As I discussed in my last piece, So You Think You Know De Niro Pt. 1: Examining Masculinity and Backdraft, Robert De Niro is a very complex and interesting figure in Hollywood. I believe that even the most violent of De Niro’s characters likely has a sympathetic side. He doesn’t play sociopaths. Even Travis Bickle is a character that is deeply hurting inside. I think this is a sign of a truly great actor. The problem isn’t in De Niro’s performances. Rather it’s how men have translated them to their own lives, eliminating the very defined fiction/reality wall that exists.
So the reality is that Robert De Niro is best known for characters that trade in a toxic masculinity that is more hurtful than helpful to the people that they care about. But in this piece, I want to elevate a very special film that doesn’t do that. It’s a film that I return to time and time again because it is one of the few truly excellent and realistic films about fatherhood that has been made. There are really not that many. If you have not seen this film, I highly recommend you seek it out. The men in this film are all versatile and deep representations of Italian masculinity in New York and (from what I could tell) quite sensitively done. I love this film.
A Bronx Tale is the directorial debut of Robert De Niro himself and it gives a slightly different perspective on the gender/work landscape than Backdraft does. The main thrust of the film is the relationship between a father and son. Based on a play written by Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale is the coming-of-age story of a young man, Calogero Anello (Francis Capra), in New York in the 1960s. The film traces his close relationships with the two men that he idolizes and looks to for guidance on his way to becoming a man: his father Lorenzo Anello (Robert De Niro), a local hard working bus driver, and Sonny LoSpecchio (Chazz Palminteri), the local mafia kingpin.
As a child, Calogero is given strict instructions not to go anywhere near the bar that serves as the control center and main hang out for Sonny and his underlings. Unfortunately for Lorenzo and his wife, Calogero’s fascination with Sonny’s world is overwhelming, and he cannot stay away. Eventually, this fascination leads to involvement and Calogero (now given the nickname of “C” by Sonny) becomes part of Sonny’s world, but only so much as he is there to assist them in odd jobs: he is never part of major illegal operations or an accomplice to high-level criminal plans. However, being from the neighborhood, Lorenzo is still highly displeased about this situation, especially when he finds $600 dollars in his son’s room and it is revealed to him that Calogero has, indeed, been spending time with Sonny at the bar. Even if the money was “tips” received when assisting in Sonny’s craps games as Calogero insists it was, it was not gotten the right way.
Lorenzo seizes his son’s hand and drags him into the bar, throwing the cash down onto the table, telling Sonny that they cannot take the money. Sonny’s response is that he didn’t give the cash to Lorenzo, he gave it to Calogero, but Lorenzo continues to rail against the mobster, discussing all of the small changes that he has seen in his son since he has started hanging out at the bar, as a result of being around Sonny’s “lifestyle.” He argues that the kind of lifestyle that Sonny lives is not one that he wants to raise his son around. After Sonny tells him that he respects Lorenzo and tells Calogero to do things like finish school, go to college, be an upstanding kid, Lorenzo stops him mid-sentence and tells him, “You don’t understand. It’s not what you say it’s what he sees- the clothes, the cars, it’s the money, it’s everything. He tried to throw out his baseball cards the other day because he said Mickey Mantle would never pay my rent.” Sonny laughs to which Lorenzo retorts, “It’s not funny when your nine-year-old kid has a bigger bank account than you do.”
The discussion erupts into a cocktail of shouts between the two men, fighting over the small boy. Lorenzo and Sonny face each other, blood boiling, culture and local sensitivities at the forefront (in the very beginning, Sonny mentions that both he and Lorenzo are “from the same neighborhood”), and masculine identities built up as high as the Empire State Building. Both of these men feel the need to be role models to Calogero, however only one has the biological right to do so. Calogero has unwittingly managed to defang his father as a paternal ideal, however, by becoming so utterly hypnotized by Sonny and his wealth and glory. As the two men stand there like undomesticated animals, wild-eyed and Alpha-dog-minded, it is clear that the one thing they have in common is the one thing that is allowing one man to become more confident in his masculine dominance and the other to feel the desperate need to fight for his.
