Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bruce Willis

A relaxed, raffish performer whose ironic style and working-class persona have made him a fan favorite, Bruce Willis was a Jersey boy living large in the Big Apple before shooting to stardom as private investigator David Addison on TV's successful "Moonlighting" (ABC, 1985-89). The 1980s were wild, awash in booze and drugs, and while the devil-may-care bartender was right in the middle of their surreal after-hours swirl, he was also developing some legitimate acting chops. Having landed his first Off-Broadway role in "Heaven and Earth" (1977), he spent the next seven years paying his dues as a model, acting sometimes extremely far off Off-Broadway, appearing ever so briefly in movies (blink and you'll miss him in "The First Deadly Sin" 1980 and "The Verdict" 1982) and showing up occasionally as a guest on TV (e.g., "Hart to Hart" ABC, "Miami Vice" NBC).

His big break came in 1984 when he replaced Ed Harris in Sam Shepard's Off-Broadway hit "Fool for Love", which in turn earned him an audition for "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985). Though he didn't get that part, he remained an extra day in Hollywood to throw his hat in the "Moonlighting" ring. Arriving in combat fatigues and sporting a punk haircut, he eventually beat out the other 3000 hopefuls, despite his unconventional look.

Willis displayed the same cocky charm that James Cagney exhibited early in his career, and the hip, dialogue-driven romantic comedy "Moonlighting" was one of the most inventive shows of the decade. Widely-publicized battles involving its two stars and creator Glenn Gordon Caron resulted in production delays and numerous repeat episodes, but the on-set tensions also helped simulate sexual energy with co-star Cybill Shepherd, adding an edge to their rocky relationship that was finally consummated at the end of the 1986-87 season. After appearing on several TV shows (i.e., "The Twilight Zone" CBS, 1985) and his own music special, "The Return of Bruno" (HBO, 1987), he graduated to features in two uneven Blake Edwards comedies, "Blind Date" (1987) and "Sunset" (1988). His charming "Moonlighting" smirk notwithstanding, Willis seemed just another fading TV personality unable to translate his appeal onto the large screen when agent Arnold Rifkin got him "Die Hard" (1988) and a $5 million payday, raising a cry throughout Hollywood that a movie actor without pedigree should not command such a sum. As it turned out, his salary proved a veritable bargain as the sleeper hit spawned a franchise and launched him as an action-hero on par with the likes of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzennegger.

Willis' wise-guy machismo worked perfectly for NYC cop John McClane, and he reprised the role in large scale sequels "Die Hard II: Die Harder" (1990) and "Die Hard with a Vengeance" (1995). He also supplied the voice of Mikey in the hit comedy "Look Who's Talking" (1989) and its limp follow-up "Look Who's Talking Too" (1990), as well as showing ambition to stretch his talents with a surprisingly good performance as the cynical, shell-shocked Vietnam veteran of "In Country" (also 1989). He went on to flex his acting muscles as the low-life murder victim in "Mortal Thoughts" (1991, opposite then-wife Demi Moore) and the hapless plastic surgeon in the horror comedy "Death Becomes Her" (1992), high points in the midst of some extraordinary disasters. In fact, the ill-conceived "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990), the self-indulgent action flop "Hudson Hawk" (for which he co-wrote the story and theme song), and the box-office disappointments "Billy Bathgate" and "The Last Boy Scout" (all 1991) conspired to put his career on very "iffy" footing. Though he enjoyed spoofing himself in Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992), it was well-received supporting turns as a prizefighter who refuses to take a dive in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and as Paul Newman's employer in "Nobody's Fool" (both 1994) that finally restored his bankability.

Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" (1995) showed Willis to good effect as a time-traveling scientist whose self-sacrifice alters the course of the future for the good, but his collaboration with writer-director Walter Hill on "Last Man Standing" (1996), a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai epic "Yojimbo", was a torturously slow affair. As the 90s wore on, Willis comfortably wore the mantle of action hero (despite chafing at the garment's limitations) in such big-budgeted effects-laden efforts as Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" (1997), which enjoyed a tremendous worldwide box office against meager US returns, and the blockbuster "Armageddon" (1998), playing an ace oil driller who sacrifices his life to save the world. He attempted a change of pace with his first large-scale, villainous role, that of the titular mercenary killer in the very watchable, globe-trotting thriller "The Jackal" (1997), but was back to the same old, same old for "Mercury Rising" (also 1998), though he showed a softer side protecting an autistic nine-year-old from the villainous Alec Baldwin. His power hungry general also single-handedly altered the tone of that year's "The Siege" from a serious-minded thriller to a one-dimensional, cartoon shoot-em-up.

