Robert DeNiro sits in a chair
I was working on a screenplay a few years ago with director Andy Davis (The Fugitive, Under Siege, Above the Law) when he got an odd, dissatisfied look on his face.
“Something’s missing in this sequence. We need a Private Moment.”
I had never heard of a Private Moment. What could it be? I asked Andy.
He answered. “Did you ever see True Confessions? Remember the scene where Robert DeNiro goes back to his room and sits in the chair? That’s a Private Moment.”
Let’s examine this.
A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.
In True Confessions (1981), Robert DeNiro plays a rising young monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese. He’s not a priest who ministers to a congregation. He’s the right hand man to the powerful cardinal (Cyril Cusack). His duties include acquiring land for schools, hiring contractors, overseeing and trouble-shooting many of the financial and political intrigues that the diocese of necessity finds itself involved in.
He’s a fixer. An operator. He’s ambitious. One day, we imagine, he’ll be a cardinal himself.
The film is based loosely on the true-life “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947. Robert Duvall plays DeNiro’s brother, Det. Tom Spellacy, a jaded homicide cop investigating this horrific crime.
P.S. The screenplay is by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
But back to DeNiro. In the scene immediately preceding his Private Moment, he’s on the golf course with some L.A. big shots, making deals for the diocese. He’s dressed in civilian clothes. He wields power. He’s driving hard bargains on behalf of the Church.
After golf, DeNiro returns to the residence he shares with other monsignors and high-ranking prelates. Here’s the scene:
DeNiro enters the residence in his civilian attire—slacks, a cardigan, a short-sleeved shirt. He mounts the stairs to a second story. The residence is like a dormitory. We glimpse in the hall several other priests. One passes in slippers and a bathrobe, carrying a towel and a shaving kit, apparently returning to his room from a communal bathroom.
DeNiro enters his own room and closes the door. The space is spartan in the extreme. A bed. A chair. An armoire. DeNiro opens the armoire. He hangs his cardigan sweater on a hanger. Inside the armoire are only one or two other items of apparel, on simple wire hangers.
DeNiro’s expression throughout is weary, self-reflective, melancholy. He seems to regard his surroundings and what they represent with a sense of defeat and futility, even despair.
He sits slowly on the single chair and looks pensively into nowhere.
That’s the scene.
What does it communicate? In the audience, we can’t be sure yet (and we won’t know until a few scenes later) but we sense that if DeNiro’s character were to articulate overtly what he is feeling (which of course he never would), it might go something like this:
“I entered the priesthood understanding the sacrifices I would have to make, exemplified by the barrenness of this room. I sought this humility deliberately, so that I could be of service to others, so that I could be a priest. Now look at me. I’m making deals like a gangster. What happened to me? I can’t go on like this.”
All this is communicated powerfully with no dialogue and absolutely minimal action. More importantly, because the scene is so spare of cues, the audience is drawn in and asked to read DeNiro’s interior experience without the aid of speech or other overt expression..
That’s a private moment.
P.S. The story I’ve heard (I can’t vouch for its veracity) is that this scene was not in the screenplay. DeNiro himself asked for it during the shooting. He felt something was missing. He felt his character needed a private moment.