With a marked ability to become whatever character he’s playing, Robert De Niro presents any biographer with a vexing question: Who, exactly, is he? In this well-researched biography, Shawn Levy attempts to answer this question, but just as De Niro begins to come into focus, he disappears again. Negotiating this enigma is both thrilling and exhausting, but perhaps that’s the price we pay if we want to understand genius.

De Niro is indisputably a masterful actor, known for playing such indelible characters as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Though Levy provides solid biographical information about De Niro’s bohemian parents, his early work on stage and his later work in indie films — and his favorite directors — the main focus is on the actor’s obsessive and ritualistic preparation for each new character he plays. Making good use of the scripts, working notes and a copious collection of props and clothing in the De Niro archive at the University of Texas in Austin, Levy creates a portrait of a private man who seems to depend on the creation of characters to sustain himself.

De Niro prepares by mastering physical characteristics such as hairstyle, posture and gesture, and compiling entire wardrobes, including the underwear. He asks nonactors to read his lines into a tape recorder so he can learn how to speak regional and even occupational accents. He has shadowed cops, cons and crooks; learned how to box, dive and ride a horse; and lost and gained weight. He took photographs of burn victims’ scars, which, as the book says, served as the “basis of the make-believe scars he’d wear on his own back in a brief but compelling scene” in the film “Backdraft.” Not bad for a man who, as a teenager in New York’s Little Italy, was called Bobby Milk because he was so pale and thin.

Although these details illuminate De Niro’s work ethic and commitment to each role, after about 300 pages they start to feel creepy, as though De Niro is stalking the next character he will become on film. Suddenly, what Laurence Olivier said about acting doesn’t sound so flip: just pretend.

Famously reluctant to talk about himself and often rebarbative toward interviewers, De Niro is a difficult subject for any biographer. We’re told that getting to know him is like “grabbing at smoke” — a quote from Greg Widen, who wrote “Backdraft.” But too often, the reader must make inferences and draw conclusions. Consequently, many questions go unanswered — or do not even get asked. For example, Levy says of De Niro, “Being famous had been a great way to meet girls,” but we’re not told much about these girls. In fact, Levy consistently underplays De Niro’s relationships with women. We’re told that “Falling in Love” (1984), with Meryl Streep, was his first romantic film and that his notes were “scantier than any he had ever made in a film in which he had a significant role,” but Levy never suggests why preparing for a romantic role took less effort. What, no practice kissing? We could use more speculation about how De Niro moves from playing violent masculine characters to playing an average middle-class husband.

"De Niro: A Life" by Shawn Levy (Crown Archetype/Crown Archetype)

Where Levy is strongest is in the last 100 pages. De Niro keeps working at a furious pace, making forgettable films with little or no preparation, “aiming for breadth rather than depth.” Meanwhile, he’s reshaped Tribeca into what Levy calls a “little fiefdom” and what some neighborhood old-timers refer to as “Bob Row.” After De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Center, his property investments continued to grow, including the Tribeca Grill, TriBakery, the restaurants Nobu and Nobu Next Door, the Fourth Estate newsstand and coffee shop, and various residential buildings. His plan was to establish a “community space,” but one that, Levy reveals, De Niro would “surveil . . . via close-circuit cameras.”

Finally, after 500-plus pages of little interpretation and less speculation, Levy makes this unanticipated summation about De Niro: “Once his talent had seemed like vintage wine, carefully decanted drop by painstaking drop into the finest crystal. Now he was pouring it sloppily into so many paper cups as if were the cheapest, most indifferently made plonk. He couldn’t even point to ­eye-popping box office or massive personal gains as excuses for this choices. His need to work had always bordered on a pathology, but whereas it once produced magical alchemy, now it left little spills that nobody could be bothered to mop up.” Ouch! Didn’t see that coming, but with a book this full, the reader will decide whether to take it on the chin or to hit back.

O’Sullivan is a writer who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park.

DE NIRO
A Life

By Shawn Levy

Crown Archetype. 600 pp.

$32.50