Robert de Niro

Acrylic on Watercolor Paper

Phoebe Phelps

I fell in love when I was twenty-nine and he was thirty-two, a respectable age difference. Preferable, actually, because they say men mature more slowly than women. And just in time too, because I was beginning to fear that I’d die alone. 

I’d recently been disappointed in love and had been laying in front of the TV all weekend, so this was exactly what I needed. There was only one thing standing between me and my sweetheart, and it was not a matter of fame, or that he didn’t know that I existed; we could work past all that. The problem was that it was 2023 when I fell in love with him at twenty-nine. 

But Robert de Niro hadn’t been thirty-two since 1974.


A conversation with my best friend:

“I don’t get why all the guys I like the most are the least emotionally available,” I say. 

“I’ve told you this before,” he responds, his voice weary and maybe a bit exasperated. “You have a tendency to only want what you can’t have.” 

“No,” I say. “That can’t be it.” 


I was raised in a small town in the Hudson Valley filled with old buildings. My grandfather’s house had a historical marker at the end of the long driveway, out by the road. The inside never seemed old fashioned to me, but that’s exactly what it was. The wood burning stove as the centerpiece of the living room. Warped glass of window panes and bloated floorboards. My grandfather’s chair covered with an old sheepskin and filled with squeaky springs. 

But it was the cellar that felt ancient. Going down those steps was like a portal, or a submersion. Returning to a place that had always existed but that we humanity had turned away from. Simplistic, seemingly hand built, smelling of mold that had been growing for at least a century. I only went down there once or twice, but the revelation that this history was under my feet the whole time, that has stuck with me. 


I saw the light during The Godfather Part II (1974). Home alone, late at night, immediately after watching The Godfather Part I (1972). The sequel tells the tale of the Godfather as a young man. 

This young Vito Corleone was tall and skinny and young and kind of gaunt and actually reminded me a bit of this guy who wasn’t texting me back anymore. They had similar faces, or similar auras, I don’t know, but I saw their connection. His image seemed to slip through the screen, and I couldn’t quite get a good look at him. Who is he? An immigrant living in a tenement at the turn of the century, a rogue with a heart of gold. He has high cheekbones and a severe brow and, eventually, a mustache as the movie skips through time to tell the story of a full life. He barely raises his voice. He speaks in a whisper. He takes care of his wife and baby and his community the only way he knows how, by turning to a life of crime.

It is so, so fucking hot.


Once I mentioned in conversation that when the camera was first invented, some people thought it was evil. That they used to believe that a soul was captured in the frame. It frightened those simple people back then, the idea that a part of them would live on like that, stagnant and unmovable, compressed onto film to never age as they would. I realized after I said it that I didn’t actually know if it’s true. It sounds right though, doesn’t it?


The dark and mysterious stranger from The Godfather was impossible to reconcile with the name “Robert de Niro” and the vague and stuffy idea of him I held in my head. I didn’t realize that’s who it was until I looked up the cast online. Had I even seen Robert de Niro in anything before? I recognized the very famous name but that’s all. 

When The Irishman (2019) came out a few years ago, many people were very excited, and I paid little attention. I watched it late at night when there was nothing else to do. There were scores of old actors who I couldn’t keep straight, prestigious names sparkling with starlight leftover from the Hollywood glamor of the previous century.

Again in this movie Robert de Niro travels through timehe agesto tell the tale of a full life. They used a different kind of movie magic in The Irishman, digitally changing his face for the flashbacks so he looked younger. It’s an Uncanny Valley kind of youth, his limbs still moving like that of an old man. His skin is synthetically shiny and taut, simulacra. This younger face in The Irishman, his de-aged face, isn’t exactly what his younger self looked like. The technology does not quite turn back time. It is reverse engineering, an alternate reality, a computer’s best guess at the past. 

