Robert De Niro and the affective paradox of reluctant celebrity
Bernardo Bertolucci once told me that I became an actor to get out certain emotions that I couldn’t get out in life. And I thought about that for a long time and, uh, uh, uh…um…uh…I think that’s right.
(Robert DeNiro in Esquire)
Yeah, well … I think that … umm…you know… uh-hah.
(De Niro to Richard Schickel, in Time)
I, uh, can’t, ah, umm … Well, let’s, ah, see uh, I, uh.
(De Niro cited in the Toronto Star)
In any list of all-time most taciturn celebrity interviewees, Robert De Niro would seem to have a lock on a top spot, along with fellow inductees Billy Bob Thornton and the late Lou Reed. Observers are frequently puzzled that De Niro, regularly hailed as one of the most powerful, nuanced actors of his generation, has so little apparent interest in displaying verbal power; as Barry Paris observes in the journal American Film, “It’s ironic that the very thing that draws people to De Niro on the screen — this powerful, largely nonverbal projection of character, emotion and meaning — is what baffles and annoys…people about him offscreen.” But De Niro’s well-known bouts of verbal blockage do not tell the whole story about his relation to celebrity promotion and the performance of a public subjectivity. Indeed, they are representations that do specific kinds of cultural work. As Greg M. Smith perceptively notes, journalists reproduce these inarticulacies, in the way you see them here, on these slides, transcribed literally. “Usually,” Smith reminds us, “a reply in such halting, ‘naturalistic’ speech would be cleaned up, and awkward false starts would be edited out.” Drawing upon recent affect theory that explores so-called “negative,” obstructive affects, I see these moments of inarticulateness as only part of the complex construction of desire and disinclination that I call “reluctant celebrity.” De Niro’s reluctance, then, represents: but how, and what?
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