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The Essentials: 16 Great Robert De Niro Performances

The Essentials: 16 Great Robert De Niro Performances

For the past four-and-a-half decades, American acting legend Robert De Niro has been stunning, surprising, scaring, and charming audiences across the world through a plethora of unforgettable performances. Beginning in the mid-70s, it took a couple of pictures with a couple of brilliant up-and-coming New Hollywood directors for a young De Niro to explode into the zeitgeist, but once he did he remained there as one of the most prominent figures of film culture. Today, he’s closing in on a hundred feature roles, and his name is often mentioned alongside the likes of Marlon Brando as not only one of the most influential actors of his generation, but simply one of the greatest ever. He has done for gangsters what Laurence Olivier did for Shakespeare on screen, and together with life-long friend and fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese, is responsible for one of the greatest director-actor collaborations in the history of cinema. 

While his 21st century roles so far have been patchy at best, and at worst suggest De Niro’s greatest acting years may be behind him, a thousand “Grudge Match“-es and “Last Vegas“-es cannot blemish a career as illustrious as his. Quite aside from the legacy of indelible, endlessly quotable roles he has already attained, De Niro has been active behind the camera, and out in the world too, doing a tremendous amount of good for the film community in his native N.Y.C., mostly through his launch of the Tribeca Film Festival.        

READ MORE: Watch: Robert De Niro Goes To Work In New Trailer For ‘The Intern’ With Anne Hathaway

But it is as an actor that he will always be, simply, iconic. And with today being the icon’s 72nd birthday, we felt it was high time to celebrate De Niro’s essential performances. Not only are these 16 roles vital to understanding just how brilliant a talent he is—across an ultra-wide spectrum from cool-headed gangsters and creepy obsessives, to traumatized war vets and insecure husbands—but since they’re essential De Niro performances, they’re unavoidably also 16 essential all-time screen performances, period. 

“Mean Streets” (1973)  
From his iconic slow-motion entrance to the Rolling Stones’ swaggering “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” to the moment we see him running away from a mailbox that’s set to explode, two things became clear about the screw-up hero of Martin Scorsese’s rough-and-tumble breakthrough “Mean Streets.” One was that Johnny Boy—the personification of that one charismatic, irresponsible screw-it-all friend we’ve all had at some point in our lives–was the more dangerous, but also the more electrifying, fun and exciting of the two protagonists in the picture. But even more clear was that the actor behind the punk-rock posturing, a then mostly-unknown Greenwich Village kid named Bobby De Niro, was destined to be a major star. De Niro had done some fine work in the strange, early pictures of Brian De Palma, but in “Mean Streets,” he emerges as a bonafide screen talent from the very first frame he occupies. Playing the apoplectic, motor-mouthed id to the quiet, soulful heart of tortured hood Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), De Niro is nothing less than a total revelation. As Johnny Boy increasingly gets into worse and worse trouble, refusing to pay his dues or make up for his mistakes, De Niro somehow makes us care about this shameless neighborhood knucklehead, all the way until the film’s brutal sucker-punch of an ending. If there is some poor soul out there who only knows De Niro in his relative post-millennium lethargy, revisiting this raw-nerve performance is step one in discovering what all the fuss is about.

“The Godfather Part II” (1974)
De Niro famously auditioned for the role of Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” and lost out to James Caan (watch this clip to get a taste of an alternate film universe). As good as he would’ve no doubt been in that role, not only would we have lost an essential Caan performance, but we wouldn’t have seen De Niro give his Oscar-winning turn as the young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II,” a role he was much better suited for precisely because it’s leagues removed from the emotionally volatile Sonny. De Niro showed his manic flair for the impetuous in “Mean Streets,” but in ‘Godfather’ his screen presence permeates without the bombast for the very first time, in full Italian, no less. As we watch Michael’s (Al Pacino) grip tighten around the business his father built, Vito’s story from Sicily to Hell’s Kitchen (then back to Sicily to “bring some olive oil” to Don Ciccio) in the early 1900s adds a world of authenticity, complexity, and depth to the ‘Godfather’ saga that wouldn’t have been possible without De Niro’s calculated and masterfully nuanced performance. He found a way to own the same character Marlon Brando immortalized in the first part, ensuring that Vito Corleone remains the most compelling gangster figure in cinema. 

