Airing this month on HBO, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. is an intimate documentary portrait of the father of one of the most famous actors of our time. Robert De Niro, Sr. was a well-regarded abstract expressionist painter in the 1940s and 50s whose career declined when artistic tastes shifted towards minimalism and pop art in the 1960s and 70s. To fill in the back story of the post-war American art scene, the film features interviews with art critics and fellow New York artists, but it’s the moments with younger De Niro that really give this doc its emotional heft. De Niro’s memories of his father are detached and distant–De Niro, Sr. and his mother Virginia Admiral separated shortly after the actor was born–but remain always warm and affectionate. De Niro describes how, as a teenager, he was more likely to run into his father on the street than at a family gathering. De Niro doesn’t spend much time speculating on why his parents were together so briefly, but it seems clear that the marriage ended when Admiral discovered De Niro, Sr. was gay.
Although the younger De Niro was recently interviewed for OUT Magazine with the headline “Me & My Gay Dad,” the documentary spends barely any time on Sr.’s sexuality, perhaps because, as De Niro says in the film, his son would be the last person with whom a father would share the pain of not having a lover. Like much of the documentary, Sr.’s homosexuality is understated, expressed only through the diary entries his son reads aloud on camera. One particularly painful entry reads, “If God doesn’t want me to be a homosexual, about which I have so much guilt, he will find whom I will love and who will love me.”
But this subject, which seems like one of De Niro, Sr.’s defining battles, is only briefly addressed and then dropped. It sometimes feels like Robert De Niro, the son is at odds with Robert De Niro, the interviewee, whose tight-lipped answers and monotone readings of his father’s diary provide little depth of insight into the subject. Remembering the Artist is a fundamentally frustrating documentary: it’s about a man who never truly knew himself, as told by the son who never truly knew his father. There is a palpable air of tragedy and regret throughout the film, which makes for compelling drama, but not a particularly illuminating documentary. It can only serve as an introduction to an artist, a brief sketch of a life, and perhaps a cogent reminder of how little we can actually know about the ones we love.
At a scant 40 minutes, Remembering the Artist perhaps sparks more speculation on the nature of success than it does interest in its subject. One of the more fascinating aspects in the story of the two De Niros is of their wildly divergent success: as the father’s star faded in the art world, overshadowed by pop art and minimalism, the son’s career skyrocketed–an irony not lost on an actor who has embodied two of cinema’s most iconic loser/loners. Unlike either Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro, Sr.’s talent was real, undeniable, and even lauded, albeit too briefly. In the early ’40s, De Niro, Sr. studied painting with abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. In 1945, his work was displayed at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century gallery next to future art world superstars Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In the ’50s, he shared gallery space with de Kooning and other New York School alums. In an alternate reality where Robert De Niro never became an actor–or never a successful one–perhaps the name would conjure up images of colorful, figurative abstract expressionist paintings instead of those of a young Vito Corleone and Jake LaMotta.
In his own diaries, Robert De Niro, Sr. pondered the nature of his limited success: “Will I be recognized in my lifetime? Have a delusion of grandeur to think that sometime, someday, someone will be interested to read what I write here?” It’s a bittersweet irony that maybe the most lasting document of De Niro, Sr.’s life and career will be the filmed documentary of his famous son reading those words. In the film’s final moments, Robert De Niro tears up recalling certain regrets he had in his relationships with his parents (Sr. died in 1993 and Admiral in 2000). It’s moving to see a screen icon so vulnerable, but there is also a definite air of guilt to the entire affair–as if making a movie was the only way to communicate what familial affections were left unspoken.