So, Robert De Niro dropped an F-bomb at the Tony Awards last night, and half of liberal America matched the word to the deed by practically having an orgasm. Introducing Broadway newbie Bruce Springsteen’s performance of “My Hometown,” the actor went off script: “First, I wanna say: ‘Fuck Trump.’ It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump.’ It’s ‘Fuck Trump.’” He did a boxer’s double fist pump to bask in the cheering and applause.
By Monday morning, De Niro was a hero to millions on the East and West Coasts, although maybe not so much of one in a number of the states in between. “BRAVO to Robert De Niro!” one Facebook user wrote, tellingly mingling Broadway locutions with political enthusiasm.
Even some of our smartest and normally least giddy social-media pals joined the chorus. “It is good to know that there is a resistance out there,” one commented—which is, among other things, certainly a novel conception of “out there.” Another offered the hope that De Niro had galvanized the deep-pocketed crowd into donating big bucks to the Democratic opposition. Yet another simply posted a pic of De Niro fisting the blameless air at Trump’s expense, as if that somehow Said It All.
An unknown actor who’d tried the same thing would have gotten 15 minutes of Twitterverse acclaim—and would also never be heard of again.
After all, does anybody think that liberal America—even, or especially, showbiz, celebrity liberal America—was just too damn timid to denounce Trump until Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle had the guts to show them the way? Yet that’s pretty much how rhapsodically De Niro’s slam was greeted in some quarters, even though the man himself has been venting the identical sentiment in public in the identical language ever since the 2016 election. Never prone to excessive awe, the New York Daily News reacted to the Tonys kerfuffle by helpfully compiling “Bobby D’s Greatest Hits”: “Fuck you, Donald Trump. It’s a horror with this motherfucker. … Fucking idiot. … Baby-in-chief,” and so on.
But, right—he’d never done it on TV, let alone at an awards show whose traditional Big Apple poshness and crackerjack elegance often leaves the Oscar ceremony looking like a sailors’ brawl when their tramp freighter runs out of beer. On top of that, this wasn’t just some Great White Way schmuck that nobody outside Manhattan has heard of. This was New York’s own legendary Robert De Niro, even if non-geezer moviegoers probably know him better from Meet the Fockers than Mean Streets, Godfather II or Once Upon a Time in America.
In fact, a big part of what bugged us was that only a certified L-E-G-E-N-D has the leeway to pull this stuff without getting as many brickbats as plaudits for it. An unknown actor who’d tried the same thing would have gotten his or her 15 minutes of Twitterverse acclaim, sure. But the odds are very good that he or she would also never be heard of again, because producers think differently by the cold light of day. De Niro, by contrast, was taking zero risks, which is why it’s ridiculous to call his surefire crowd-pleaser “edgy”—a cliche we’d just as soon see retired, anyhow.
We’d think more highly of his nerve if he hadn’t been addressing a room where everybody a) already thinks he’s God, and b) was totally guaranteed to rollick with delight at his supposedly badass effrontery. For that matter, we’d also have been happier if his fatuously smug reaction to the Pavlov effect he’d just triggered hadn’t put us in mind of the sort of cranky old uncle who gleefully smashes the mashed potatoes to get attention now that nobody trusts him to carve the Thanksgiving turkey anymore. Brother, do we miss the days when “Bobby D” was famous for his austere reticence and dislike of show-business gamesmanship.
To be fair, people who watched the Tonys all the way through, which we didn’t, tell us that De Niro’s F-bomb attack did feel somehow cathartic after a lot of the rest of the show had obliquely celebrated positive alternatives to Trump’s America without calling him out by name. We’re kind of sorry we missed seeing some of the Parkland students perform a song from Rent, because that sounds like a much more moving (and clever) way of tackling the headlines while paying your respects to touch football.
But we doubt that De Niro did them—or liberal America in general—any favors, either. His contribution, if that’s the right word, amounted to a nearly perfect caricature of self-regarding showbiz elitism getting off on its illusory bravery and ballsiness. Whatever you think otherwise of Emma Gonzalez or David Hogg, it would be awfully hard to deny that they really are brave. Ballsy, too. And eloquent—let's not forget eloquent.