Lorenzo leaves the bar and the altercation with Sonny and grabs Calogero who is waiting by the hand. The young man immediately asks about the money, to which Lorenzo tells him he left it in with Sonny because it’s “bad money.” Calogero argues with his father and yells until Lorenzo slaps him, producing tears. “Sonny’s right,” Calogero sobs, “the working man is a sucker, Dad, he’s a sucker.” Lorenzo looks at Calogero straight in the eye and says, “He’s wrong. It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger but try to get up every morning, day after day and work for a living, let’s see him try that! Then we’ll see who the real tough guy is. The working man is the tough guy. Your father’s the tough guy.” Calogero looks at his father, crying, “Everybody loves him, just like everybody loves you on the bus. It’s the same thing.” Lorenzo shakes his head and caresses his son’s face, “No, it’s not the same. People don’t love him. They fear him. There’s a difference.”
Lorenzo finds hard work and masculinity to occupy the same space within the universe. As Calogero grows up, other situations arise in which his father espouses this belief and he tries to show his son the importance of being able to be proud of what you do and working hard for everything that you have. As Lorenzo says to Calogero at one point, “You want to be somebody? Be somebody who works for a living and takes care of his family…I might not have any money, I might not have a Cadillac, but I don’t have to look over my shoulder and I’m proud of what I do and I don’t have to answer to nobody.” Calogero rejects this, however, and still walks the fine line between Sonny and his father: caught between Sonny’s glamorous life of danger and (what seems to be) easily-achieved admiration and respect and Lorenzo’s bus-driving world, where if you want something, it takes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears to get there. And male imagery in the two worlds is quite separate. What it means to be a man in Sonny’s world is just not the same as what it is in Lorenzo’s, which, by the end of the film, Calogero finally begins to understand.
Lorenzo Anello is the son of immigrants and the proud hard-working father of a boy-child. In the 1960s Italian-American community in New York, this bears great meaning. Raising a child is one thing, but raising a son is another. He is the figure that carries on your name and by that your history, your culture renews itself. While other cultures feel similarly on this issue, the Italian culture, so heavily entrenched in masculine ritual and custom, is practically overflowing with it. Even today, in a time when it seems that this thought process might be outmoded, it endures. A Bronx Tale carries these things but also shows a richer and more expansive side: Lorenzo loves and treasures his child, showing a great deal more tenderness than many other cinematic fathers. Due to his own upbringing and life experience, his conception of masculinity is intimately engaged in his own feelings on labor and familial dedication, but he does not let this stand in the way of his relationship with his son. He makes the attempt to have it both ways.
Lorenzo is a man because he works hard to be one and he works hard for his family. Sonny’s underworld lifestyle where everything comes for free not out of respect or as a result of having made a difference but out of fear of retribution is the world that Lorenzo wants to keep Calogero away from. His desire to raise his son properly and to provide a better life for him, whether the young boy knows it or not, is what being a man is. This is A Bronx Tale.
To conclude this De Niro study, Robert De Niro in Backdraft and A Bronx Tale reflects men of sacrifice: Rimgale, a man who is willing to do anything for justice including put his body on the line, and Lorenzo, who works his fingers to the bone and goes up against mob bosses just to give his son the best life possible. These men are examples of strong and healthy men who work hard at what they do for the good of those around them.
In a cinematic world that gives us a plethora of men who are “too cool for school” or “tough as nails,” seeing a father explain to his young son the difference between a feared man and a hard working man and then hold him in his arms while apologizing for getting excessively angry is an anomaly. The kind of bravery and professional dedication exhibited in rescuing a known enemy from the very disaster that they were responsible for catalyzing is something that not many people on the planet are capable of doing. De Niro has played many roles in his lifetime, from the lowest of the low to family comedies. Having these characters within his overall body of works only proves his flexibility and talent. As dynamic as he is as Max Cady in the remake of Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) and as remarkably funny as he is in the highly underseen Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988), he is just as poignant in A Bronx Tale and just as powerful in Backdraft.