a song-and-dance duet of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Mr. Boyle, also a member of the “Taxi Driver” cast, proved the foil of a lifetime for Mr. Brooks. The movie’s happiest brainstorm found him enduring the hospitality of Gene Hackman’s blind and perhaps amorous old hermit. A “Frankenstein” medley might be topped off by Cloris Leachman as the granite-faced housekeeper Frau Blucher being driven up a flight of stairs — by accusations underscored with violin strokes — until she screams an ecstatic confession, “Yes! He…vas …my…BOYFRIEND!”
That’s Mel Brooks in a nutshell.
A comparable array from “Taxi Driver” would have to include Mr. De Niro’s impression of the solitary cabbie Travis Bickle practicing his gun draws and talking to himself in a mirror while asking, repeatedly, “You lookin’ at me?” In some respects, he was even a scarier portrait of armed and alarming solitude when silent, watching a soap opera on a portable TV set that he slowly, slowly pushes with his foot until it topples and crashes. Both scenes were not so much written as mimed to fruition during rehearsals. They depended on an actor’s improvisatory dedication and finesse.
There have been a lot of imposing De Niro roles since he first went volcanic in a conspicuous way in “Mean Streets.” Some of those roles showcased an introspective rather than threatening essence. “True Confessions” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” for example. But for the most distilled and haunting example of how Mr. De Niro could inhabit and deepen a characterization, appreciation might as well commence and conclude with “Taxi Driver.”
TITLE: “Young Frankenstein”
RATING: PG (Intimations of violence in a farcical context; frequent sexual innuendo)
CREDITS: Directed by Mel Brooks. Screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mr. Brooks. Cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld. Art direction by Dale Hennesy. Costumes by Dorothy Jeakins. Makeup by William Tuttle. Film editing by John Howard. Music by John Morris.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes, plus supplementary material
DVD EDITION: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.foxconnect.com
TITLE: “Taxi Driver”
RATING: R (Graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor; allusions to teenage prostitution)
CREDITS: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Paul Schrader. Cinematography by Michael Chapman. Art direction by Charles Rosen. Film editing by Marcia Lucas, Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro. Visual consultant and second unit director David Nichols. Music by Bernard Herrmann.
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes, plus supplementary material
DVD EDITION: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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