Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
We're incredibly proud to present a book excerpt from the brand-new "Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor" by Glenn Kenny, a film critic whom we are honored to call one of our own. In the book published by Cahiers Du Cinema and Phaidon, Kenny analyzes De Niro's career through ten roles—"Bang the Drum Slowly," "Mean Streets," "The Godfather, Part II," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy," "Midnight Run," "Awakenings," "Meet the Parents," and "Stone." The publisher was kind enough to share an excerpt from the second chapter on De Niro's work as Johnny Boy in the Martin Scorsese classic. Click here to buy a copy of the book.
A tension hangs over "Mean Streets" like a pall, even in the scenes in which De Niro doesn’t appear, or is not the central focus. Worse and worse things keep happening. A drunk is shot to death in the men’s room by an assassin who, in a theatrical flourish, pulls his hippie-long hair from under his coat before plugging his victim in the back (the assassin and victim are played by Robert and David Carradine, respectively; Scorsese worked with brother David on "Boxcar Bertha.") A Vietnam vet freaks out at his homecoming party at Tony’s, after Charlie’s epic drunk (conveyed via a traveling shot that anticipates Spike Lee’s notorious disembodied-walking shots, and scored to the novelty tune “Rubber Biscuit,” which never sounded more sickly) at that party. Teresa suffers a bad epileptic seizure in a stairwell. All the while Johnny Boy’s debt to Michael grows. (“Twenty dollars doesn’t pay the interest for two hours,” Michael tells Charlie when Charlie offers him some cash. “Now with the vig it’s almost three thousand.”) And all Johnny Boy can do is stand on a rooftop firing a gun at a clothesline belonging to a woman he hates “with a passion.”
These events wind up playing like omens. And the tension breaks with De Niro’s most bravura piece of acting in the film. “I got nothing,” Johnny Boy protests to Charlie after the two fight, for real this time (previously we saw them horsing around with garbage pail lids, another bit of improv from Keitel and De Niro). Out of options, Johnny Boy has visited Charlie’s mobster uncle, who’s already reprimanded Charlie about his relationship with Johnny. Now he’s got to show up for Michael, who’s already hired an enforcer of sorts (a hood Charlie calls “Shorty,” played by Scorsese himself; he said in 1974 that casting himself saved money and admitted he was also keen to handle a gun on film) and who will not be pleased at Johnny Boy’s lack of funds. Waxing repentant and fatalistic for Charlie, he completely changes his attitude once Michael shows up at Tony’s. Standing behind the bar, fake-apologizing to Michael for keeping him waiting, he has the same grin, the same syncopated, quick manner of speech, as he displayed in his initial conquering-hero, court-jester stance at the bar. But there’s been a fundamental shift. The imp is now a full-blown nihilist. “You know something Mikey? You make me laugh, you know that? You know, I borrow money all over this neighborhood, left and right, from every body”—De Niro pronounces “everybody” as two words, giving special stress to “body,” as if turning a screw—“I never pay them back, so I can’t borrow no money from no body no more, right, so who does that leave me to borrow money from but you. I borrow money from you because you’re the only jerkoff around here…” and here he grins, very wide… “that I can borrow money from without paying back.” He holds a ten-dollar bill in his hand and puts a lighter to it. “Because, you know, that’s what you are. That’s what I think of you. A jerkoff.”
Scorsese says “We did the climactic scene where Bobby suddenly pulls a gun on Richard Romanus on the next to last day of shooting. Something had happened between Bobby and Richard that was real, and I played on it.” According to Romanus, “In the scene where Bobby insults me, where he tells me I was stupid to lend him money in the first place, I started to laugh. Bobby got angry. He thought I should be angry, which I was, but by laughing I was saving face. He thought I should be fuming but he had no control over my reactions. Sometimes the reaction you get from your acting partner is not the reaction you want. Then you simply have to react off that.”
As riveting as De Niro is, the reactions of the other actors/characters are fascinating too. Everybody knows that it’s all over but the shooting, as it were. Charlie can’t believe what’s happening, while Proval’s Tony almost acts like a sidekick to Johnny Boy at the beginning of his monologue, raising his eyebrows after a particular zinger. As Johnny Boy sets fire to the bill, he makes his final declaration of principles: “And I’ll tell you something else, Mikey. I fuck you right where you breathe, ’cause I don’t give two shits about you or nobody else.”
Johnny is putting the last nail in his coffin, and he follows this with one more gesture of bravado, the pulling of the gun, which Michael says Johnny doesn’t have “the guts” to use. This is what one could conceivably call “very punk rock.” It is likely a complete coincidence that the debut album by the proto-punk band the New York Dolls was released only a few months before Mean Streets hit theaters. But one doesn’t have to look too far beneath the big hair and the glitter-rock trappings to see the don’t-give-a-fuck affinity between Johnny Thunders (born John Anthony Genzale Jr., in Queens), that band’s guitarist, and De Niro’s Johnny Boy. The pre-punk affinity is prophesied more clearly, and threateningly, in Travis Bickle’s mohawk in "Taxi Driver." By that time Thunders had ditched the Dolls and formed his own Heartbreakers, whose anti-anthemic “Born To Lose” could have served as Johnny Boy’s theme music just as aptly as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 "Stranger Than Paradise," the goofball Lower East Sider protagonists, played by Richard Edson (onetime drummer for Sonic Youth) and John Lurie (founder of “fake jazz” combo The Lounge Lizards) both sport cheap imitations of Johnny Boy’s hat. The image of Johnny Boy grinning as he points the gun was reproduced so many times, in so many contexts, it became not just a part of the iconography of cinema, but of New York City itself during this period.
The last we see of Johnny Boy he is staggering out of an alleyway, holding his hand to his neck, trying to stop it from bleeding; Michael has extracted his payment by having “Shorty” shoot him from a moving car, into the moving car in which Charlie, Teresa, and Johnny Boy are trying to escape from the city. As a cop car pulls into the frame, Johnny Boy, a poignant figure for the first time, collapses. We don’t know whether he’s going to live or die. But he has left a mark.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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