Robert De Niro’s indelible screen portraits — from Vito Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II” to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” from Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” to Jack Byrnes in the “Fockers” films — have earned the actor two Oscars and millions of fans around the world. But it’s the short HBO documentary “Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.” that, after nearly 100 films over five decades, may truly offer insight into what moves De Niro himself.
It’s what the famously taciturn De Niro doesn’t say about his late father, the painter Robert De Niro Sr., or their distant relationship after his parents divorced when De Niro was 3, that speaks volumes.
In the film, De Niro chokes up as he recounts his father’s struggles with artistic recognition, depression, and later, prostate cancer (he died in 1993). On camera, De Niro reads from the detailed journals that his father kept. In one passage, the artist reveals his torment about his homosexuality.
“I didn’t know anything about it growing up; not until much later,” De Niro said recently by phone from New York, taking a break from shooting the Nancy Meyers-directed workplace comedy “The Intern,” costarring Anne Hathaway.
Did his father’s conflicted sexuality play a role in his depression? “It could have,” says De Niro. “He ruminated a lot. Maybe that added to it. It certainly didn’t help. But there were many factors. It wasn’t black and white.”
Honoring his father, and his work as an artist, were primary motivations behind the HBO documentary, which was executive produced by De Niro’s longtime Tribeca Film Festival partner Jane Rosenthal, along with HBO’s Sheila Nevins. It premiered on HBO June 9 and is now available on demand.
And local art lovers can now see the painter’s canvases for themselves with the show “Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993): Selected Works,” in the Hudson D. Walker Gallery at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Saturday through Aug. 3. The show was curated by Megan Fox Kelly, adviser to the artist’s estate and consultant on the HBO film. De Niro worked closely with her on it, as he does with all exhibitions of De Niro Sr.’s work, including one running until July 31 at New York’s DC Moore Gallery, the exclusive representative of his father’s estate.
“I just want to see him get his due. That’s my responsibility,” says De Niro in the film.
Robert De Niro Sr. was a respected artist in postwar New York — by all accounts, a talented iconoclast often at odds with the art world. A figurative painter who brought abstract and Expressionist touches to compositions that recall Matisse, De Niro Sr. earned some early acclaim and, in 1946, a prestigious solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery. But as the vogue shifted from Abstract Expressionism’s stars to Pop Art, his work ultimately fell out of fashion.
De Niro remembers accompanying his father and mother, Virginia Admiral, to Provincetown. They’d met in New York in 1941; both were studying with the renowned Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann.
“I remember sitting on the beach; maybe I was 2 or 3. I haven’t been back there since,” says De Niro, who is 70. But he’ll return to the art colony that looms large in his father’s life on Saturday when he and his father, along with writer Ann Patchett, are honored at the fifth annual Summer Awards Celebration, a sold-out benefit for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. There will also be a screening of the HBO documentary there on Friday.
Artist Paul Resika, a longtime friend of De Niro Sr., recalls the late painter as truly standing out in a “rarified world” of Hofmann students aiming to upend the art establishment.
“I came to Provincetown to study with Hofmann in 1945 at age 17, and I’d hear about this other kid ‘star’ who’d also been there,” says Resika. “There were only eight to 10 students in Hofmann’s classes. There were hundreds of painters in Provincetown then, and we were these kids who were very snooty about art. We must have been annoying.”
De Niro was a “superior painter,” says Resika, “In New York in the ’50s he was the equal to Kline, Rothko, and De Kooning.” But Resika says De Niro was also “very poor. He taught art, as many of us did, to pay the rent. His wife helped him; she’d gone into real estate and bought property in SoHo. But I remember him living in poverty. I helped him tear down a wall in his studio and we carried the concrete down the stairs so the landlord wouldn’t know. We all lived downtown within a few blocks of one another. After Junior became a success, [De Niro Sr.] was able to paint freely. He followed his own way. He was a real painter.”
At the same time, Resika acknowledges, De Niro Sr. could also be elusive even to his colleagues. Like others at the time, Resika didn’t know his friend was gay. “It never entered my mind, but it was such a different time,” says Resika. “He wore rings on his fingers; he was a dandy. He’d come to the house, and I remember my daughter playing with his rings at the table. It seems funny to think of it now, but we didn’t know.”
De Niro says his parents remained friends; it was in his mother’s studio that De Niro Sr. died in 1993, on his 71st birthday. Before that, De Niro paid tribute to his father, Resika said, with yearly lunches for him and his peers at De Niro’s popular Tribeca Grill, the New York restaurant where several of the elder De Niro’s paintings are on prominent display. “It started with eight or nine of us. But the last time I went there were only two left,” says Resika.
The documentary, directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir, offers a moving account of the 22-year-old De Niro going to Paris in 1965 after his father had moved there to help him sell his work, since De Niro Sr. was struggling to make ends meet.
“I felt responsible. I was his son; his only child,” says De Niro. “I saw he was in a rut over there; it wasn’t going well and he was unhappy, so I made him come back.”
Once the actor had achieved fame by the mid-1970s, he was able to help his father financially. Yet, when asked if his father had a favorite of his many now classic films, De Niro can’t recall a conversation about his career. “He was proud of me, of course, but we never had any discussions about it. He was supportive. I’d always invite him to [film] openings with my grandmother, his mother, and I would go to openings of his shows.”
Kelly says De Niro’s case raises the age-old question of how one measures artistic success. He showed in galleries regularly, but “before his son was able to provide financial help, he struggled, as many artists do. I think what De Niro longed for is what any artist longs for and that is to be seen, to have his work become known and understood. It’s a very deep and very basic longing that wasn’t completely satisfied.
“He came of age as the New York school was coming of age,” continues Kelly. Pollack, de Kooning, Rothko, and Kline eclipsed him “because critics embraced Abstract Expressionism. There was a craving postwar for something new. Abstract Expressionism wasn’t who De Niro was. He [painted in] a more European tradition; he loved Matisse.”
Kelly says De Niro “very much feels it’s his responsibility to take care of his [father’s] art. When I first met him, I asked, ‘What do you want to accomplish?’ He said, ‘To do the best thing for my father.’ It’s such a simple statement, but it’s the guiding principle for all of us as we make decisions about shows like this one in Provincetown.”
Adds Resika, “Many sons try to know their fathers, or wish they had. Bobby told me at [his father’s] memorial service that he’d wished he’d known him better. But painting wasn’t his world.”
De Niro says he wanted for years to make a film in order to showcase the Super 8 footage from the 1970s of his father and his art-world peers.
“I wanted to put it to use in a documentary. I wanted to interview his contemporaries while people are still around,” he says. “I did it for my family; for my kids and grandkids so they know who their grandfather was. . . . He was a great artist, and they don’t know anything about him.”
“Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.” trailer