Riveting acting legend Robert De Niro was feted as the debut honoree of the evening during the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors held in Washington, D.C., on December 6, 2009.
Meryl Streep, rightly inducted as a member herself some two years later, opened De Niro’s portion of the ceremony by regaling the audience with a story from the set of Falling in Love , their second of three onscreen collaborations thus far. “In a wardrobe test for three hours he tried on 37 identical little windbreakers until he found the right one,” said Streep. “Details are important, and Bob knows that. He changed everything for generations of actors.”
A short film highlighting De Niro’s incredible acting career followed Streep’s remarks. Raging Bull mastermind Martin Scorsese, yet another Kennedy Center Honoree, illustrated his buddy’s unique contribution to cinema. “There’s no line between reality and pretend,” argued Scorsese. “There’s only truth, and no one finds that truth better than Robert De Niro…there’s still nothing better in the world than making movies with your friends.”
Perhaps the best moment of De Niro’s induction came when Sharon Stone [i.e. Casino], Edward Norton [The Score and Stone], Ben Stiller [Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers], and frequent costar Harvey Keitel appeared on a makeshift theatrical stage to share a few well-intentioned if not always laugh out loud zingers.
Keitel, one of De Niro’s bona fide peers, was the most appropriate choice. Listening to Keitel discuss their initial encounter in the late ’60s was priceless. Long story short: they sized one another up, grunted, and finally grinned.
Later, Keitel related a story where De Niro walked up to him and asked if he knew how actors read a script. When Keitel said he didn’t, De Niro proceeded to show him by flipping through an imaginary script and uttering, “Bulls — t, bulls — t, bulls — t…my part.” De Niro, as well as the audience, seemed to really get a kick out of it.
Norton and Stone opted to focus on their immense admiration for De Niro. Stiller, De Niro’s co-star in 2000’s surprise comedy blockbuster Meet the Parents, entered about midway through to declare his love for Bruce Springsteen, another of the evening’s honorees. Stiller concluded his mini skit by acknowledging, “Bob, you’ll always be my idol and my favorite actor. And I’m pretty sure I’ll always be your favorite Focker.”
Norton decided to unveil his De Niro impression to the world in an exchange with Stone. Each element of De Niro’s widely skewered personality, from the halting words, shy demeanor, and forceful hand gestures, was expertly mimicked.
Keitel’s parting shot, which seemed to touch his colleague moreso than the other presenters, deserved to end the tribute even if it didn’t quite unfold that way. Nevertheless, it will here: “We worked together, laughed, argued together, cried, loved and lost together. We’ve grown together, we became fathers together, and we didn’t even say hello.”
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