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There’s a general consensus among critics and fans that Robert De Niro’s role selection has gotten worse and worse over the past 15 years or so, sliding downward toward this year’s Dirty Grandpa.
Using data from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, illustrator James Chapman concluded “the exact moment Robert De Niro stopped caring” was sometime in the year 2002.
Judging by the internet commentary on the subject, it seems the only question is whether Dirty Grandpa is the nadir-o of De Niro or whether—here come the contrarians!—De Niro was never that good in the first place.
“It’s a lot harder to get good roles when you are older. I don’t think there are many actors that kept putting out good films when they aged,” writes redditor Eladir in one of the top comments on the De Niro graph over at r/movies.
“I don’t think that’s the reason. He still got a great part in Silver Linings Playbook. It was a delight to see De Niro act again. I bet he gets offered lots of good roles. He just continues to choose quick and easy cash over a good project these days,” replied whooptheefuckingdoo, whose comment is even more popular.
Numbers don’t lie, sure, but De Niro’s critical decline is more complex than this consensus makes it out to be. Because of 9/11.
The September 11 attacks hit particularly close to home for De Niro, a New Yorker. He hosted CBS’s broadcast of the documentary 9/11, which was shown six months after the attacks, and again on the first anniversary, and heavily invested himself in rebuilding the Tribeca neighborhood where he lives.
“He served over 30,000 meals out of his restaurant to volunteers and neighborhood residents. The work he’s done with the Tribeca Film Festival has reinvigorated the pride and spirit of New York and given its residents the ability to feel at home again in our city,” Harvey Weinstein said in a tribute to De Niro at Cannes this year.
Looking back on the attacks for The Guardian in 2011, De Niro wrote, “I think those of us who lived and worked in downtown New York in 2001 felt the impact of the attacks on the World Trade Center most directly… ”
“I didn’t lose a relative or close friend when the towers fell, but after the attacks, whatever I had done, whatever I was striving for, had no meaning; it all just stopped. I think 9/11 affected every New Yorker dramatically in some way.” (Emphasis mine.)
So maybe De Niro did “stop caring” so much about which movies he picked, but assuming it’s because he got lazy or greedy is uncharitable. Maybe he just wants to do the fun jobs, because real life can be dark and it can end abruptly. Cut the dude some slack.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.