Willis debuted as a producer on "Sunset" and has not enjoyed much success on subsequent behind-the-scenes efforts with brother David receiving producer's credit (i.e., "Hudson Hawk", "Color of Night" 1994), though he professes "Hawk" finally made it into the black. One such outing provided him a change-of-pace role as Dwayne Hoover, the suicidal car salesman, in the art house production "Breakfast of Champions" (1999), a boon for fans of the Kurt Vonnegut novel but tough going otherwise. He wisely chose to act in that year's paranormal surprise "The Sixth Sense", which under the direction of M. Night Shyamalan offered him at his most subdued as he effectively played dramatic scenes opposite the flick's real star, 12-year-old Haley Joel Osment in the role of the boy who can see dead people. He also undertook a role which paralleled his own life in Rob Reiner's comedy-drama "The Story of Us" (also 1999), drawing on his own difficulties with Demi Moore for its sad-sack story of a marriage in trouble. In 2000 Willis continued to resist the call of the action hero in "Disney's The Kid", portraying a 40-year-old who gets to spend time with his eight-year-old self, reteaming with Shyamalan on the supernatural thriller "Unbreakable" and scoring a surprise hit with the mob comedy "The Whole Ten Yards" as the ex-mobster Jimmy "The Tuilp." Returning to the small screen for a three-episode arc on Perry's NBC's hit sitcom "Friends", Willis picked up a second Emmy Award playing the disapproving father of a college co-ed dating the character of Ross (David Schwimmer) who romances Rachel (Jennifer Aniston).

Back on the big screen, he was once again in laconic mode as the prison escapee who serves as the brains in a series of bank robberies muddied by the fact that he and his partner (Billy Bob Thornton) both have fallen in love with a runaway housewife (Cate Blanchett) in the overlong "Bandits" (2001). Willis was shown to better effect as an American P.O.W. presiding over a murder trial in the WWII drama "Hart's War" (2002) and as the leader of a special operations force on a search and rescue mission in the jungles of Africa in "Tears of the Sun" (2003). That year he also voiced the animated canine Spike in "Rugrats Go Wild" and had an uncredited, nearly unrecognizable cameo in "Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle," the comeback vehicle for his friendly ex, Moore, before returning as Jimmy the Tulip for the sequel "The Whole Ten Yards." He popped up with another cameo appearance, this time as himself in "Ocean's 12" (2004), the sequel to the 2001 caper comedy hit.

Willis returned to the thriller genre with the Miramax-produced "Hostage" (2005), with a screenplay written by bestselling novelist Robert Crais--in the film the actor plays a failed LAPD hostage negotiator who, in his new job as a suburban police chief, finds himself forced to rely on his old skills to save his estranged family. The film had its merits but sunk at the box office. Willis was better served in the highly stylized "Sin City" (2005), Robert Rodriguez's visually arresting adaptation of Frank Miller's crime noir comic book series in which Willis had the plumb role of Hartigan, the noble but world-weary and heart-troubled cop who goes to jail rather than lead the corrupt family of a pedophile to the victim he saved, only to become embroiled again with all of the players in his past, in the film's best segment, "That Yellow Bastard."

Friday, March 24, 2006

Denzel Washington

Likened to Sidney Poitier for his ability to appeal to a multiracial audience, Denzel Washington parlayed his matinee idol looks and finely honed acting skills into becoming the first of his generation's African-American movie star on Hollywood's A-list. The self-proclaimed underachiever at Fordham University debuted in a college production of "The Emperor Jones" and soon after appeared as the school's "Othello", causing his professor Robinson Stone to remark to The Boston Globe (August, 5, 1990): "He was easily the best Othello I had ever seen, and I had seen Paul Robeson play it. Jose Ferrer came to look at it. He and I agreed that Denzel had a brilliant career ahead of him." By the time he graduated in 1977, Washington had landed a part in "Wilma" (CBS, 1977), a biopic of black track star Wilma Rudolph, which introduced him to his future wife Pauletta Pearson. He also enjoyed incredible success on the New York stage, particularly as a member of the OBIE-winning ensemble of Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play" and as Malcolm Shabazz (a.k.a. Malcolm X) in "When the Chicken Comes Home to Roost" (both 1981).

While touring in "A Soldier's Play", Washington landed the part of Dr. Phillip Chandler, an insecure young resident, on the well-regarded medical drama "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88). Although one of the lesser-sung players in an ensemble featuring Ed Flanders, Ed Begley Jr. and Howie Mandel, he embarked on a critically-acclaimed film career during its run, putting his inauspicious debut as George Segal's illegitimate son in the inane comedy "Carbon Copy" (1981) behind him. He reprised his stage role in Norman Jewison's film "A Soldier's Story" (1984), receiving high praise for his riveting performance as the outspoken recruit who kills his master sergeant (Adolph Caesar). He acted in Sidney Lumet's "Power" (1986), playing a part originally written for a white man, and then garnered his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as South African activist Steven Biko in "Cry Freedom" (1987). Having considered dozens of African actors for Biko, director Richard Attenborough finally found the right mixture of charm, erudition and intellect in Washington, casting him in the first of what the actor has called his historical-political roles.

