Robert De Niro has done a LOT of movies. That’s not even a question. But clearly some are more famous than others. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), and Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) are all prime examples of “De Niro favorites” and for good reason- they are amazing films. The man is a legend. His career spans almost 50 years and during that time he has created many of the most iconic and legendary performances with some of the most influential directors that have ever touched film. Coppola, DePalma, Leone, Cimino. And that Scorsese fella? Do we even need to go there? Long story short: Robert De Niro is no schlump.
It should not have escaped any audience member’s purview that Robert De Niro is (along with colleagues Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and others) also an iconic figure of what could be considered the modern cinema of masculinity. There was a certain masculinity at work in classic cinema that shifted greatly with the films that De Niro and his peers starred in. The feel of the men and their understanding of what Makes A Man changed. However, that was not true for every film that he was in. Just the ones that are the most highly recognized and widely accepted. The films that I want to examine here (and the roles that De Niro played) display a very different masculinity. One that holds a beautiful fragility and importance that I feel has gone sadly overlooked.
Throughout the years, De Niro has provided the cinema much to work with in the way of masculinity. Whether he was playing testosterone-charged boxers, highly ranked mafia figures, detectives or lascivious criminals, he always appeared as the embodiment of the hypermasculine. In the film Backdraft (Ron Howard, 1991) and A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro, 1993) his characters clearly demonstrate the intimate connection that a man feels between work and male identity. These two films closely examine the relationship between employment and masculinity and the effect one can have on the other. De Niro’s characters are dynamic representations in each respective piece. This is part 1 of a two-part piece exploring these representations.
In Backdraft, De Niro plays Donald “Shadow” Rimgale, the arson investigator that Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) goes to work for when he decides that perhaps the actual act of fighting fires is not for him and he would be better off in a “desk job,” having been somewhat bullied into this decision by his older brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell). Donald “Shadow” Rimgale is a complex figure. When Brian first meets him, he is screaming at a young fireman, castigating him for making a mistake that will make it infinitely more difficult for Rimgale to prove the situation was arson. The poor young fireman stands there, sputtering, before Rimgale barks at him to leave.
Brian then introduces himself and Rimgale proceeds to bites his head off as well. Brian continues to stand there, waiting for Rimgale to readdress him and give him instructions. He watches as the older firefighter changes his shirt. Through the glass window of the office door, Brian sees that Rimgale’s shoulders and back are horrifically scarred; his flesh resembles a melting candle. Rimgale’s anatomy has clearly become part and parcel of his work. While his career may involve fighting what fire is and what fire does to the outside world, Rimgale is a physical embodiment of his own job, carrying it with him wherever he goes as a constant reminder. Unlike many other men, Rimgale’s fleshly form and disfigurement underscore the idea that this profession is not one you can leave at the office: this job makes you who you are.
Rimgale’s actions in the film illustrate a supreme sense of sacrifice that many men feel is literally part of their job description. His body is initially ravaged by fire in the process of saving the life of an avowed arsonist and (eventually) almost fatally wound while retrieving another person-of-interest (likely guilty). Rimgale’s body is itself a battleground. Why would Rimgale risk his life to save criminals or those who possibly started the blaze that they were trapped inside? Because it’s his job. It’s what he signed up for. It’s What A Man Does.
Rimgale’s positioning of the job and its needs over his own represents a certain kind of masculine construction that has a history in the cinematic world. This embroidered quilt of career devotion, loyalty and construction of a “higher order” to which the man in question serves while under employment seems to come up in more than one circumstance. In the past, one could locate this concoction when viewing American war films or classic dramas of the 1940s and 50s. Now, it makes itself known in all kinds of films. Rimgale is willing to sacrifice his body for the larger good, even if it lands him in the hospital, unable to continue pursuing the case with Brian.
The question we must then ask about this archetype is…how far is too far and is there a “too far”? Is this kind of dangerous and occasionally almost fatal relationship to one’s vocation something that assists in the evolution of one’s masculinity or is it detrimental? While this behavior is chiefly treated as heroic and brave (which it certainly is, I could never run into burning buildings to rescue people), it is also wise to consider the implications of this kind of job dedication when it is so intimately related to gender concerns. It is not the dedication that is the worry, nor the job. It is the attachment to Maleness that comes with it. Rimgale’s regular displays of power and authority within his office and in exchanges with various people show that he certainly ties his gender definition in with what he does on a daily basis. In fact, it seems that what he does is who he is. And therein lies the ultimate danger: when that little line of demarcation disappears, it becomes problematic.