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Robert De Niro’s split personality

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Actors often bounce between studio paychecks and prestige jobs, but Robert De Niro seems to be taking that idea to a new level.

Even as his commercial comedy ‘Little Fockers’ continues to play in theaters, De Niro has been named head of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, pretty much the most significant honor in the pathways of world cinema. (The Cannes organizers gamely tried to connect the two by noting in their announcement that “Little Fockers, released in late December, is currently enjoying a successful run in France.’)

It’s not the only zigzag for De Niro. He recently came out with the dark crime drama ‘Stone’ -- just a few weeks after playing an over-the-top senator in Robert Rodriguez’s exploitation flick ‘Machete.’ And even as the actor shoots the audience-minded rom-com ‘New Year’s Eve,’ he’s expressed keen interest in, and could well make, two upscale development projects, the literary drama ‘Another ... Night in Suck City’ and a Vince Lombardi biopic.

Like his generational doppelganger Al Pacino, De Niro sometimes draws criticism that he takes the easy money instead of the difficult role. In Pacino’s case the skeptics have their evidence -- before the upcoming Sundance drama ‘Son of No One,’ it’s mostly been a string of familiar cop and other action roles on the big screen (although he of course had an acclaimed turn as Jack Kevorkian in HBO’s ‘You Don’t Know Jack’).

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De Niro is a more enigmatic case. He’s certainly taken those commercial roles (including a part opposite one Al Pacino in the 2008 cop movie ‘Righteous Kill’). But his resume in recent years also includes movies such as the ambitious Cold War drama ‘The Good Shepherd,’ a passion project he also directed, and the widower road trip ‘Everybody’s Fine,’ a movie that missed the mark with critics but certainly wasn’t a payday gig.

The Cannes announcement cites De Niro’s roles in two Palme d’Or winners -- he played Rodrigo Mendoza in the 18th century colonial drama ‘The Mission’ and of course Travis ‘Are You Talking to Me’ Bickle in 1970’s groundbreaker ‘Taxi Driver.’ Even as he’s growling at Gaylord Focker in multiplexes, the mentions are a sharp reminder of who De Niro was, and sometimes can still be.

--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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