Washington debuted as a feature lead the following year in the striking British thriller "For Queen and Country", speaking (or, according to some, struggling) with a Caribbean accent to play a Falklands war hero down on his luck in Thatcherite London. He then delivered an Oscar-winning supporting portrayal of a proudly defiant slave-turned-soldier in "Glory" (1989), his first collaboration with director Edward Zwick who told People (July, 29, 1996), "My editor didn't want to cut away from him because there was always something happening." As the emotionally-distant, womanizing trumpeter Bleek Gilliam in Spike Lee's overly long and uneven "Mo' Better Blues" (1990), Washington played one of his few roles calling for love scenes. The family man in him clashed with the director over how far he would go, on how much skin he would show, though their differences would not keep them from working together again. He also managed to remain true to his stage roots by taking the title role in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Richard III" (1991).

After a disappointing turn as an embattled cop on the edge in the crime thriller "Ricochet" (1991), Washington fared better falling for Sarita Choudhury in Mira Nair's engaging art-house romance "Mississippi Masala" (1992). Reteaming with Lee at his best on "Malcolm X" (also 1992), he slipped again inside the skin of the controversial black leader, putting his noble bearing to arguably its best use to date in a superb Oscar-nominated lead performance. The montage of stills and newsreel of the real Malcolm at movie's end pointed up the brilliant alchemy enabling Washington to capture the essence of this great man. Demonstrating his ease with Shakespearean screen dialogue as the dashing Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh's bouncy adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing", he also showed he could help sell mainstream Hollywood pictures, acting alongside superstar Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief", an adaptation of a best-selling John Grisham legal thriller, and Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" (all 1993), a prestige project that also became a box-office smash. Some reviewers deemed his role as a homophobic attorney who takes on the case of a HIV-positive lawyer unfairly fired by his law firm as more challenging than the sympathetic central character winningly played by Hanks.

Washington starred opposite film veteran Gene Hackman in "Crimson Tide" (1995), a nuclear brinkmanship thriller set on a submarine and one of the first big hits of the summer season. It was his only box-office success that year as the violent sci-fi actioner "Virtuosity" tanked despite its foundation of genuinely interesting ideas, and the thoughtful, period detective film "Devil in a Blue Dress", a generally well-reviewed, meticulously observed slice of black Americana set in post-World War II Los Angeles, also failed to find an audience, putting a kibosh on a proposed franchise for its star and ascendant writer-director Carl Franklin. Washington went on to earn strong critical praise in Zwick's "Rashomon"-like "Courage Under Fire" (1996), revealing a darker aspect in his turn as an armored tank commander troubled over his involvement in an incident of friendly fire during the Persian Gulf War. Assigned to investigate a female candidate (Meg Ryan) being considered posthumously for the Medal of Honor, he learns from the testimony of the three surviving soldiers that what happened out there was far from clear-cut. His pursuit of the truth shuts out wife and family in favor of booze, and the actor's sensitive and understated etching of his moody character was the stand-out performance in the film.

Washington co-starred with singer-turned-actress Whitney Houston in "The Preacher's Wife" (also 1996), the Penny Marshall-directed remake of 1947's "The Bishop's Wife". Not exactly cutting edge for the 90s, this warm-hearted holiday movie provided a handsome showcase for its black stars and did the lion's share of its business long after Christmas stockings had come down. None of his features opening in 1998 took off, though his work in all was exemplary. A convincing, demon-busting policeman in "Fallen", a hybrid of supernatural and cop-thriller genres that couldn't overcome the limitations of its script, Washington did the best he could in Zwick's "The Siege", which deteriorated in a tide of action movie cliches after its promising beginning, not to mention the insidious, prejudicial attitudes naively displayed. He also reteamed that year with Lee for the ambitious, flawed "He Got Game", playing the convict father temporarily released to try and convince his top basketball prospect son to commit to the governor's favorite college. Washington gave a stand-out performance as the sorrowful Everyman wronged by passion and a blink of faith, but the director's heavy hand, despite his on-target look at basketball recruiting, mitigated the power of the father-son relationship that was the film's strong suit.

As the paralyzed protagonist of the serial killer thriller "The Bone Collector" (1999), Washington managed to compellingly anchor the film from his high-tech bed while Angelina Jolie served as his legs in the street. He reteamed with Jewison to close out the millennium in "The Hurricane", losing 40 pounds to play the unjustly imprisoned Ruben 'Hurricane' Carter, a former middleweight boxing contender. Shot as an independent because financing proved problematic, the film received a six-minute standing ovation when a work-in-progress print debuted at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, causing the director to cite Washington's dedication and the painstaking recreation of different decades as the movie's two biggest plusses. Despite engendering controversy, mostly in the way some of the "facts" were omitted or rearranged, no one could fault the actor's work and Washington picked up his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his heartfelt portrayal of Carter. The next year, "Remember the Titans" cast him as a high school football coach who, in assuming the reins of an integrated team, must employ his former white rival as an assistant en route to a state championship.

In 2001's "Training Day", the actor undertook the role of streetwise, abrasive and corrupt L.A. narcotics officer Alonzo Harris who simultaneously breaks in a new, idealistic partner (Ethan Hawke) while dispensing his own brand of street justice. Washington tore into the juicy role and earned some of the best reviews of his career. Despite having the misfortune of being released in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 when public sentiment towards policemen and firefighters was at its highest, "Training Day" became something of a cult hit. By year's end, Washington had earned a few critical awards and received his second Academy Award as Best Actor, the first black man to achieve that distinction since Poitier. By the time he picked up that statue, his had delivered another quality turn as the father of a critically ill son driven by circumstances to take desperate measures in the action drama "John Q" (2002).