“Taxi Driver” (1976) 
Film critic and author James Monaco called Robert De Niro the greatest filmmaker-by-association of the 70s in his book “American Film Now,” purely based on the kind of directors and actors he worked with. That high praise is justified, verified, and eternalized for life with a bloody index finger to the temple in “Taxi Driver,” the second of nine dream-team-director-actor collaborations between De Niro and Martin Scorsese. In order to fully absorb the damaged character of Travis Bickle, De Niro went into ultra method mode and drove a taxi around New York City to get a feel for the voyeuristic, and ultimately depressing, lifestyle that comes with the profession. As much as it illustrates Scorsese’s uncanny sense of directing lost New York souls and is a showcase for Paul Schrader‘s greatest screenplay, the first mental image “Taxi Driver” invokes is that of De Niro, standing in front of the mirror, talking to himself, and preparing his one-man-army crusade. The scene—like many others in the film—is essentially transcendent, and De Niro, even with “Mean Streets” and “The Godfather Part II” on his resume, subverts notions of acting to create yet another revelatory performance of profound psychological insight. Point in fact: Schrader’s script simply read “Travis talks to himself in the mirror,” so what we see is pure, raw Robert De Niro.

READ MORE: Watch: 70-Minute Documentary About The Making Of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’

“The Deer Hunter” (1978) 
By the late 70s, De Niro had accumulated enough star power to make or break a film, and if he hadn’t agreed to take on the muted lead role of Mike Vronsky in Michael Cimino‘s “The Deer Hunter,” the picture would’ve likely never seen light of day. Meryl Streep wouldn’t have had the platform to make her indelible screen entranceChristopher Walken wouldn’t have turned in a searing and unforgettable Oscar-winning performance, and we wouldn’t have had one of the greatest Vietnam films ever made. The world would’ve also missed out on De Niro’s exquisitely controlled and multi-faceted performance, proof of his profound talents when it comes to seamlessly blending into the action of a given scene. Whether it’s quiet self-reflection in a bar or on the mountain tops, the chaotic instability of forced Russian Roulette, visiting a war-buddy in the hospital, or trying to save his psychologically-damaged best friend; De Niro’s Mike is that rare lead performance that’s often sidelined as a witness to the horrors of war and post-war trauma, and the actor embodies the character with the appropriate amount of gravitas and dialed-down charisma. The psychological consequences of war weigh heavy on all the characters in “The Deer Hunter,” but it’s De Niro’s Mike, even with his life and limbs intact, who perhaps bears the heaviest burden of all.        

“Raging Bull” (1980)
“I coulda been a contender”—those words, famously spoken by Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s immortal “On the Waterfront,” are resurrected as bookends in “Raging Bull”—a harrowing, blunt-force melodrama that uses the act of boxing as a metaphor for the crippling emotional and sexual jealousy that certain men can harbor. But Martin Scorsese’s 1980 picture—the one that many say “resurrected” his career—is no grandstanding act of macho wish fulfillment a la Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw.” This is devastating human drama that dissects the flimsy male id into flailing bits and pieces. And in a career full of big, monumental turns, De Niro’s performance here may just be his very best. His Jake LaMotta, a middleweight fighter from a mob-controlled part of the Bronx, N.Y., is part schoolyard bully and part classic coward—a guy who thinks nothing of brutally slapping his wife around, who also buries his feelings in food and can’t even bear to hear his beloved describe a rival fighter as “good-looking.” De Niro’s dramatic weight gain for the film’s second half has been well-documented, but it should not overshadow the subtleties and nuance that go into his unsparing portrayal elsewhere: this is a towering, fearless turn that (pun intended) pulls no punches. 

