Back to IndieWire

Robert De Niro’s 11 Best and 10 Worst Performances

Robert De Niro's 11 Best and 10 Worst Performances

So, in honor of Kenny’s book (and of De Niro being De Niro), we comprised a list of De Niro’s 11 best and 10 worst performances. You’ll notice that his best performances mostly occurred in the early part of his career (“when his gift seemed to burn brightest,” Kenny points out), while his worst turns are more recent. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section.

The Best

Pat Solatano, Sr. “Silver Linings Playbook”

According to Kenny, all of the characters De Niro played in Scorsese films “came out of the gate as deeply damaged, problematic people,” and in this regard Pat Solantano is like a belated endnote to De Niro’s golden years. Ostensibly afflicted with bi-polar disorder, De Niro’s cankerous football-loving curmudgeon feels like a natural return to the lineage of De Niro’s volatile alpha-male character. After a decade of bad third-tier comedies (to which the actor has since returned, sadly), De Niro managed to recapture that fiery passion that made him a great actor in the first place. Without delving into caricature, he gets at the wildly fluctuating mania of a person struggling with manic depression; but more impressively, he gets at the inner shame of the Baby Boomers’ views regarding mental health. The way he berates his also bi-polar son (Bradley Cooper) yearns with equal parts self-loathing and fatherly love. Watch closely, and notice how De Niro keeps pushing Cooper back while moving away from his son, calling him a loser, and how he sadly recants his anger after Jennifer Lawrence burns him. “I gotta say I’m impressed. I gotta rethink this whole thing.” 

David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, “Once Upon a Time in America”

Sergio Leone’s swan song, a gloriously Homeric gangster saga that clocks in over 4 hours in length and spans three decades, was famously butchered by producers and released as a bastardized 2-hour mess in 1984. It broke Leone’s heart, and he died shortly thereafter. In recent years the film has been recognized as the masterpiece it is, and Martin Scorsese has been integral in gradually adding back the lensed scenes (look for a new restoration screening at this year’s New York Film Festival). The brilliance of De Niro’s sad, somber turn as the main character becomes evident when viewed in its proper placement within the film, following Leone’s hour-long depiction of adolescent blooming. De Niro is at his most vulnerable here as the heartbroken hoodlum who flees New York after his closest friends are killed in a heist gone bad. (James Woods is fantastic as his best friend.) The ending shot, with De Niro puffing on an opium pipe and waiting for death, is the closest thing to a tear-jerk moment Leone ever crafted, and De Niro projects a lifetime of heartbreak and sorrow in one extended stare. 

Louis Gara, “Jackie Brown”

De Niro and Tarantino are both at their most subdued in this intricate caper-cum-blaxploitation flick. Of course it’s Pam Grier’s film, and Robert Forster gives arguably the best supporting performance of 1997, but De Niro is easily overlooked as the burned-out criminal. He shouldn’t be; De Niro strikes the perfect balance between wallflower and movie star. Louis is a schmuck—if Johnny Boy survived the end of “Mean Streets” and did a stint in jail, he might end up becoming Louis. The guy develops a penchant for pot but doesn’t know how to take a hit; he hits it off with Sam Jackson’s lady friend but quickly proves that he’s incapable of…well, pretty much anything. De Niro looks borderline comatose throughout the film, as if he’s devoid of self-esteem and just drifts through life. When he finally snaps and plugs Jackson’s woman because she nags him incessantlym it’s like an old sleepy killer dog stirring from his slumber. 

Sam Rothstein, “Casino

“‘Casino?’ Ca-scene it. The first time, when it was called ‘Goodfellas.'” So quipped David Spade in 1995 on SNL (the only time I’ll favorably quote David Spade, mind you). Spade spoke for most viewers circa 1995, when the gargantuan movie premiered to reviews that basically amounted to “Eh.” The film’s reputation has since improved; the jarring similarities between Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece and his 1995 near-masterpiece aside (come on, Joe Pesci plays the same guy—he does it with dexterous intensity both times, but it’s the same guy), “Casino” features one of De Niro’s most subtle and humane turns. As Sam “Ace” Rothstein, De Niro eschews the sociopathic urges that plagued his previous characters and plays it professional; look at the scene in which Ace talks to the commissioner whose brother-in-law he just fired: Rothstein has the whole conversation rehearsed, ‘cause he’s a boss, and he knows how to deal with politicians, businessmen, law enforcement. His quiet threats to James Woods’ pimp in the diner aren’t histrionic—he doesn’t demand Woods dead, his family dead, his house burned to the ground. Ace is prone to jealously, but he doesn’t beat his wife ala Jake LaMotta (admittedly a poor measure of a man’s integrity, but in the world of Scorsese not beating your wide puts you a step-up on your peers). De Niro is a man boiling over with anger, but whose profession and public persona require him to appear placated. And Ace’s confrontation with Nicky in the desert is steeped in trepidation: Ace is worried he might die, because he’s still la low-ranking pawn and Nicky is still a psycho. De Niro makes you feel that fear, and yet, when it gets down to it, he still defends Nicky because they’re friends. To paraphrase Ace, De Niro plays a man, not a pimp. It’s a welcome change from the unhinged Mafioso that has become the norm post-“Goodfellas.” 