Washington had moved into producing with "Devil in a Blue Dress", the first feature from his Mundy Lane production company, and later served as executive producer of the TV documentary "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" (TBS, 1995). He broke into directing with the Winans' "In Harm's Way" music video and segued to features with the crowd-pleasing "The Antwone Fisher Story" (2002), the true tale of a Sony security guard who found success as a screenwriter and producer after a volatile career in the US Navy. Washington returned to the role of leading man in the thriller "Out of Time" (2003), reuniting with director Carl Franklin to play Matt Lee Whitlock, chief of police of Banyan Key, Florida, who, estranged from his wife and involved with his married high school sweetheart, ends up as the prime suspect in his small town's unexpected double homicide and sets out to prove his innocence. Both "Antwone Fisher" and "Out of Time" underperformed at the box office, but Washington's ability to draw an audience with the right material was reaffirmed with "Man on Fire" (2004), an action-packed revenge drama which cast the actor as a taciturn bodyguard who befriends his ten-year-old client (Dakota Fanning), then goes on a bloody trail of retirbution when she is kidnapped.

The actor next equated himself well in a challenging role, taking the Frank Sinatra part in director Jonathan Demme's remake of the 1962 classic conspiracy thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004). As a confused military officer attempting to unravel the secrets behind his frightening dreams of a mission gone awry, Washington made the character his own, investing the charcater with both a quiet nobility and a crazed desperation.

  • Born:
    on 12/28/54 in Mount Vernon, New York
  • Job Titles:
    Actor, Director, Producer, Drama instructor, Camp counselor, Postal worker, Sanitation worker
Family
  • Brother: younger
  • Daughter: Katia Washington. born c. 1987
  • Daughter: Olivia Washington. born on April 10, 1991; twin of Malcolm
  • Father: Denzel Washington. divorced Washington's mother when he was 14; originally from Dillwyn, Virginia; died in 1991 at age 81
  • Mother: Lennis Washington. divorced Washington's father when he was 14; born in Georgia and raised in Harlem
  • Sister: Lorice Washington. older
  • Son: John David Washington. born c. 1984; played a student in Harlem classroom in "Malcolm X" (1992)
  • Son: Malcolm Washington. born on April 10, 1991; twin of Olivia; named after Malcolm X
Significant Others
  • Wife: Pauletta Pearson. born c. 1951; met when both were filming "Wilma" (NBC, 1977); married in 1983; in 1995 renewed vows in South Africa with Archbishop Desmond Tutu officiating
Education
  • Fordham University, Bronx, New York, journalism, BA, 1977
  • Oakwood Academy, New Windsor, New York
  • American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, California
Milestones
  • 1977 TV-movie debut in "Wilma" (CBS), biography of Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph; future wife Pauletta Pearson also acted in telefilm
  • 1979 Acted in CBS miniseries "Flesh and Blood"
  • 1979 Appeared in New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF) production of "Coriolanus"
  • 1981 Feature film debut in "Carbon Copy"
  • 1981 First time playing Malcolm Shabazz (aka Malcolm X) in New Federal Theater stage production of "When the Chicken Comes Home to Roost"
  • 1981 Originated role of PFC Melvin Peterson in Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning "A Soldier's Play" at the Negro Ensemble Theater; won OBIE Award
  • 1982 TV series debut as regular playing Dr Phillip Chandler on the NBC medical drama "St. Elsewhere"
  • 1984 Earned critical praise for reprising Peterson in Norman Jewison's film "A Soldier's Story", adapted from Fuller's play
  • 1986 Selected by director Sidney Lumet for the role of a public relations executive in "Power", even though the part had originally been written for a white man
  • 1987 Made Broadway debut in disastrous run of Ron Milner's "Checkmates"
  • 1987 Portrayed martyred South African leader Steven Biko in Richard Attenborogh's "Cry Freedom"; earning first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor
  • 1988 First time headlining a feature, the British film "For Queen and Country"
  • 1989 Earned Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as the defiant slave-turned-soldier in "Glory"; first film with director Edward Zwick
  • 1989 US debut as feature lead, "The Mighty Quinn"
  • 1990 Initial collaboration with director Spike Lee, "Mo' Better Blues" playing jazz musician Bleek Gilliam
  • 1991 Essayed title role in NYSF production of "Richard III"
  • 1992 Excelled as a carpet salesman in the small art film "Mississippi Masala"
  • 1992 Played "Malcolm X"; second film with Lee; garnered Best Actor Academy Award nomination
  • 1993 Acted opposite Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief"
  • 1993 Displayed his Shakespearean chops as Don Pedro in Kenneth Brannagh's film adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing"
  • 1993 Portrayed ambulance-chasing lawyer who, inspite of his own homophobia, agrees to represent an AIDS-stricken lawyer (Tom Hanks) who claims discrimination in his dismissal from a law firm in Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia"
  • 1995 Executive produced TV documentary, "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" (TBS)
  • 1995 Headlined macho adventure-thriller "Crimson Tide", which teamed him with Gene Hackman
  • 1995 Provided the voice of title character in "Rumpelstiltskin", a segment of HBO's animated "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child"
  • 1995 Starred in Carl Franklin's "The Devil in a Blue Dress", a unique film noir from a black point-of-view; first feature produced under the auspices of his production company Mundy Lane
  • 1996 Acted opposite Whitney Houston in Penny Marshall's "The Preacher's Wife"
  • 1996 Reteamed with Zwick for "Courage Under Fire"
  • 1997 Made directing debut with "In Harm's Way", a music video for the Winans
  • 1998 Reteamed with Lee for "He Got Game", dusting off his basketball skills for the effort
  • 1998 Third film with Edward Zwick, "The Siege"
  • 1999 Delivered a convincing central turn as a paralyzed NYC criminologist who helps solve the identity of a serial killer in "The Bone Collector"
  • 1999 Played former middleweight boxer Ruben 'Hurricane' Carter in Norman Jewison's "Hurricane"; received Best Actor Oscar nomination
  • 2000 Starred in Boaz Yakin's "Remember the Titans", based on a true story of a newly-integrated high school football team in the South going on to a state championship
  • 2000 Was one of the producers of the documentary "Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks"
  • 2001 Undertook villainous role as a cop on the take paired with a rookie (Ethan Hawke) in "Training Day"; received Oscar as Best Actor, only the second black man to achieve that honor
  • 2002 Feature directorial debut, "The Antwone Fisher Story"; also co-starred
  • 2002 Starred in "John Q" as a man who confronts an HMO that withholds treatment from his ill child
  • 2003 Earned a People's Choice nomination for Favorite movie actor
  • 2003 Portrayed Chief Detective Matt Whitlock in the thriller "Out of Time"
  • 2004 Cast in the role of Bennet Marco, originally played by Frank Sinatra, in remake of "The Manchurian Candidate"
  • 2004 Received a People's Choice nomination for Favorite movie actor
  • 2004 Starred opposite Dakota Fanning in Tony Scott's "Man on Fire"
  • Cast as Frank Lucas, who built a heroin dynasty in the early '70s by smuggling the drug into the U.S. in the caskets of soldiers killed in Vietnam, in the drama "American Gangster," based on a New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson (lensed 2004)
  • Founded Mundy Lane Entertainment, named for the street on which he grew up
  • Opened Georgia, a restaurant in Los Angeles
  • Theatrical debut in Fordham University production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones"
  • While a camp counselor in Lakeville, Connecticut, took his first turn onstage during a talent show, catching the acting bug
  • Will reunite with director Spike Lee for the fourth time to star in the drama "Inside Man" (lensed 2005)
  • Will star as Brutus in the Broadway production of "Julius Caesar" (April 2005)
  • Worked in New York with New Federal Theater and Negro Ensemble Company