“The King of Comedy” (1982) 
In Martin Scorsese’s most misunderstood and underappreciated film, De Niro plays an aspiring comic and television hopeful named Rupert Pupkin. Living in his mother’s basement and seemingly without gainful employment, Rupert dreams of life on the small screen, and of writing jokes for his idol, talk-show legend Jerry Langford (a curdled, bitter Jerry Lewis). The problem is, not only is Rupert not the least bit funny, he’s also a case study in antisocial behavior—which is another way of saying he’s needy, delusional and, ultimately, very, very dangerous. Many balked at the strange, off-tempo rhythms of Scorsese and De Niro’s fifth screen collaboration, which seemed an especially head-scratching creative decision following the knockout success of “Raging Bull”, but “The King of Comedy’s” stature has grown over time, and the film now stands as one of the legendary actor’s most effectively skin-crawling performances, a spiritual precursor of sorts to everything from Seth Rogen’s psychotic mall cop in “Observe and Report” and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s reptilian Lou Bloom in last year’s “Nightcrawler.” Whereas other De Niro characters might fly off the handle at something insignificant, Rupert is more terrifying for what he doesn’t say or do, his volatility tamped down beneath ghastly faux-friendliness. He’s quiet, but big, scary plans are constantly coagulating in his head; the performance is a masterclass in passive-aggressive resentment and threats made with a smile. De Niro’s performance crown glitters with many jewels, but this turn has perhaps the darkest, oiliest sheen of all. 

READ MORE: Tribeca: Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese & Jerry Lewis Reflect On ‘The King Of Comedy,’ Improv, Deleted Scenes & More

“Once Upon A Time In America” (1984)  
10 years in the making, and with the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Berenger, and Gerard Depardieu passing through as candidates for the lead roles, Sergio Leone’s final epic ended up getting made with Robert De Niro and James Woods. Much like most every project De Niro was involved with in the 70s and 80s, “Once Upon A Time In America” would have been a completely different film had he not canonized his character, Noodles, into one of his signature performances, turning out —with all due respect to another one of his mainstay gangster roles coming up on this list—one of the most rounded and complex portraits of a haunted mobster in cinema. Similar to Vito Corleone’s calm and collected exterior, De Niro’s Noodles isn’t flashy—no, the source of his magnetism derives from something much more internal, somewhere from within the depths of his relationships with the two people who matter to him the most: his best friend Max (Woods, also incredible) and the love of his life Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, magnificent). In every scene with them the film’s themes of friendship, betrayal and love are projected tenfold through De Niro’s meticulously-timed delivery. His final smile is enough to cause a lump the size of a football in the throat, and it reminds us of his knack for relaying volumes of emotion without uttering a single syllable.

“The Untouchables” (1987)
You know “The Untouchables” is Brian De Palma‘s film the second its first scene fades in; an overhead angle shot of a moment in a barber’s shop, all actors positioned as if posing for a painting. When the camera slithers downwards, however, and towards the man at the centre of attention, no one would fault you for having second thoughts; is this, actually, Robert De Niro’s film? Of course, from then on, the story mostly focuses on Eliot Ness’ (Kevin Costner) side of the law, as his team of ‘Untouchables’ (memorably led by Sean Connery’s Malone) go after Al Capone (De Niro) in prohibition-era Chicago. So to call it De Niro’s film would feel more than a little imbalanced, but the fact that it’s a legitimate consideration is reason why it’s on the list. He doesn’t appear all that much in the picture, he’s actually everywhere: in the horrific tragedy that follows the barber-shop scene, in Ness’ busted raids, and in everyone’s growing desire to stop a master-criminal. De Niro makes such a lasting impression in every scene he’s in that it’s impossible to forget him when he’s off-screen. A violently entertaining role for which he put on 30 lbs, his Al Capone is a perfect mix (for this film’s tone) of hammy caricature and humorless capriciousness, evidenced most memorably when he brings a baseball bat to a dinner and shows everyone what happens to people who suck at teamwork.    

