The Wizard of Lies: three faces of Robert De Niro

Barry Levinson’s Bernie Madoff biopic brings together key facets of the actor’s star persona, as he plays an opportunistic individual who is nevertheless rigorously self-controlled.

Brad Stevens

Web exclusive

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff in The Wizard of Lies

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff in The Wizard of Lies

It is among the ironies of modern distribution that, despite the plethora of information we now have access to, keeping up with films one might be interested in seeing is more difficult than ever. As Paul Schrader observed in a recent interview, “There’s no centre to popular culture. The atrium where everyone would get together to talk is now dozens of little rooms.” Only by chance, while searching for something else on the IMDb, did I discover that a director I admired, Barry Levinson, had made a film for HBO in which Robert De Niro played Bernie Madoff, and that this film, The Wizard of Lies, has been available on DVD and Blu-ray (though not in the UK) for over a year.

This is all the more ironic in that The Wizard of Lies resembles those classical Hollywood titles which flourished under a quite different mode of dissemination, one of the most fascinating things about it being the ways in which it utilises the star image of De Niro, an actor whose choice of projects during the last two decades has come dangerously close to making us forget how central he once was to US cinema at its best.

De Niro was initially positioned as a ‘fluid’ Method actor rather than someone with a ‘fixed’ persona. Yet, as Robin Wood argued in an essay that first appeared in a 1984 edition of the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (Volume 2: Actors and Actresses), De Niro can “be consistently read as a star – that is, the aggregation of his roles to date carries meaning in itself, separate from the meanings of individual performances in the contexts of particular films.”

De Niro as Jon Rubin in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1969)

De Niro as Jon Rubin in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1969)

Wood divides De Niro’s roles into three categories, two of which involve characters notable for their opportunism, “the readiness to exploit people and situations for (their) own ends”, distinguishing between the early films directed by Brian De Palma (notably Greetings and Hi, Mom!, though his Al Capone in The Untouchables is also relevant here), in which “the opportunism is purely cynical, the character’s means of getting ahead”, and those by Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy), in which opportunism “is obsessional, the means of satisfying near-psychotic drives… (These) roles are all posited on the lack or collapse of control, primarily self-control, as the character becomes prey to his own obsessions, but also control over others, over situations, over the environment.”

De Niro as Travis Bickle in in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

De Niro as Travis Bickle in in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

Wood also proposes a third group of films (Francis Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions), which have “an inverse relationship to these… (casting) De Niro as a character defined by his self-control, the narratives then testing his ability to maintain control over the external world, over his own and other’s destinies.”

De Niro’s subsequent output testifies to the accuracy of Wood’s observations. And one might see the four collaborations with Barry Levinson – Sleepers (1996), Wag the Dog (1996), What Just Happened (2008) and The Wizard of Lies (2016) – as occupying a privileged position within De Niro’s oeuvre. Indeed, these films systematically develop all three aspects of the actor’s persona while ultimately suggesting a possible synthesis.

De Niro as Father Bobby in Sleepers (1996)

De Niro as Father Bobby in Sleepers (1996)

Sleepers clearly relates to those titles in which De Niro is defined by his self-control (as in True Confessions, he plays a priest), and in which he is frequently juxtaposed with a violent individual (the Vietcong leader in The Deer Hunter, James Woods in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Val Kilmer in Michael Mann’s Heat, Joe Pesci in Scorsese’s Casino, Kevin Bacon’s sadistic prison guard here) whose recklessness positions him as De Niro’s doppelgänger, representing what the De Niro character might become were his self-control to lapse; it’s as if the uncontrolled De Niro of Scorsese and De Palma were constantly lurking in the background, threatening to emerge.

De Niro as spin doctor Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog (1996)

De Niro as spin doctor Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog (1996)

In Wag the Dog, by contrast, we revisit the De Niro of Hi, Mom!, a cynical trickster distinguished solely by his ability to manipulate others (“You could talk a dog off a meat truck,” he is told at one point), who recognises no moral code, no obligations to anything beyond those energies attendant upon his Machiavellian skills (one might see Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, in which he is literally the Devil, as pursuing this tendency to its logical extreme).

De Niro as movie producer Ben in What Just Happened (2007)

De Niro as movie producer Ben in What Just Happened (2007)

In What Just Happened, De Niro plays a movie producer whose job obliges him to control situations and individuals, but which, as in the Scorsese films, is merely the cover for obsessional drives the character is neither willing nor able to confront. Levinson’s themes and concerns – a fascination with the rituals of masculinity, a recurrent emphasis on men incapable of distinguishing between the significant and the trivial – are neatly integrated with those of his lead actor, reminding us of the richness inherent in American cinema’s collaborative nature.

The Wizard of Lies is the culmination of this group of films, systematically working its way through all three aspects of De Niro’s image. As in the De Palma films (and Wag the Dog), the protagonist – notorious conman Bernie Madoff, responsible for the largest Ponzi scheme in history – is an opportunist exploiting others to serve his own ends. As in the Scorsese films (and What Just Happened), he also motivated by a neuroticism he is incapable of acknowledging, Levinson repeatedly emphasising Madoff’s refusal to confront the implications of his acts (“I just couldn’t stop… It got bigger and bigger and it just wouldn’t stop”).

De Niro as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies

De Niro as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies

But what makes The Wizard of Lies particularly noteworthy is its inclusion of the third aspect of the actor’s persona, the one relating to characters who (as in Sleepers) maintain a rigorous self-control. For Madoff’s manipulative skills are rooted in his ability to appear professionally disinterested while satisfying needs that are clearly neurotic. Levinson’s inveterate emphasis on stunted masculinity enables him to reconcile the disparate elements of De Niro’s persona, a persona here identified as the product of a system in which ‘illogical’ drives are indistinguishable from ‘logical’ attempts to pursue the rules of free enterprise to their inevitable conclusion (providing an intriguing overlap with Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). The ‘public’ rituals of capitalist exploitation turn out to be the ‘private’ rites of masculinity writ large (although the line of descent from Diner is clear enough, Levinson’s focus on misogynistic banter has a much darker edge than usual).

Pfeiffer and De Niro in The Wizard of Lies

Pfeiffer and De Niro in The Wizard of Lies

If the closing shot, in which the camera slowly tracks into the impassive Madoff’s face as he asks an interviewer if she thinks he is a sociopath, recalls the enigmatic endings of Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America, the ambiguous undertones of redemption perceptible in those films are conspicuous by their absence, being replaced by something much more terrifying in its implications. Another layer of meaning is added by Michelle Pfeiffer’s remarkable performance as Madoff’s morally compromised wife, which plays off Pfeiffer’s similar roles in De Palma’s Scarface and Luc Besson’s The Family (wherein she was also married to De Niro).

By combining the thematic concerns of director and stars, The Wizard of Lies achieves a complexity which is curiously barren, confronting that emptiness at the heart of the American experience (the opening shots juxtapose a US flag with barbed wire on the walls of a prison). It’s as if De Niro’s three faces have merged to form a perfect blank. How appropriate that a capitalist network of production and distribution has made such a film possible (it would obviously be inconceivable outside the Hollywood system) while ensuring that its existence as a cultural object is completely marginal.

 

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.