Friday, March 10, 2006

Robert De Niro

One of the most gifted actors of his generation, and often regarded as heir to Marlon Brando's legacy, Robert De Niro has combined the qualities of exceptional movie actors—danger, unpredictability, magnetism—with a distinctive touch of nihilism. The son of abstract expressionist artist Robert De Niro and painter Virginia Admiral, he studied drama with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and appeared in several off-Broadway productions early in his career. De Niro's first on-screen appearances were in films directed by Brian De Palma: his roles in "Greetings" (1968), "The Wedding Party" (1969) and "Hi, Mom!" (1970) hinted at the defiance and irreverence which later defined his work. Glimpses of later signature characteristics were also visible in his portrayals of a moody, drug-addicted criminal in "Bloody Mama" (1970) and a charming small-time thief in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971).

De Niro was riveting as a dying, dim-witted baseball player in "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973). Many critics, however, have considered his performance as the irresponsible and irrepressible Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973) as his breakthrough role. In "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), De Niro faced the challenge of depicting a young Vito Corleone, originally played by his predecessor, Brando. De Niro's performance, which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, was a masterpiece of nuanced gestures, glances and speech patterns that captured the pride and inner reserve of Brando's mature Godfather. An equally astonishing portrayal was his enigmatic steelworker-turned-Green Beret in Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1978), a compelling central performance that held the film together and brought him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

The De Niro-Scorsese collaboration has produced some of American cinema's most memorable performances: the deranged Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" (1976), for which he was again nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle in "New York, New York" (1977); boxer Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" (1980), which won him the Oscar for Best Actor; frustrated comic Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy" (1983); and small-time mobster Jimmy Conway in "GoodFellas" (1990). In these remarkable performances, De Niro managed to project the reprehensible qualities of the characters without diminishing their humanity. For example, Travis Bickle's psychotic rant to himself in the mirror ("You talkin' to me?") was so chilling because it seemed so real; so human. The scene had since became a touchstone of modern technique.