“Midnight Run” (1988) 
After a slew of dramatic turns that started to pigeon-hole him as an ultra-serious actor who always goes an extra mile to bring authenticity to his roles, De Niro actively pursued something different. After failing to get the lead role in “Big” (can you imagine what that would’ve looked like with him and not Tom Hanks?!), he landed on lighter ground with Martin Brest‘s “Midnight Run.” It follows cantankerous bounty hunter Jack Wallace (De Niro) who gets enlisted to bring an accountant (Charles Grodin) back to L.A. because he embezzled money from gangster Serrano (the late, great, Dennis Farina). The story’s narrative tackles the classic “odd-couple” comedy shtick in familiar beats and rhythms, but the buddy chemistry between an amusingly sarcastic and cynical De Niro and the hilarious Grodin is everything here. Memorable turns by Farina and Yaphet Kotto as FBI Agent Alonzo Moseley add timeless entertainment to George Gallo‘s crackling screenplay, but it’s really De Niro and Grodin’s show. Placed in context, “Midnight Run” is the first time the world got to see Robert De Niro have whimsical fun in a role that wasn’t suspended by any thematic gravitas or big-name directors. And then he goes and ends up creating one of his most memorable, and definitely his funniest, character in the process—it’s undoubtedly his best comedy and one of his most criminally overlooked films when people talk about his greatest performances.

READ MORE: Al Pacino Says He’s Still Hoping To Make ‘The Irishman’ With Martin Scorsese & Robert De Niro

“Goodfellas” (1990)
This classic brought the very best out of Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and even Martin Scorsese, but in many ways, “Goodfellas” is above all another eternal notch in Robert De Niro’s belt, proving him to be the rocky center around which everyone, and everything, orbits. Similar to the feat he achieved in “The Deer Hunter” and “Once Upon A Time In America,” De Niro simply embodies the role of Irish gangster Jimmy Conway and brings it down to a subdued level that acts like a pillar of strength off which the manic Tommy (Pesci) and increasingly paranoid Henry (Liotta) bounce around like pinballs. Ever the method perfectionist, De Niro continuously consulted with “Wiseguys” authors Nicholas Pileggi and Henry Hill in order to get down every minute detail about the real-life Jimmy The Gent (a.k.a James Burke), injecting an unusual (even for him) level of authenticity into every single scene. That zoom in the bar, when Jimmy silently contemplates (and decides) what’s to be done with Morris (Chuck Low) as Cream‘s “Sunshine Of Your Love” bursts through the speakers, is as vintage a Scorsese and De Niro moment as anything else the two have done. The epitome of cool in 40 seconds (and one of our very favorite Scorsese Music Moments).  


“Cape Fear” (1991)
Far removed from anything he’s done before or since, De Niro’s Max Cady is the very definition of menace, sleaze and vile white trash contempt, all rolled into one repellent character. De Niro contorted Robert Mitchum’s version of the same character (from the 1962 original) into something wholly his own, and the result is disgusting, yes, but also undeniably, overpoweringly hypnotic. Indeed, Martin Scorsese’s version of “Cape Fear” is an overall imbalanced affair mostly due to how bloody brilliant De Niro is compared to, well, everything else—you miss him when he’s not on screen, and you hate him when he is. Cady’s intrusion into the private lives of lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), his wife (Jessica Lange) and daughter (Juliette Lewis) is the stuff nightmares are made of, and thanks to De Niro’s scorching turn, for which he pulled an anti-“Raging Bull” to bring his body fat level down to 4% and paid a dentist $20,000 for some dental deconstruction on his front teeth, Cady is like a rabid Hitchcockian fairytale villain set loose. Cue much biting of flesh, beating the shit out of people, wielding piano-wire dressed as a housemaid, and general disturbing of the peace through obnoxious laughter and creepy encounters. He’s easily the most towering, sinewing monster from De Niro’s roster, but he also happens to be one of his greatest creations, proving once and for all that De Niro’s range with villains goes from subtle and sophisticated to all-out brute force.          

