The Fallacy of “Legacy”

It’s common in popular culture to claim that someone is ruining their legacy.

More and more, a person in the public eye does something that isn’t expected of him or her and is immediately chastised for undermining everything that came before it. The ironic thing is that, by and large, the people with the legacies are the least concerned about preserving them. Fans (or critics or observers) are far more concerned with this than the people that actually, you know, created these revered legacies.

I think about this when I think of Robert De Niro.

Aside from Silver Linings Playbook, in which he was brilliant and for which was recognized with his seventh Academy Award nomination, the vast majority of his films over the past decade-and-a-half leave quite a bit to be desired. I’m hoping The Irishman is on par with Goodfellas and Casino, but after starring in films with the titles of Dirty Grandpa and The War with Grandpa, it’s far from guaranteed.

And that upsets me.

Just imagine if his career had continued the way it was in the ’70s and early ’80s, I often think. Then, he wouldn’t have ruined his legacy.

Then I had a second thought: Who am I?

Robert De Niro is 74 years-old, so he can’t always bring the same intensity and perfection he brought to The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull, but if he chooses to make six movies a year, who am I to stop him? It’s clear that De Niro is much more concerned with doing what he wants and funding the Tribecca Film Festival. He went decades without getting paid much money for his work and now he’s cashing in, putting much of his funds towards a film festival and institute with astronomical overhead in Lower Manhattan that he co-founded in the wake of 9/11.

It’s clear that he believes that that, and not being a brooding method actor, is his true calling and, ultimately, his legacy.

Who am I to argue with that?

De Niro is just one example. The flip side of his acting coin, Al Pacino, is another. But there are more.

People say that Michael Jordan wasted his cinematic ending by coming back to the Washington Wizards. So what? I don’t think MJ once sits down and says to himself, I ruined it. All of those posters that people have of that shot wasn’t really my last shot. I let them down. He still has the rings and the scoring titles and all of the records and the influence. None of that changes. Besides, his stats with the Wiz were far better than you think (21.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists), but he was no superhuman and therefore destroyed the notion that he was perfect.

Jerry Rice, Hakeem Olajuwon, Willie Mays, O.J. Simpson (pre-murder), Patrick Ewing, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Favre, Emmitt Smith. The list is virtually endless of Hall of Famers that infuriated people by daring to continue to play a game that they love rather than leaving when the fans wanted them to.

Mitch Hurwitz ruined Arrested Development by bringing it back for a fourth season. Forget the fact that he, the actors, and the studio wanted to do it, not to mention all of the fans that were actually clamoring for its return and loved it. Instead, focus on a few people that said it wasn’t as good and therefore ruined the whole thing. Are they going to boycott season five?

I’m guilty of it too. I love the film Clerks. I think it’s brilliant. I saw Clerks 2 in the theater and was horrified. I felt personally offended, like they had done something to me or my family. I’ve felt this way for years, but I’ve recently come to a revelation: if Kevin Smith, the guy that created Clerks (and the entire View Askew universe) decided to revisit those characters, who was I to stop him? They’re his. He can do what he wants with them. I may not like his more recent films as much as his earlier ones, but we’re both grown men and if he wants to make a Jay and Silent Bob reboot film, that’s his prerogative. I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in the theater and was woefully disappointed, so if choose not to see this film, that’s my prerogative.

Perhaps James M. Cain has the best reaction to all of this.

Cain wrote several bestselling books, including The Postman Always Rings TwiceMildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity. Asked about his feelings on those works being adapted into films of varying quality, he responded thusly:

“There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, ‘Don’t you care what they’ve done to your book?’ I tell them, ‘They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.’”

Cain wrote books. Those books were published. No film could change that. Just like a slew of low-budget clunkers couldn’t change Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter.

Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan, Mitch Hurwitz, Kevin Smith, and James M. Cain weren’t paralyzed by the fear of tarnishing their legacies. They continued to act and play and create, the very things that created those legacies in the first place.

If they don’t care, why should we?


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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