Dear Mr. De Niro: Your Obscenity-Laced Attack on Donald Trump Disappointed Me—Again | Opinion

Dear Mr. De Niro,

I am writing because you decided to once again turn an award ceremony—this one, the American Icon Awards—into an obscenity-laced attack on President Donald Trump. It's not the first time you've done it. It won't be your last. I wish I could say I'm angry about it, but I'm not. I'm disappointed. I expected so much more from one of the great acting talents of the 20th century.

Watching you turn into a caricature of yourself is tragic. Because if there's one thing your acting life embodied, it was your uncanny ability to avoid caricature. You brought characters to the screen in their most complex and complete form. Without judgment. It was, in the end, your humanity that so impressed me.

I've been a fan since I first saw you in "Mean Streets." You were a star. And it was your intensity and intelligence that drew us in and your ability to make unlikable characters human—particularly, complex alpha-male characters. You had remarkable empathetic powers. And empathy is what acting is all about. Actors don't judge the characters they play. They become them.

And what characters you became: Bruce Pearson in "Bang the Drum Slowly," Vito Corleone in "The Godfather," Jimmy Doyle in "New York, New York," Father Spellacy in "True Confessions," Rupert Pupkin in "King of Comedy," Jimmy Conway in "Goodfellas," Leonard Lowe in "Awakenings," Neal McCauley in "Heat," Jack Tiberius Byrnes in "Meet the Parents"—and my favorite, Lorenzo Anello in "A Bronx Tale."

You played mobsters, a catatonic patient, a retired CIA agent, a comedian, a corrupt priest, a boxer, a thief, a soldier, an intern, a bounty hunter, a baseball player, a saxophone player, a taxi driver and a bus driver.

The flaws in your characters were never burnished, because you know our vices can't be separated from our virtues. There is, in every character you played, a part of yourself. A part of us all.

In what is arguably your best performance, you brought Travis Bickle to life in "Taxi Driver." He was a Marine Corps veteran who had trouble adjusting to the world after a stint in Vietnam. We were afraid of Travis. But we were hoping he could keep things together. We understood that at any moment, he might do something bad. Or that someone might do something bad to him.

That scene in the hotel room where you're talking to yourself in front of a mirror was captivating. It was something I'd never seen on the screen. It was odd. It was ominous. And then you arrived out of nowhere in that Mohawk. That's when we knew something bad was about to happen. It did.

You won your first Oscar nomination for that performance. And you won your first Oscar four years later in 1981 for your work in "Raging Bull."

The physical nature of the part was astounding. How you got your body to do what it did—morphing from a muscular athlete with a dancer's agility to an overweight, over-the-hill stand-up comic—may be the greatest physical feat ever performed in movies. It was matched by an equally powerful emotional performance.

Your alpha male Italian-American prizefighter goes from a damaged young man filled with rage, to a tragic old man filled with regret. A lonely soul who couldn't understand himself, let alone enjoy his life.

We watched you grow older, but not wiser. Watched you lose everything, ending up in jail for consorting with underaged women. We watched your struggle with sin. With your own demons. You couldn't conquer them.

I'll never forget sitting in the theater as the credits rolled. I was in tears. Though I was a much younger man than LaMotta, you made me feel his pain. What a gift.

That's the thing about art. It challenges us. It surprises us. And it reveals the contradictions and convulsions within us. It may be your crowning achievement that so many of your performances did those things.

That's why I was disappointed to hear your comments about President Trump this week. Disappointed because your comments were rude. And lacked your characteristic courage. The courage to surprise us. And yourself. They were, dare I say, predictable. Ordinary.

Let's start with why the comments were rude. There are tens of millions of Americans who don't appreciate the way you talk about a guy they voted for.

They may not have liked Donald Trump—and for many of the reasons you don't like him—but they voted for him anyway. Because sometimes, people we don't like are good at their jobs.

Like the character Meryl Streep, a pal of yours, so capably brought to life a few years ago: Amanda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada." Could that character have become a force in her industry by being anyone but the tough—even cruel—person she was? That's what made Streep's performance great. She didn't judge Amanda. She played her. Warts and all.

Could it be that Donald Trump has similar strengths and flaws? Might he end up being an effective leader, too? And could it be that the people who voted for him saw what you just couldn't see?

Your rant also lacked courage. Yes, a very small handful of folks booed you the other night. But most applauded you, and that's because they almost all agree with you. That's not courage, what you said. It's moral preening. And preening doesn't suit you.

It seems to have become a part of your routine, your anti-Trump tirades. Sadly, routine is a word I never thought I'd come to use to describe you.

I expect so much more. Especially from the guy who played Mike Vronsky in "The Deer Hunter," a movie that was as much about character as place. And not just any place, but a small working-class steel town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh.

Like the out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia, many of those ex-steelworkers voted for Trump because their jobs had vanished. China played a part in that loss. Your candidate—and fellow New Yorker—Hillary Clinton never talked about their suffering and pain. Trump did.

Those Pennsylvania voters weren't racists or bigots because they voted the way they did, and they don't cling to their Bibles and guns, as your friend, former President Barack Obama, described many years ago.

They voted for Trump because he promised to fight for them. And Trump, like him or not, has done that.

That's why your rants were so disappointing. I expect them from third-rate talents like Kathy Griffin or Stephen Colbert. But you?

Worst of all, the empathetic powers you so generously deploy with the fictional characters you play was not extended to millions of real-life Americans, President Trump included, who see life differently. That Trump is a complicated alpha male— your acting specialty—only makes your caricature of the man, and your commentary, that much more disappointing.

You failed your own standards as an actor. And this is one case where you can't blame the writer.

You were—and still are—a world class talent. But you are acting like a second rate hack. I'll continue to give you a pass, and remain a fan. Because I believe in art's power to reveal the things not that divide us, but that bring us together.

Do you?

This letter has been sent to DeNiro's agent.

The opinions expressed in this essay are the author's own.

Dear Mr. De Niro: Your Obscenity-Laced Attack on Donald Trump Disappointed Me—Again | Opinion | Opinion