Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—A Bronx Tale (1993) ***

R, 121 min.
Director: Robert De Niro
Writer: Chazz Palminteri (also play)
Starring: Lillo Brancato, Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Taral Hicks, Katherine Narducci, Clem Casterta, Alfred Sauchelli Jr., Frank Pietrangolare, Joe Pesci

I got a different kind of story for my thoughts on the directorial debut of Robert De Niro and the break though of Chazz Palmiteri onto the cinematic scene. I’m not a huge fan of the film “A Bronx Tale”. I mean it’s good, but it isn’t as impressive as I feel it should’ve been. Palminteri’s writing might’ve worked better on stage than it does here. His primary message has to do with the two father figures for his central character with De Niro the real father and Palminteri a mobster surrogate, and how they both want the best for the kid, which is for him to stay away from the criminal life Palmiteri’s character has embraced. There are a lot of contradictions in Palminteri’s story and a great deal of social issues that are explored but never fully developed.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t hold a place of interest in my heart. At the time it was made, I was attending Hofstra University on Long Island pursuing a BFA in theater arts with a focus in performance. I had acting friends and some were Italian. It was announced that De Niro was looking for an unknown to play the lead character, the boy caught between two father figures in a neighborhood dominated by the local mob boss. One close friend—we’ll call him Pino—was a perfect match for the character descriptions they posted for the professional acting calls. With De Niro as one of his personal acting heroes, it was a no brainer that Pino was going to try out.

He went to the first audition, which was what we call in the industry a “cattle call.” Such an audition has nothing to do with talent and thousands of people show up—actors and non-actors alike—for the incredibly unlikely chance that they might have an opportunity to become a star. During the cattle calls they’re just searching for the right look, and Pino was a dead ringer for an offspring of De Niro. So, he got a call back, meaning the casting directors wanted to see him again. Compared to the thousands who initially tried out for the role, there would be significantly fewer people who were called back. Not even enough to bother counting as a fraction. This was a significant achievement for Pino.

As it turns out he was called back several times for the role, including a final call back in which he was videotaped with De Niro present. I always wish I had talked with Pino more about this process. He got further than many actors ever will for a lead role in a major motion picture. I doubt there’s any way for Pino to have known for sure, but the casting had to have been narrowed down to just a handful of people by that final call he attended. As I understand it, the next step would’ve been to have person interviews with De Niro and Palminteri and possibly the girls they were thinking of having play his love interest just to test out the chemistry of everyone. That would’ve only involved 2 or 3 candidates.

Anyway, Pino didn’t get the part, or else I wouldn’t be writing about it like this. I’ve always liked him for the part better than who they cast, however. I know I am biased and I’m certainly not trying to say anything against Lillo Brancato, who does a fine job in the role.  Perhaps he was just more “Italian” than Pino. But I always felt that Pino had more raw talent, a more natural way about him than most actors his age. Perhaps he was too old. He would’ve been around 20 or 21. I don’t know how old Brancato was. The character was supposed to be 17.

Anyway, whenever I watch the movie (and I think this is actually only the second time I’ve seen the whole thing) I can’t help but picture Pino in the role. They way I picture him the movie is just a little bit better. Certainly his presence wouldn’t have fixed my problems with Palminteri’s screenplay, but Pino fits better to me. Brancato and Francis Capra—the actor who plays his 9-year-old self—might look more alike, but Capra and Pino have much more similar mannerisms and presence. Even later in Capra’s career—most notably his work on “Veronica Mars”—Capra has reminded me of my friend. Alas, nobody would ever do something exactly the way you would, but De Niro really missed out with that one.

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