Let's root for De Niro's fictional Eagles fan tonight
Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 9:10 p.m.
Sports fans, and particularly NFL fans, owe it to themselves to have a rooting interest in tonight's Academy Awards. After all, it's rare, indeed, when the portrayal of one of their own is nominated in one of the major categories. So, let's gather 'round the tube tonight (oops, a senior moment: televisions don't even have tubes anymore, do they?) and root for Robert De Niro, nominated for Best Performance by a Supporting Actor for his role as obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan Pat Solitano Sr. in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
There's another reason for sports fans to root for De Niro tonight.
“Silver Linings” is the second time he's portrayed a crazed fan, and if the nomination alone weren't enough to make us forget the embarrassing stench of the 1995 stink bomb “The Fan,” surely an Oscar victory will.
Granted, nobody can do seemingly infinite variations of psycho like De Niro, and his knife salesman Gil Renard (knife salesman?) in “The Fan” was nothing if not wildly scary-creepy as a guy who befriends and then threatens a Barry Bonds-like baseball star played by Wesley Snipes. And although De Niro did win MTV's Best Villain award for “The Fan” (admittedly not quite as prestigious as an Oscar), it was a one-note role in a mess of a movie.
De Niro's character in “Silver Linings,” though, is a recognizable human being in a serious film that aspires to be cinematic art. His Pat Sr. character is both tender and violent (he's been banned from Eagles games for fighting, and in one scene that is hard to watch, he dukes it out with his similarly violent son).
But he's also loving and loyal. He's complex, contradictory. In other words, real. Three dimensional. We likely have known passionate sports fans similar to him — if not in all the details, then certainly in the overall mind-set; if not among family, friends or acquaintances, then maybe in the mirror.
De Niro plays a neighborhood bookie with poor business sense. He ignores the point spread and bets on his Eagles no matter what. He struggles to make a meaningful connection with his troubled adult son. Out of a sense of nostalgia for family football Sundays back in the day when things seemed simpler, he's desperate to recapture that connection again.
There's another reason to root for De Niro tonight.
Three years ago, the Academy Awards ignored an independent film, “Big Fan,” Robert D. Siegel's masterpiece starring Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, a thirtysomething semi-slacker and football fanatic whose devotion to the New York Giants goes — credibly and darkly — from lonely and humorous eccentricity to something that can only be described as flawlessly tragicomic.
It's at once a realistically gritty portrait and an audaciously imaginative spin on the mind of a sports nut.
What does that have to do with De Niro's bid for an Oscar tonight? Simple: If De Niro wins, it will demonstrate that the Academy Awards voters redeemed themselves by recognizing an ingenious portrayal of how sports fanaticism relates to personality, family and society after miserably failing to do so in 2010.
The Academy Awards has often treated sports-related films with respect.
“Chariots of Fire” won Best Picture in 1981, “Field of Dreams” was nominated for Best Picture in 1989 and “Seabiscuit” in 2003, and “When We Were Kings” won Best Documentary in 1997, to name a few. But Oscar has also strangely snubbed such worthy efforts as “Fat City” in 1973, “Hoop Dreams” in 1995 and “Pelotero” this year.
So, while it might seem sort of silly for serious-minded sports fans to get emotionally invested in the pretentiousness of a Hollywood self-esteem fest, it should be noted that serious-minded sports fans like a good game, enjoy keen competition, and the Oscars show is also that.
Besides, there's yet another reason to root for the portrayal of a fictional fan tonight.
De Niro, one of this country's preeminent actors whose career now spans more than 40 years, has intriguing ties to sports-related roles. In “Bang The Drum Slowly” from 1973, he portrayed a simple, timid, dying, seldom-used fictional big-league catcher named Bruce Pearson with a quiet, shining dignity and without a trace of sentimentality. In 1980, as the real-life middleweight champion Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” he transcended mere acting with a visceral revelation of how one fighter harnessed his unquenchable anger and ruthless ego first to become a champ and then a chump. Then there was the aforementioned misstep in the mid-90s with “The Fan.”
And now De Niro, who turns 70 this summer, has in “Silver Linings Playbook” enriched the implied second-fiddle status of supporting actor and given us, with understated artistry, a fan for all seasons.
Robert Rubino can be reached at email@example.com.
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