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FALL SNEAKS

You Lookin' at My Hair?

Yeah--for clues to Robert De Niro's characters. The virtuoso seems to locate his roles in his locks.

September 10, 2000|MARSHALL FINE | Marshall Fine is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Does action dictate character?

Or could it be something simpler--like your haircut? The film oeuvre of Robert De Niro would seem to present an argument for the latter.

In a career that spans more than 30 years and almost 70 films, De Niro has donned just about every possible tonsorial and facial-hair fashion you can name, with the possible exception of those wigs they wore during the Restoration. More often than not, how he looks is a direct tip-off about his character--as obvious a giveaway as a twitchy eye in a poker game--with one crucial exception.

This fall, for example, De Niro will be seen in "Men of Honor," playing a rock-hard military man who helps break the color barrier among Navy divers. How do we know he's rock-hard even before the film comes out? Because he's sporting the same severe crew cut he had in "This Boy's Life"--when he played a disciplinarian with a military mentality. Bristly is as bristly does.

Already this year, De Niro has adopted his antic-comedy look, shaving the sides of his head and plastering his hair to the top of his head in a post-Dillinger-do to play Fearless Leader in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." It was almost the same look he affected for "We're No Angels," with almost the same result, laugh-wise. That hairstyle also seems to trigger his jack-o'-lantern-like downward scowl with alarming frequency.

Once the hair gets a little longer, De Niro's characters become slightly more refined. With hair pulled back in lacquered slickness, his body sleek in tailored clothes, he can play flawed matinee idols, as he did in "Casino," "The Last Tycoon" and "True Confessions." Let De Niro get near a gym and he'll harden himself into a sculpted abstract and use that physique to release the finely tuned animal within. Think of the young Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" and the direly tattooed Max Cady in "Cape Fear."

As the locks get long, De Niro's willingness to release inner passion also seems to rise. He gives some of his fiercest emotional performances in "The Mission" and "Jacknife," both featuring De Niro in long hair and beard. And, speaking of fierceness, it doesn't get any more soul-stirring than Louis Cyphre, the devilish client (who sported long nails to match his hair and beard) in "Angel Heart."

Trim the beard and hair and you get the pragmatic, slightly tweedy political advisor in "Wag the Dog." Bring the beard down to a goatee, however, and you release something feral and deadly: Michael in "The Deer Hunter" or Neil McCauley in "Heat."

Mustaches are a mixed bag for De Niro, who seems to wear them as sparingly as he does the Mohawk hairstyle (one movie so far, and counting). Hard to draw conclusions about his character from his selection of cookie-dusters, given that they've been as different as the distance between two De Niro characters who both had pencil mustaches: young Vito Corleone in "The Godfather, Part II" and Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy." Otherwise, his most memorable have been the Chaplinesque stub he waggled as a heroic plumber in "Brazil," and the loopy handlebar that overgrew his face in "Jackie Brown."

He also hasn't gone gray very often, showing up as older versions of his character in "GoodFellas" and as an aged edition in "Once Upon a Time in America." It's hard to avoid the other, non-hair-related physical trait De Niro has manipulated over the years to find his character: his weight. Put it this way: When De Niro packs on the pounds, it's not to celebrate the joys of corpulence--at least not when he plays monsters like the aged Jake La Motta and the irrepressible Al Capone.

The exception to this rule--that De Niro's stylist styles his performance--is, of course, the kind of role he has in another film set for upcoming release, "Meet the Parents," as a normal-looking middle-class guy.

Because if De Niro doesn't show his true colors with his haircut, it's anybody's guess. With that average-guy haircut and a clean-shaven face, he can be anything from a dedicated firefighter ("Backdraft") to a murderously obsessed baseball lover ("The Fan"), from a jazzed-up saxophonist ("New York, New York") to a mild-mannered police photographer ("Mad Dog and Glory") to an ice-veined mercenary ("Ronin"). You can't tell anything just by looking at him.

The fact that you never know what to expect?

Well, that's why they call it acting.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NORMAL GUY THROUGH THE YEARS

"Bang the Drum Slowly"

"Meet the Parents"

"New York, New York"

"Mad Dog and Glory"

"Ronin"

*

CREW CUT

"Men of Honor"

"This Boy's Life"

The early part of "Great Expectations"

SHAVED SIDES AND BACK

"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"

"We're No Angels

MOHAWK

"Taxi Driver"

TOOTHBRUSH MUSTACHE

"Brazil"

PENCIL MUSTACHE

"The King of Comedy"

"Godfather II"

HANDLEBAR MUSTACHE

"Jackie Brown"

GOATEE

"Heat"

"The Deer Hunter"

FULL BEARD

"Wag the Dog"

FULL BEARD AND LONG HAIR

"Jackknife"

"Angel Heart"

"The Mission"

LONGISH HAIR

"Cape Fear"

TOUGH AND SLEEK

"Raging Bull"

SCARRED

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"

SLICK AND SLEEK

"True Confessions"

"The Last Tycoon"

"Casino"

SLICK AND FAT

"The Untouchables"

AGING AND GRAY

"Goodfellas"

ELDERLY AND GRAY

"Once Upon a Time in America"

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