Now in its 44th year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Chaplin Award is a fund-raiser that honors a creative professional in the world of cinema. Beginning with Charlie Chaplin in 1971, past honorees have included Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, and, last year, Morgan Freeman. Monday’s night’s sold-out, 2,400-capacity soiree and tribute to Robert De Niro was not just a tribute to a man, but also to entertainment as an art form. And perhaps an endangered one.
The 73-year-old Oscar-winner and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder sat in a box on stage right during the 90-minute ceremony, watching dozens of film clips and applauding presenters such as Sean Penn, Whoopi Goldberg, Streep, and Scorsese. And his acceptance speech at the night’s end (see the full transcript below) was the most urgent, impassioned cannon blast of the normally press-shy De Niro’s public career. Like Streep, De Niro has become a fiery voice of opposition in the last year to the policies of Donald Trump.
Before he took the stage, Goldberg expressed her own poignant brand of levity when she recalled years before reading about De Niro in the tabloid media. “I’m not gonna lie, I saw in the magazines, the rags, that he liked a sista. That was huge news for someone who looked like me. Because when I got famous and got to Hollywood, people would talk about how odd I looked. I just look at them and say, ‘Well, De Niro likes me.’ Thank you, Bob, for making me always think I was cute.”
Goldberg also remarked about the two De Niro movie clips that preceded her appearance on the stage — this one from The Untouchables and this one from Cape Fear. “I find it very odd that they sent me out after two of the scariest, creepiest scenes of all time. Not sure what that means, but, hey, here I am.”
De Niro’s Meet the Parents costar Ben Stiller revealed that when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, one of the first phone calls he made was to the actor, also a prostate cancer survivor. “We probably hadn’t talked for a year or two maybe,” Stiller said. “I will never forget how he was with me. And in that moment, I felt that the cancer heard Bob and knew not to f— with him.”
Streep was introduced to a clip of herself and De Niro onscreen nearly 40 years ago in The Deer Hunter. She grunted and grimaced wordlessly when explaining how De Niro ordinarily answers questions about the acting process. Then she told about how when she was a college student in 1973, waiting tables in Bedminster, New Jersey (“My dad neglected to give me a million dollars, so I was busting my butt”), she visited the set of Bang the Drum Slowly and was transfixed by the “raw, weird, hillbilly guy” playing a baseball catcher. Months later, she saw Mean Streets and was stunned that “that was Robert De Niro, the same guy!?”
“He knows something profound about what we do,” she continued. “Risk is irresistible to relentless people. Young actors, when we’re just walking around clueless in the dark, you’re looking for a method. And here’s a guy with a flashlight. And he’s gonna lead you through. And we think, ‘Well, if we follow him, we’ll be okay, we’ll be safe, we’ll get out of here alive. Bob inspires many generations of actors to do their best work. So we shouldn’t ask him how he does it. He doesn’t want to tell us.”
De Niro, when he took the stage, did not talk about the art of his craft. But he did talk about art. Read his complete remarks below:
Thank you, Film Society of Lincoln Center, home of my favorite uptown film festival. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is a place that treasures film, and therefore a place for all of us. I know you don’t give this award out lightly. When Marty got his in 1998, it was just three years after Casino, the last of our eight pictures together. I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more. And yet the Film Society waited nearly two decades — until after Dirty Grandpa was released — to give this to me. I think I see where you’re going.
Every year when you honor a modern filmmaker at this event, you’re also honoring the memory of Charlie Chaplin. Everyone knows Chaplin was a great artist. But he made his movies to entertain. It was only later that they became art. And that hasn’t changed. We make movies to entertain audiences. Audiences vote by seeing them. Critics vote by seeing them. And then posterity takes its time to decide if there are or not.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of our government’s hostility towards art. The budget proposal, among its other draconian cuts to life-saving and life-enhancing programs, eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For their own divisive political purposes, the administration suggests that the money for these all-inclusive programs goes to rich, liberal elites. This is what they now call an alternative fact.
I call it what it is: Bullsh–.
And by being here tonight, you are supporting arts for everyone. You’re supporting the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, the great body of work of Marty Scorsese and Barry Levinson, the dumb-ass comedies of Robert De Niro, the overrated performances of Meryl Streep, and your own tastes and needs. Give yourselves a hand.
The administration’s mean-spiritedness towards art and entertainment is an expression of their mean-spirited attitude about people who want that art and entertainment. People also want and deserve decent wages, a fair tax system, a safe environment, education for their children and healthcare for all.
I don’t make movies for rich, liberal elites. I’ve got my restaurants for that.
I and all of us speaking here tonight make them for you, for all of you. Thank you, Film Society of Lincoln Center for bringing together the group of people who spoke tonight. These are my friends, my family. We’ve worked together, played together, and over decades have become close. Meryl, Whoopi, Harvey [Keitel], Marty, Barry, Ben [Stiller], Michael [Douglas], Sean [Penn], and Michael Mann are here tonight. I’m honored to have you all in my life. So honored.
To me family’s everything. My wife Grace, my children, my grandkids, you’re my entertainment, my art, and my passion.
All of us in films — directors, writers, actors, crews — owe a debt to Charlie Chaplin, an immigrant who probably wouldn’t pass today’s extreme vetting. I hope we’re not keeping out the next Chaplin.
Finally, I love Hollywood but what makes this award so special is that it’s in New York with a number of my fellow New Yorkers. For the movies, Hollywood is a place, an industry, and a state of mind. But New York, New York is home. Thank you.