De Niro was at his best when he suggested a man struggling with his inner demons, as he did with the obsessed but kindhearted bounty hunter in "Midnight Run" (1988), and the caring but mercurial Vietnam veteran in "Jacknife" (1989). A hint of this struggle made the loony terrorist Harry Tuttle in "Brazil" (1985) memorable, and has allowed him to create effective characters in films that were otherwise unsuccessful: the ambitious monsignor Des Spellacy in "True Confessions" (1981); the emotionally complex gangster David “Noodles” Aaronson in Sergio Leone’s "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984); and the militant Jesuit priest Rodrigo Mendoza in "The Mission" (1986). His attempts at playing unambiguously evil characters in "Angel Heart" and "The Untouchables" (both 1987), have been less fruitful than his portrayals of more passive figures—"The Last Tycoon" and "1900" (both 1976), "Falling in Love" (1984), and "Stanley and Iris" (1990).

De Niro has become less selective in his recent film roles, reportedly in an effort to finance his own film and television projects. He contributed little that was new or revealing to Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" (1990)—yet he garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination—and barely broke a sweat for Ron Howard's "Backdraft" (1991). Even his seventh collaboration with Scorsese, "Cape Fear" (1991), was a step down. Improbably combining disparate elements of two celebrated Robert Mitchum performances from the original "Cape Fear" (1962) and "Night of the Hunter" (1955), De Niro created a Max Cady who was more monster than man. His increasingly bizarre and malicious antics as he bedevils the family of Nick Nolte seemed more appropriate for a Brian De Palma black comedy or John Carpenter potboiler. Still, the Academy members honored him with his fifth Best Actor nomination. Meanwhile, the De Niro name became tantamount to quality with many reviewers and audiences. His perceived greatness, however, rarely translated into box-office success with his non-Scorsese vehicles.

Although the early 1990s were challenging for his career—he was in a series of films that made little impact with the press or public—the period did mark his foray into filmmaking. De Niro enhanced his reputation as a champion of New York film production with his TriBeCa Film Center—home to his own TriBeCa Films company, which became a hub of the city's resurgent production community. In 1992, he produced actor Barry Primus' low-budget directorial debut "Mistress", as well as Michael Apted's more ambitious "Thunderheart". The former, in which De Niro portrayed an urbane film financier, was dismissed as a poor man's version of "The Player". The latter, for which De Niro stayed behind the camera, was a well-received fact-inspired story of a Native American FBI agent grappling with his identity while working on a culturally sensitive case.

De Niro segued into television production as the executive producer of "Tribeca" (Fox, 1993), a short-lived dramatic anthology series set and shot on the streets of downtown New York. He employed the talents of several actors turned directors—Primus, Melanie Mayron and Joe Morton—to helm some episodes. He then made his own feature directorial debut with "A Bronx Tale" (1993), on which he was also producer and co-star. Adapted and expanded from a one-man show by actor-writer Chazz Palminteri, the film depicted a boy's divided loyalties between his two heroes in an Italian-American community of the Bronx in the 1960s. Palminteri won notice for his central portrayal of a flashy neighborhood gangster, while De Niro played the less flamboyant role of the honest laborer father. Despite a troubled production, the film earned respectful reviews amid tepid box-office returns.

De Niro had appeared in films produced by Irwin Winkler as far back as 1971's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight", so it was natural for him to star in Winkler's feature debut as a writer-director, "Guilty by Suspicion" (1991). The familiar tale of the Hollywood Blacklist was mediocre in execution, and De Niro failed to rise above the flawed material with his portrayal of a hotshot director. TriBeCa produced Winkler's next directorial outing, an adequate update of the 1950 film noir classic "Night and the City" (1992), starring De Niro as a frenetic ambulance-chaser who tries to score as a boxing promoter. He mainly received positive notices, but some reviewers found him too old for the part and thought there was a lack of chemistry between him and Jessica Lange.

The romantic comedy-drama "Mad Dog and Glory" (1993) offered a change of pace as De Niro played a nebbish crime scene photographer for the Chicago Police Department who saves the life of an exuberant and stylish gangster (Bill Murray). The urbane thug shows his appreciation by lending him a lovely bartender from his club (Uma Thurman) for a week. Of course, the pair fall in love. This role marked a rare instance in which De Niro was competent as a sympathetic romantic partner. His performance in "This Boy's Life" (1993) returned to more familiar psychological territory, albeit with a rustic twist. As Dwight Hansen, the dreaded stepfather of the young Toby Wolff (Leonardo DiCaprio), De Niro segued from an eccentric rube to terrifying authoritarian, though it was the young DiCaprio who won the most recognition.

After the commercial disappointment of "A Bronx Tale", De Niro headlined what seemed a sure thing at the time, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994). De Niro proved effective as an articulate and sympathetic monster, but the film suffered from director Kenneth Branagh's over-the-top operatic pretensions and died an ignominious death at the box office. De Niro rejoined Scorsese and "Goodfellas" co-star Joe Pesci for "Casino" (1995), a violent tale of gangsters in 1960’s Las Vegas. De Niro commanded the screen with his portrayal of a transplanted Chicago bookie who becomes a top casino owner in the fabled desert city, only to see his empire crumble amidst violence and corruption. He then finished 1995 opposite Al Pacino—the first onscreen pairing of this powerhouse duo—in Michael Mann's stylized crime drama "Heat". De Niro played a sympathetic career thief against Pacino’s flawed, but determined police detective.