“Mad Dog And Glory” (1993)
De Niro tends to go big or go home, and his domineering presence is such that he’s rarely asked to play gentle or timid characters. But the genius of John McNaughton’s comedy “Mad Dog And Glory” is in its casting: the movie pits meek Chicago Police Department crime scene photographer Wayne Dobie (De Niro), sarcastically nicknamed “Mad Dog” by his cop friends, against mob boss Frank Milo (Bill Murray) in the name of amour. De Niro was originally offered the Milo role, but instead insisted on the more ineffectual character who accidentally saves the life of the Chicago gangster who then feels indebted to him. And it’s this casting-against-type, Murray as the heavy and De Niro as the passive, hangdog character, that makes for some terrific comedic sparks and fresh energy from both actors. Their “friendship” is tested when Dobie falls in love with the call girl (Uma Thurman) whom Milo gifts him as a present. Learning she is trying to pay off debts to Milo, Dobie then asks to take on those commitments, but has to eventually fight for her honor. But even when Dobie stands up to battle against the mobster, De Niro manages to still convey fear; he’s motivated by love, principle and honor, but he’s still well aware he’s going to get his ass kicked. De Niro, similar to his stellar comedic turn in “Midnight Run” wisely never goes for the joke—he plays everything totally straight, yet still lands plenty of laughs. De Niro comedy renaissance of the aughts is a lot down to the ‘Focker‘ movies, but this stands as proof of his comedic chops from way before then. 

READ MORE: “You’re F*cked”: Watch Robert De Niro’s Graduation Speech At New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts

“This Boy’s Life” (1993) 
“What about me? What about meeee?!” The final words bellowed out by De Niro’s Dwight Hansen echo in the final moments of “This Boy’s Life” as a chilling reminder of the just how boundless the human ego can be. Then again, there are plenty of good reasons to count Dwight among De Niro’s most despicable, depraved, grotesque, and evil villains. The story of this everyman and the way he poisons the lives of his new wife Caroline (Ellen Barkin) and her son Toby (young star-in-the-making Leonardo DiCaprio), could be perceived low-scale compared to his more archetypal roles, and from another planet altogether than his showy turn as Max Cady from two years prior. But it’s precisely because of this that Dwight, a seemingly reasonable blue-collar worker who modestly “knows a thing or two about a thing or two,” is De Niro at his most emotively evil-incarnate, somehow even more toxic because he’s also so infinitely pathetic. Based on Tobias Wolff‘s memoirs, “This Boy’s Life” pulsates with the gritty realism of a domestic-drama-turned-thriller as it slowly lifts the hood to reveal the dirt under Dwight’s meek exterior; a monster who psychologically and physically abuses his wife and children. For someone with such an intimidating reputation for playing larger-than-life characters, Dwight Hansen is De Niro’s essential example of how to approach lower-than-lowlife regular people.

“Heat” (1995)  
Michael Mann’s ultra-stylish, engrossing three-hour crime epic “Heat” boasts the distinction of showcasing one of Robert De Niro’s last truly great, epochal performances, because while he’s been intermittently excellent since, this is maybe the last time he’s been truly unforgettable—as so often with his best turns, it’s as a result of alchemy with the director and the other cast members. As professional thief Neil McCauley, De Niro shows no traces of the moody, violent, emotionally unstable loners he has played throughout his career. McCauley is cold, calculating, tightly wound and famously ready to walk away from everything at a moment’s notice—all ties broken. He’s essentially another one of director Michael Mann’s “Men with a Code”, here elevated because of De Niro’s innate capability of suggesting more with a hardened stare than many actors would be able to convey with an entire monologue. He’s certainly a fine foil for co-star Al Pacino—a flip side to his the proverbial coin and with Pacino tearing into his role with great relish, De Niro gets to be as quiet and restrained as he’s ever been. The scene the two men share together in a downtown Los Angeles diner is a quiet marvel, the first time the two legends appeared onscreen together. 

