At some point in the early 2000s, Robert De Niro’s career started to take a downhill turn. Sure, there’s been the odd high point here and there – he’s generally considered to be one of the best parts of the three underwhelming David O. Russell films he starred in. But he’s also acted in some real stinkers, including two focking sequels to Meet the Parents, bizarrely bad cartoons like Shark Tale and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and unspeakable abominations like Dirty Grandpa.
But it wasn’t always this way. A few years after the scientifically proven point at which De Niro seems to have stopped caring, he appeared in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust. In this, he gave a performance that stands as one of the finest in his entire career; one that both leaned into and played against the tough-guy persona he’s cultivated ever since the days of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
For those poor souls who haven’t had the treat of watching it, Stardust – which came out 10 years ago this week – comes about as close as anyone’s got to capturing the unique mix of quixotic wonder and knowing irony that made The Princess Bride so special. Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, it tells the story of Tristan (Charlie Cox); a boy who crosses a wall into a magical world to retrieve a fallen star, only to find that the star is in fact a woman called Yvaine (Claire Danes) and she’s being pursued by an evil witch (the ever-brilliant Michelle Pfeiffer) who wants to cut out her heart and eat it. There’s magic, and romance, and a Shakespearean subplot involving Peter O’Toole’s sons all trying to murder each other to become the next king. Around the halfway point we take a detour with the bloodthirsty crew of a flying pirate ship, led by De Niro as the fearsome Captain Shakespeare.
At first it seems like the perfect role for the star of Goodfellas and The Godfather Part II, as the captain menaces his captives while his crew listen on, before throwing Tristan from the flying ship in a fit of pique. But this is soon revealed to be an elaborate ruse, as Shakespeare turns out to be a) obsessed with life on Tristan’s side of the Wall, and b) about as camp as Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, with a secret compartment in his quarters filled with stylish outfits (including more than a few dresses). Even his name, it transpires, was well chosen: “I’m thinking ‘great English wordsmith’, my enemies are thinking ‘Shake! Spear!’”
It’s a performance that arguably treads close to caricature on a few occasions; particularly when the captain starts to give Tristan a makeover a la Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. But this is only one side of Shakespeare’s personality; he’s an accomplished sky-sailor, working with his crew to bottle actual lightning for sale, and fences as well as Inigo Montoya. It’s also tinged with sadness, as Shakespeare’s reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate leaves him unable to truly be himself. “You know, reputations,” he tells Tristan and Yvaine, “A lifetime to build, seconds to destroy.”
This proves truer than expected when Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) attacks Shakespeare’s vessel, bursting into the captain’s quarters to find him dancing in drag – complete with painted-on beauty spot – while the can-can plays in the background. It’s a wonderful scene that wouldn’t work if De Niro didn’t throw himself into it. Watching him cavort in front of his full-length mirror with a fluffy pink fan is a joy, and his little shriek of surprise on spying the watching prince is delightful.
But even more touching is the aftermath, when Shakespeare – still in a dress – nurses his wounds and laments the loss of his once-towering reputation. His men bring him Earl Grey in a floral-patterned china mug and make it clear that, in the words of one crew member, “We always knew you were a whoopsie.” Shakespeare’s private life doesn’t matter to them; he’ll always be their captain. It’s a small moment in the film, and the last we see of the pirates before a brief cameo in the closing scenes, but a meaningful one nonetheless.
Rewatching Stardust, Robert De Niro’s recent career slump makes so much more sense: after you’ve played a gay, swashbuckling sky pirate, everything else is going to seem so drab by comparison.