There was something different left imprinted on the film reels of his old movies; brilliant physical evidence of a former glory. I was drawn to this unknown and unrecognizable stranger in The Godfather, and maybe it’s just because he reminded me of that guy who didn’t text me back anymore, but I wanted the whole movie to be about him. Every time he was on screen it wasn’t enough. I could rewatch it right now. 

Where did that face go? When does it end? Why can’t state of the art technology get it back?


I’ve got a laugh line developing ominously on the left side of my face, right next to the mole I inherited from my mother. That’s what they call it, a laugh line, but it feels like a wrinkle to me. Like the difference between mole and beauty mark, I think it’s all placementor semantics. It appeared when I was twenty-six, which is the year they say your brain becomes fully developed, the year they kick you off your parents health insurance. It’s been getting deeper and longer ever since. I’ve been closely monitoring it, as though I could somehow find some way to stop it by obsessing over it. On some days it’s the only thing I see when I look in the mirror. Of course it’s inevitable and the nature of life and we all get older and blah blah blah but somehow I didn’t really believe it would happen to me. 


No one knows what a stone mason is these days, but that’s what my dad is. He restores the old stone buildings scattered around my hometown. Some of them are original remnants from the Dutch immigrants who settled in the area. They lurk in between the modern developments and slapdash houses with plastic siding. Most of them are falling apart with disuse and time and age. Still, they weather the centuries well. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. 

Rich people from the city buy a rustic old house with an idea of romance, and when they realize how much work it needs, they hire my dad to fix it up. My mom calls my dad an artist, the way he arranges stone, sometimes breaking apart larger pieces to fit it to what he needs.


After The Godfather, I watch Mean Streets (1974) because a young Robert de Niro has a supporting role, and I need to see more of his face, figure it out. De Niro owes a lot of money, and he’s chaotic and stands on the rooftops of Manhattan shooting a gun into the skyline for no reason. He makes a scene, but he’s dynamic and charismatic and fast and sweet talking, so we forgive him. We laugh along with him. This man who needs attention and can’t stay out of trouble. He never stops moving. He’s running his hands through his hair or biting his knuckle or cracking wise. He’s so different from The Godfather, but I am still drawn to him. Which parts are the character and which are the actor?

He smiles, and his face is two dimples and the mole on his cheek and raised eyebrows that make his eyes disappear. Are we supposed to sympathize with him? I don’t know. But I do know that if I met that guy in a bar I’d go home with him. If there were cell phones in the ’70s, de Niro’s character would never text any girls back. 


One of the last times I see that guy who won’t text me back, he cries in my bed. He shows up to my roommate’s New Years party late, in a nice button up shirt except for all the wrinkles in it, just in time to be introduced to everyone and then count down to the new year. 

“Are you just inviting me so you’ll have someone to kiss at midnight?” he asked me before he arrived. 

The bottle of prosecco won’t open, and everyone passes it around, struggles with the cork. It turns midnight without anyone noticing, except for us. We watch from the corner as people concern themselves with the bottle, letting the significant moment pass them by. He kisses me on the sidelines of the scene devolving in front of us, and it’s somehow private and delicate and thrilling. 

Much later, when everyone has left, he lays the wrong way across my bed, very drunk. Drinking on an empty stomach will do that to you. He hasn’t been eating and hasn’t been doing so well, he says. When I tell him I think he kind of likes that, in a morbid way, he smiles sadly, and his face is two dimples and the mole on his cheek and raised eyebrows that make his eyes disappear. He starts to cry. Silently, like someone in a movie, hazy and beautiful and just after midnight on New Year’s Day. Are we supposed to sympathize with him?

“I wish you’d met me a few years ago,” he says.  


I envision all the versions of this boy in the past, the iterations of him that I’ll never meet, never see. The different parts he’s played. 

 “I was so different then. Not as depressed. You would have liked me better.” 


A conversation with my mother:

“My favorite movie of his is Mad Dog Glory (1993), with Bill Murray.” 

“Oh, we’ve watched that together.” 

“He sings ‘I’m Just A Gigolo’ to a dead body at a crime scene. It’s hih-sterical.” 