“Jackie Brown” (1997)
“Jackie Brown” might just be Quentin Tarantino’s most unjustly overlooked picture, even though it has slowly accrued a devoted following in the last couple of years. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s gaudy “Rum Punch”, it’s a quiet, soulful character piece that stands in pointed contrast to the director’s more recent movies, which are splashier and more deliberately artificial “movie-movies” than anything else. As Louis Gara, a pot-smoking, sleepy-voiced career criminal who’s recently been released from a prison stint, De Niro brings something to his role here that we don’t often associate with his performances: fuzzy understatement. We’re certainly a long way from “Goodfellas’” Jimmy “The Gent” Conway here. De Niro’s Louis is downright friendly, even if he’s a little…off. He’s genial enough—that is, until he’s pushed to the point of exhaustion by a petulant beach bunny memorably played by Bridget Fonda. Their scenes together are deadpan comic gold, until the prickly banter tips over into Tarantino’s characteristic explosive violence. De Niro doesn’t give the flashiest performance in the film, not by a mile (that honor would go to Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the ponytail-sporting, F-bomb-dropping arms dealer Ordell Robbie). But as far as mid-period De Niro goes, his turn here is an undeniable highlight.

READ MORE: Robert De Niro Still Interested In ‘Taxi Driver’ Sequel Despite The Fact Scorsese & Schrader Have Moved On

“Meet The Parents” (2000) 
Berate us if you will for only including one of De Niro’s post-2000s roles in this article, but it’s generally accepted that the man’s body of work took a considerable downturn once the new century kicked in. With his legacy firmly established through three decades-worth of unbelievable output, De Niro turned to much lighter work in the late 90s and early aughts. He mocked his own hardened gangster persona in 1999’s “Analyze This,” and turned heads (the wrong way) as the Fearless Leader in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” but as far as his comedic repertoire goes: Jay Roach‘s “Meet The Parents” is right up on top (though several notches below “Midnight Run”). Proving that he wasn’t only born for dramatic roles, De Niro’s Jack Byrnes is a retired CIA agent who’s still got his investigative radar on max when he meets his daughter’s new boyfriend Greg Focker (Ben Stiller). A cat-lover with the power to scare you shitless just by talking about milking nipples, De Niro turned his iconic stare-down into a comedic weapon that helped make the film a box-office smash, spawning two (considerably more egregious) sequels in the process. As further proof of his hidden alchemic skills in creating comedy gold, he’s the brains behind the infamous polygraph scene that’s still rightly counted among the film’s classic moments, and that is still probably the onscreen highlight of De Niro in the 2000s—at least until the gentle pleasures of “Silver Linings Playbook” came along.

Honorable Mentions
With over 90 feature roles to his name, there are naturally many more we considered for this piece. Among the ones that missed the line-up by a smidgen are his Oscar-nominated roles in “The Awakenings” and, as mentioned, David O. Russell‘s “Silver Linings Playbook.” There’s more from his fantastic body of work with Scorsese to be found in “Casino” and the underrated “New York, New York.” And both his onscreen work in his directorial debut “A Bronx Tale” and his brilliant cameo in Terry Gilliam‘s “Brazil” were only excluded due to their brevity.

More films we’re fond of but didn’t quite deem essential include “Jacknife,” “Sleepers,” “Ronin,” “The Mission,” and “Wag The Dog,” but you probably have your own favorites, so why not call them out in the comments? Yes, we are talking to you… 

–with Nicholas Laskin and Rodrigo Perez

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