When legendary actor Robert De Niro delivers a commencement speech, he doesn't mince words about the harsh realities of making it as an artist. In his commencement speech for NYU's Tisch School of the Arts this past week, De Niro struck a brutally honest and utterly hilarious tone that was absent from Scorsese's inspiring send-off last year. Here's an excerpt:
When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You weren’t just following dreams, you were reaching for your destiny. You’re a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re fucked.
And that's just a taste of the humorous cynicism in De Niro's speech. He also talks about why he would advise his kids to go to school for accounting instead of art, and his hilarious and anecdotal disappointment in not getting cast as Martin Luther King Jr. in the recent Oscar-nominated Selma.
The day wasn't all doom and gloom masked as humor, however. De Niro had some great advice for the graduates about the realities of navigating the world of making art for a living. In essence, it's about accepting the reality that when you work within an inherently collaborative medium like film, often getting rejected has little to do with you. It's about the people in charge – the directors, the producers, the folks with deep pockets – and their expectations.
Rejection might sting but my feeling is that often it has very little to do with you. When you’re auditioning or pitching, the director or producer or investor may have something or someone different in mind. That’s just how it is. (...) By the way, there will be times when your best isn’t good enough. There can be many reasons for this, but as long as you give your best you’ll be OK."
All in all, De Niro's isn't the most uplifting commencement speech out there, but it's certainly one that doesn't shy away from the sometimes unpleasant realities of making a living in the arts. The truth is that we're drawn to this way of life not because we expect it to be full of riches (unless we're completely delusional), but because we have something to say and the desire to say it through the medium of film.