That’s how she talks. Hih-sterical. 

I remember the movie and remember her laugh but couldn’t picture my beau, Robert de Niro, in the picture at all. All the actors in my memory were just actors, placeholders for the characters they were portraying. Living stagnantly in 2-D and out of time on the screen. 

“But I didn’t think he was cute when we watched it.”

“Oh, no, he’s not. But I guess I could remember him from earlier. I could still see what he used to look like.” 

“Yeah, why didn’t you tell me? No one told me.” 


In class, or on the train, or while my friends are talking to me, or at work, I look up pictures of Robert de Niro. I want to see his face. I’m thinking about his face all the time. The antiquated one, the one he had in the ’70s, the one that doesn’t exist anymore. But the stagnant image is never satisfying. No pixels can sate my hunger. It’s movement I’m after. The reality of it, three-dimensional and pulsing with life of the moment. 

I watch The King of Comedy (1982). I watch Taxi Driver (1976). I watch Casino (1995). I watch Meet the Fockers (2004). I watch Deer Hunter (1978). I watch Raging Bull (1980). I look up how old he was during all these movies, I keep track. I watch him age. But is he really there, beneath the character? What can I find of the man in these performances? 

I watch GoodFellas (1990), and a friend asks me which I like better“current de Niro” or “classic de Niro.” I laugh at her. It’s not about preferring one over the other, I’m trying to watch his whole life. Understand how he changed, from one face to another. Find his old face in the new one. Find the moment I can no longer draw the connection from his youth to his age. The moment that the image breaks.


I moved from my hometown to New York City, and it’s close enough that sometimes my dad comes down for the day. We go to a museum or a movie; we walk around. There’s history in the city too, and I can see it the same way I can find the old Dutch houses in my hometown. When my dad is here I see the city as he remembers it from his Fordham days in the ’70s. The same city as Mean Streets, as Taxi Driver.  He points out buildings and streets and parks from his past. I don’t mention Robert de Niro.

“Wow,” my father says as we cross Houston Street. “You can really smell the reefer everywhere these days.” 

We stop at a church on a corner, trying to decipher whether it’s the oldest church in New York. It’s not, but it’s close. De Niro and Scorsese both grew up on these streets; they knew each other vaguely as children. Their lives spun around each other until they grew up and got famous and made movies about this place. 

“Wow,” my father says when I tell him to take a left, looking at the map on my phone. “I guess no one has to stop for directions anymore. All that information in your pocket.” 

We stop at the oldest pub in Manhattan. My dad takes a picture of me with an old, framed news article announcing that the bar does not allow women, and laughs. I don’t mention Robert de Niro. 

“This city is filled with young people,” my father keeps saying. “I might be the oldest person in this room.” 

In the museum, at the movie theater, when we stop for coffee, he probably is. I don’t mention that he’s younger than Robert de Niro.


I’m rewatching Heat (1995) for the first time since my enlightenment, and Robert de Niro sits across from Al Pacino at a diner. At the time, they’d never been in a movie together, so this scene was a big deal for some reason. When I talk about Robert de Niro, try to articulate this deep ache in my chest, people ask me what I think of Al Pacino. I don’t think anything about him. Robert de Niro consumes the whole scene, the whole diner. Every time he’s on screen I make a noise.

“I guess you do still think he’s hot then,” my roommate asks after a particularly wistful sigh of mine. 

In 1995, I was one year old, and Robert de Niro was fifty-two. 

“No, I don’t.” I say. In 1995 it had been two decades since he’d walked the bleak and sepia toned tenements in the role that made me love him. He carries those two decades with him on his skin. “It sounds insane but it’s more like, it’s like I can see the whole universe in his face.”

“You’re right, that does sound insane.”

