Arts & Culture

Robert De Niro shares his father’s story

Ivy Film Festival brings actor to campus, screens documentary on father’s painting legacy

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2016

Actor Robert De Niro speaks with President Christina Paxson P’19 about the documentary “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro Sr.,” which highlights his father’s art.

When actor Robert De Niro took the stage at the Salomon Center Thursday night, the focus was not on him, but on another Robert De Niro.

The Ivy Film Festival’s third night of programming centered on Robert De Niro Sr. with a screening of “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro Sr.,” a documentary film focused on the painting career of the Academy Award winner’s father. Afterwards, the younger De Niro came on stage along with director of the film Perri Peltz ’82 P’19  and art advisor Megan Fox Kelly, who provided a professional perspective on De Niro Sr.’s work. Christina Paxson P’19 stoked the conversation as moderator.

Though the name Robert De Niro now calls to mind the stern-faced actor of “Taxi Driver” and “The Godfather,” 70 years ago, there was a different Robert De Niro famous for his work in the arts. The film, commissioned by De Niro, was an attempt to bring his father out of the shadows.

De Niro said he had wanted to make a film about his father for a long time. His father’s friend, interviewed in the film, described De Niro Sr. as “a victim of his time” — a tormented artist who refused to fit into any one category. Resistant to marketing himself as an abstract painter, or, later on, as a pop artist or minimalist, De Niro Sr.’s work never got the acclaim he felt it deserved.

The painter left behind a large collection of journal entries documenting this sentiment, along with paintings and plenty of grainy footage shot on a Super 8 camera. The result was an easily assembled documentary, featuring clips of a young De Niro Sr. interwoven with shots of De Niro Jr. discussing his father in his old art studio. Baby pictures of De Niro Jr. also make an appearance.

Ever since he was a child, De Niro has felt appreciation for his father’s craft. “His dedication even when he was young — it was very strong. I saw it, and I sensed it,” he said, restraining tears on stage to a packed auditorium as Paxson offered a pat on the shoulder.

De Niro told the audience that the film was never meant to be seen by the public but rather was purely for family, intended as a way to let his children know who their grandfather was. He preserves his father’s art studio for the same reason.

But De Niro said, after a while, “It became clear it was the story of many artists.” When asked by an audience member if he had any reservations about publicizing the film, De Niro said he did not hesitate in the slightest. He entered the film in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

De Niro hopes that this film can help his father emerge from the obscurity that plagued his career. The panelists agreed that De Niro Sr. never reached an “‘I did it’” moment, Kelly said. Now, his legacy has a shot.

Since the film premiered at Sundance, Kelly said awareness of De Niro Sr. has already jumped markedly, regarding both who he was and what he did.

This late claim to fame inspired De Niro with simple advice for the audience.

“Do what you love doing, but don’t expect any recognition,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Robert De Niro starred in “Taxi Cab.” In fact, he starred in the movie “Taxi Driver.” The Herald regrets the error. 

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