De Niro returned to playing psychotics with the title role in Tony Scott's artistically bankrupt "The Fan" (1996), arguably the nadir of the actor’s career. Perhaps the original idea seemed palatable enough—create a synthesis of Travis Bickle and Max Cady and stalk a major league baseball player (Wesley Snipes)—but the end result was embarrassing. That same year he produced and played Diane Keaton's whimsical doctor in the comedy-drama "Marvin's Room", as well as contributing his stoic priest to Barry Levinson's "Sleepers". After teaming with Sylvester Stallone in the predictable police drama "Cop Land" (1997), De Niro had a strong finish that year with Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"—adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel "Rum Punch"—and Levinson's "Wag the Dog", which De Niro also produced. In the former, he was Samuel L. Jackson's pot smoking gangster pal, Louis Gara; in the latter, he played Conrad Brean, a political spin doctor who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to stage a phony war in order to divert public attention from a president's sexual indiscretion.

In 1998, De Niro transformed himself from bullying escaped prisoner to refined, engaging benefactor in the modern-day remake of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations", then became a solid action hero in John Frankenheimer's espionage thriller, "Ronin". For his TriBeCa productions, he turned to comedy as a New York gangland boss experiencing panic attacks in smash hit "Analyze This" (1999). De Niro took a step back in his career when he played a homophobic stroke victim who befriends a drag queen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Joel Schumacher's marred melodrama, "Flawless" (1999). In 2000, he took another misstep in playing Fearless Leader in the combined live-action-animated debacle, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle". He then reverted to police work as a highly decorated detective who joins a fire inspector (Edward Burns) in investigating a murder committed by fame-seeking serial killers in "15 Minutes" (2001). Still looking for a second film to direct, De Niro continued waiting while he finished acting in "Men of Honor" and "Meet the Parents" (both 2000), and Frank Oz's "The Score" (2001), for which he reportedly received $15 million.

The lackluster roles kept coming for De Niro, who starred in three forgettable films in 2002: the limp Hollywood action-comedy "Showtime" opposite Eddie Murphy and William Shatner; the pedestrian "City By the Sea" with Frances McDormand; and the uninspired sequel, "Analyze That”, opposite Billy Crystal. Also disappointing was the sci-fi thriller "Godsend" (2004), in which the actor played a stem cell research expert who clones the dead son of a grief stricken couple (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) with disastrous results. His next role was a fun-filled send-up of his wise guy persona with the voice of shark mob boss Don Lino in DreamWork's animated "Shark Tale" (2004). In the follow-up to “Meet the Parents”, De Niro revived his menacing CIA dad, Jack Byrnes, for “Meet the Fockers” (2004), in which he meets Ben Stiller’s parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Despite mediocre reviews for the movie and outcries that De Niro had given up meaty roles for easy money, “Meet the Fockers” proved to be more successful than its predecessor. Weeks later DeNiro's next film was in theaters, the routine thriller "Hide and Seek" (2005) as a widowed father whose daughter (Dakota Fanning) exhibits a disturbing with her "imaginary" friend. Meanwhile, De Niro was set to direct his second film, the spy thriller “The Good Shepherd” (2005), a sprawling history of the CIA as told through the 40-year career of one of its agents.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Julia Roberts

A winsome beauty with a large, incandescent smile and a mane of auburn hair, Julia Roberts was one of the few bankable female stars of the early 1990s. Critics have speculated on the secret of her huge appeal, but it remains one of the enigmas of contemporary pop culture. Roberts lacks the technical polish of some of her contemporaries, but has been able to command the screen even while surrounded by heavy-hitters like Sally Field, Denzel Washington and Susan Sarandon.

Roberts was introduced to the world of performance at an early age by her theatrical parents, who ran the Atlanta-based Actors and Writers Workshop out of their home. She made her screen debut opposite her older brother Eric in "Blood Red", although the 1986-produced film went unreleased for three years. Roberts first gained notice playing a fiery Portuguese waitress in "Mystic Pizza" (1988) and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as the doomed diabetic heroine of "Steel Magnolias" (1989).

With her performance as a warm-hearted prostitute who transforms cold executive Richard Gere in Garry Marshall's saccharine but immensely successful rags-to-riches saga, "Pretty Woman" (1990), Roberts became one of Hollywood's most popular and bankable stars and earned a surprise Best Actress Academy Award nomination. While her contribution made the routine thrillers "Flatliners" (1990) and "Sleeping with the Enemy" (1991) popular successes, she faltered a bit at the box office later in 1991 with the weepie romance "Dying Young", but her star power garnered an opening weekend take of over $9 million. She finished the year with the supporting role of Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg's lavish update of the Peter Pan myth, "Hook". Roberts' toothsome portrayal of the feisty fairy revealed no insights into the tiny winged character, and she struggled gamely with the physical and artistic rigors of doing most of her scenes alone on a special effects soundstage.

