Robert De Niro pays loving tribute to his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., in HBO’s newest documentary, Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr. The 45 minute film premieres tonight on the cable network. My initial thoughts going into the film were that this is a vanity project for the legendary actor. However, the film clearly shows that De Niro, Sr. was an important man involved in America’s critical evolution of post war art and that his son wants to make sure that his legacy is recognized.
During the 1940s, De Niro, Sr. became a part of the growing American artistic movement that also included Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko. These young artists were taught by many of the Avant-garde European artists who had fled their homelands in the late 30s as the political unrest in Europe began to take hold. Hans Hofmann, an abstract expressionist painter, set up schools in New York City and Provincetown, Mass. De Niro, Sr. was a student at both schools. It was at the Provincetown school that he met Virginia Admiral.
The two rising artists began a relationship, even though De Niro, Sr. was a homosexual. This wasn’t uncommon at the time. Eventually they would marry and have their son. However, domesticity wasn’t in the cards for the elder De Niro, and he moved out soon after the baby was born in 1943.
In 1945, his work was included in the Autumn Salon at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery alongside Pollack and Rothko. The following year, De Niro, Sr. received his very first solo exhibition at the Guggenheim gallery. His style is described as “bridging the divide between European modernism and abstract expressionism.” Although widely admired, his initial success did not last, as his work began to be overshadowed by American abstract expressionism and then pop art and minimalism.
If these fine art terms sound like a foreign language to you, fear not. The film is full of scholars to explain them, as well as examples to show us.
In addition to honoring his father’s legacy as an important figure in American art, De Niro, Jr. also makes a point to discuss his struggles. Although De Niro, Sr. and Admiral were separated, he was not an absentee father. He lived close by and had a close and loving relationship with his son. De Niro, Sr. suffered from depression, as he grappled with his sexuality, as well as struggling to make ends meet.
Through home video footage, readings from his journals, and interviews with some of his surviving contemporaries, directors Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir create a vivid portrait of De Niro, Sr. In addition, there are many poignant moments of De Niro, Jr. discussing his father. The actor has never been one to give good interviews. The notoriously shy man often comes across as prickly or reticent, even when he’s in a room with friends like Martin Scorsese. However, De Niro really opens up in this film, showing a side of himself that we rarely see. His love and respect for his father comes through, and really resonates with the viewer.