I try to hold the image of him in this diner in the same place in my brain as the Italian immigrant who reminded me of the guy who won’t text me back anymore. I picture a much younger man, two decades younger, returning to Sicily and knifing a man in the stomach. A much younger man, sparring in a boxing ring, in slow motion, in black and white. That’s from Raging Bull. A much younger man with a mohawk points a bloody finger to his own head and laughs. That’s from Taxi Driver. When would I have liked him better?

Am I overthinking this?

Is it the way he smiles? The way his eyebrows go up like that? The gait of his shoulders? I’m just waiting for the next shot, when his face is shown to me again. Which parts are his acting, and which parts are him? I wonder if the guy who won’t text me back anymore will still look like Robert de Niro as he ages.

“I see all of human history,” I say. 


Back when the guy who doesn’t text me back anymore was still texting me, he sent me a very sweet goodnight message with an emoticon smiley face. 

“Goodnight :)” the message said.

I laughed at him, because it seemed out of character. I liked him better when he was someone who needed fixing. When he was someone who was rough with me and spiraling out of control. That was exciting and wild. I didn’t know what to do with this change of pace, this different character. 

“Fine, I won’t say goodnight anymore,” the guy said in response, ruffling his feathers.

From then on he said ‘good evening’ in the morning, ‘good morning’ at night. It made me laugh, and we made a game of it. It became something special. Merry Christmas, good teatime, Shabbat shalom, anything but what it really was. 

Unattainable things are often made more attractive in their unattainability. 

Then, of course, one day he stopped saying anything at all. 


Conversation with my mother: 

“Mom, what do you think about Robert de Niro?” 

“In terms of his acting, or how he was your father’s boss?” 

“Wait, what?” 

Robert de Niro was one of the rich people from the city who bought an old stone house that my dad restored. When my mom says this, so flippantly, I am shocked. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Then I realize that they did, it had just been before I understood what that really meant. Before I’d seen The Godfather, back when he was just one of the many brilliant old names that I vaguely recognized. In something like The Irishman (2019) which I’d watched but didn’t pay attention to. 

But now I understand. And I know where he lives, or at least, where one of his houses is. I see a version of myself, playing a part that he usually plays, obsessive or deranged or off-kilter. This alter ego of mine, this character, she goes to his house with the same wild look she learned from staring into his youthful eyes. She follows his footsteps and touches his things, but when they come face to face she is disappointed. It is not even a ghost that she is confronted witha ghost would remain a thirty-two year old. Which parts of him are him, and which are the character? 

“He said to call him Bobby.”


I rewatch Taxi Driver and then listen to interviews Bobby has given about Taxi Driver, and then I watch Taxi Driver again. He gives nothing personal away in his interviews; he is collected and polite and perhaps even stoic. Monosyllabic. So different from the tornadic energy he brings to his roles. The interviewer asks him what he’d be if he’d never become an actor and his response is, “I think that’s a bit too personal.” In Taxi Driver, he drives a taxi, and he is unhinged. Not a mob boss or boxer or wayward youth blowing up mailboxes. He’d become a real taxi driver for a few months before shooting the movie to prepare for the role. How did he prepare to attempt an assassination? 

How is it that these people can shapeshift so well? Turn into other people just for a story I watch for two hours? Dialogue and hair and makeup and wardrobe and pretending, I guess, Movie Magic. And I believe it. I eat it up.


Conversation with my best friend: 

“I know you’re really affected by this guy, but honestly I don’t have anything new to add anymore. I’m sorry. You’re either going to have to get over him or not, but at this point it’s just your decision.” 


Bobby has a moleor beauty markon his cheek. I can’t be sure of which side of his face it’s on. Cameras are known to flip the image. But backwards or forwards he laughs on my tv screen, and his face is that mole and two dimples and raised eyebrows that make his eyes disappear. Always that mole, in all his films, no matter the year. 

Phoebe Phelps is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. She was a finalist for the Adrift Short Story Prize and the phoebe spring contest and has work forthcoming in Driftwood Press. You can find her at De Niro Con at Tribeca this summer.

Artwork: “Solar Sail” by Marsha Solomon

Acrylic on Watercolor Paper

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