Roberts took some time off to get her highly publicized personal life in order: romances with co-stars Liam Neeson, Dylan McDermott and Kiefer Sutherland all petered out, though her romance with co-star Lyle Lovett ended in a brief marriage. Roberts made a cameo appearance as herself in Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992) before making her much ballyhooed return to the screen, reasserting her commercial magic opposite Denzel Washington in the political thriller "The Pelican Brief" (1993), but faltered with audiences opposite Nick Nolte in the middling romantic comedy "I Love Trouble" (1994). Her next few film roles proved spotty: she was passable as a journalist in Robert Altman's high-fashion comedy "Ready to Wear/Pret-a-Porter" (1994), spunky as a woman coping with marital problems in the romantic comedy "Something to Talk About" (1995), and dour in the period horror film "Mary Reilly" (1996), all of which failed to find audience favor. As Woody Allen's leading lady in his musical comedy "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996), she fared slightly better (and displayed a pleasant if not spectacular singing voice). Cast opposite old beau Neeson as his love interest in Neil Jordan's biopic of Irish revolutionary "Michael Collins" (also 1996), Roberts gave a gallant try but was hampered by a wavering Irish accent.

1997 saw the actress reassert her position as a box-office performer with her starring role in the comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding". Cast as a scheming restaurant critic who sets out to break up the wedding of the man she thinks she loves, Roberts turned what could have become an unsympathetic character into an audience favorite through the sheer force of natural charm and vibrancy. She was abetted by Rupert Everett's scene-stealing supporting turn as her editor and a subtle script by Ron Bass that inverted many of the cliches of screwball comedy. Roberts' much-anticipated teaming with Mel Gibson in Richard Donner's "Conspiracy Theory" (also 1997), however, proved to be somewhat disappointing thanks to a muddled script.

Ron Bass was one of several writers who worked on the script of "Stepmom" (1998), a comedy-drama that cast Roberts as the much younger girlfriend of a divorced man coping with his two children and his saintly ex-wife. Most critics dismissed the film as pap but audiences lapped it up and made it a modest box-office success. She followed with a turn as a world-famous movie star who falls in love with a bumbling British bookseller (Hugh Grant) in "Notting Hill", an uneven romantic comedy, and a reteaming with Gere under Garry Marshall's guidance in "Runaway Bride" (both 1999). Together these films earned over $300 million domestically justifying the actress' standing as the highest paid female actor. Roberts then took on the role of her life, essaying the real-life legal secretary who assisted in turning a case of water poisoning into one of the largest class-action lawsuits in US history in "Erin Brockovich" (2000). Her stellar work under the direction of Stephen Soderbergh earned her just about every accolade, including the Best Actress Oscar.

In 2002, Roberts joined Drew Barrymore for the George Clooney feature "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."

Roberts returned to comedy playing the frustrated girlfriend of a low-level, somewhat bumbling gangster (played by Brad Pitt) in "The Mexican" (2001). Although she and Pitt were not on screen together for very long, the pair shared a nice easy chemistry. The actress also had a great rapport with James Gandolfini (as a hitman who kidnaps her as insurance). Despite fielding many offers, Roberts opted to play the personal assistant to a movie star (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the disastrous, critically reviled and box-office impaired comedy "America's Sweethearts" before reteaming with director Soderbergh for a small role in his remake of "Ocean's Eleven" (both 2001). Robert's next project was also with Soderbergh, in the non-narrative sequel to his "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1989); Roberts' character was shockingly uninteresting and unimportant to the story, such as it was. Worse was her limp turn in buddy George Clooney's directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002), the supposed life story of game show producer/host-turned-government agent Chuck Barris, in which she plays a spy femme fatale in a performace so purposefully arch as to defy belief.

Roberts fared better in her next project, "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003), playing Katherine Watson, a liberal-minded educator who takes a position at Wellesley in the 1950s and quickly comes under fire for teaching her students to aspire to become more than perfect wives for corporate CEOs. While the film's premise and storyline--a female spin on the familiar "Dead Poets' Society" model--was predictable, Roberts' delivered a mature and engaging performance that, in ways different from her previous efforts, had the audience rooting for her. Roberts then returned for the sequel "Ocean's Twelve" (2004), in which--while she and George Clooney took a backseat in favor of Brad Pitt and Catherine Jones--she appeared to be having more than than in the first film, gamely playing off of her real-life pregnancy and--in a harder-to-swallow plot spin--her character's uncanny resemblence to movie star Julia Roberts. Just prior to the release of that film, Roberts made international headlines when she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in November 2004. Hot on the heels of that arrival was the debut of the Mike Nichols-directed drama "Closer" (2004), in which she plays an American photographer in London caught up in the heated, sometimes erotic, often cruel love/sex gender war as amid two shifting sets of couples (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Roberts and Clive Owen). The highly literate film received mixed reviews, though many were raves and Roberts' performance was her most praised since "Erin Brokovich."