Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean each caught the collective imagination of young movie audiences stifled by the conformity of the 1960s. Almost all actors who establish the highest echelons of stardom succeed also in establishing a connection with audiences that reach a primal state of their consciousness (King 147). Audiences respond to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood because they tap into community desires for security and protection. Audiences connect with Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks because they project a sense of the Everyman who still manage to sometimes deal with the darker aspects of their lives. Cary Grant and Robert Redford achieved superstar status by virtue of offering romantic fantasy (deCordova 88). Robert DeNiro perhaps best exemplified that mode of actor that exploded after the social upheavals of the 1960s when the traditions and values and morality of the past were breaking down all around. DeNiro’s constant and continual reinventing of himself on camera embodies the search for individual self-identity that arrived with these wide social changes.
A moviegoer who is asked to watch Bang the Drum Slowly and Raging Bull may find it difficult to immediately accept that the same actor is playing Bruce Pearson and Jake LaMotta. There is the shock of metamorphosis in following DeNiro from role to role for adults that is analogous to the first time a child realizes that a beautifully ornamented butterfly was once a creepy crawly caterpillar. The shock of the realization that the slow-witted and bumbling baseball player is played by the same graceful, cocky athlete in Raging Bull represents an extraordinary leap from the tradition of actors who always looked and sounded the same regardless of whether they were playing a 20th century businessman or a Renaissance painter; a cowboy or a pirate; a hero or a villain. What makes Robert DeNiro stand out from the pack as the quintessential cinematic commentator on his times is that he is willing to forego the development of a strong identity that carries him throughout all his multiple roles. In doing so, DeNiro's career represents more than any other actor the fracturing of the self-assurance of identity that social movements such as Women's Lib, Civil Rights and the Gay Awareness wrought upon the stage of contemporary life beginning in the late 1960s. Is it not by coincidence that not only did Robert DeNiro's career begin during this tumultuous period in American history, but that his career began with a series of films directed by Brian DePalma notable for their shattered order and surreal qualities that mocked every aspect of that tradition of assurance from weddings to television. Essentially, DeNiro almost seems to have sprung full force into the consciousness of cinema as an actor who questions his own identity and becomes a proxy by which society has come to question established perspectives.
The argument that DeNiro's career represents an attempt to somehow put together a whole identify out of the shattered remnants of traditional expectation is answered by back to back films released in 1973. The two characters he plays in Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets could not be farther apart. For such a young and unknown actor attempting to find a foothold in the public's consciousness, such a rejection of a easy identification with the audience seems almost as crazy as Johnny Boy himself. And if, in retrospect, DeNiro as a crazy New York gangster wannabe does not seem like a terribly big stretch, even today DeNiro's complete immersion as a slow-witted Georgia baseball player still has the power to amaze. DeNiro has become legendary for the steps he