Jimmy Doyle,’ “New York, New York”

Though it’s not one of Scorsese’s great films, “New York, New York” is suffused with love and care, and De Niro hits a chord that might confuse those who only know him as a crazy sociopath. Wonderfully paired with Liza Minnelli, De Niro has that dumbstruck look of love on his face. The way he stares spellbound at Liza’s lounge singer as he blares away on his saxophone (he really learned how to play for the film, so there’s none of that annoying, un-synched finger doodling) gives you a warm sort of feeling. Provocateur par excellence Peter Biskind attributes the film’s initial failure to Scorsese’s copious cocaine usage, which left the filmmaker unable to control the actors’ rampant improvisation, though, as with most of Biskind’s assertions, no one can verify or deny this. Either way, De Niro seems to be looser than ever in “New York, New York,” and that’s not a bad thing. Plus, Liza Minnelli’s version of the song is still better than Sinatra’s. 

Max Cady, “Cape Fear”

The flawed film is best remembered as a fascinating study in remaking a classic film (Scorsese uses the same score and a similar Hitchcock-derived directing style), but De Niro sears the screen as the terrifying Max Cady. He transcends the casual menace of Robert Mitchum’s original incarnation of the southern, God-fearing lunatic and creates something more disturbing: a man with his own distinct morals (however dubious they may seem to us non-murderous folk) who educates himself, and becomes ineffably more dangerous. Cady is smart, but he never sheds his southern visage. De Niro convincingly plays the murderer-rapist as a monster in tourist’s clothing, a discernible hatred raging behind his wild eyes. Cady, raised by a religious group that drank snake venom to receive ecstasy and enlightenment, is fueled by a misunderstanding of God and justice. He’s sadistic but De Niro projects an aura of control; after beating several thugs into bloody pulps, Cady hunches over, like a predator on the prowl, and slowly walks down the alley, towards his prey (Nick Nolte, who looks 80 years younger than his current self). He doesn’t break into a sprint and flail manically, but calculates his next move, and waits. When he finally gets the chance to enact his revenge, he does so by quoting legal doctrine, justifying his actions while denouncing his lawyer’s. Even as the water washes over him, he never looks like he’s the loser. He goes to a watery grave with a stoic look of determination.

Johnny Boy, “Mean Streets”

Though Harvey Keitel is the lead in “Mean Streets” (and he’s exceptionally good), Robert De Niro hijacks the film, grinning the whole time. His Johnny Boy is the most reckless and daring of a tight-knit group of low-rung grafters based in the Lower East Side. He’s the friend who seemed so cool when you were kids ‘cause he didn’t care about getting in trouble or getting hurt, but now he’s the big liability, always leaning on his friends for help. He’s a perpetual dick, always beaming because he cons everyone, even his friends. And they know it; but he’s so sleazy-charming, and they view friendship as a life-long bond, so they let him get away with it. De Niro is volatile and flamboyant, but it works because Johnny Boy is always full of shit. Notice the way he stutters and repeats himself—”What? What? What? This? What? This?”—while trying to quickly conjure a lie to Keitel. It’s immensely impressive, as he’s depicting a man currently of two minds: the guy’s bullshitting while his mind is reeling for something better to say. Lying is tough to do convincingly, and De Niro convincingly plays a man who’s a bad liar. Johnny Boy is De Niro’s ultimate schmuck, a mook who thinks his friends are jerk-offs because they let him get away with being a jerk-off himself.  

Vito Corleone, “The Godfather Part II”

He’s calm, calculating. His face is so smooth and clean and still when he kills the miserly Don who rules his neighborhood, it’s like a cosmetic mask hiding the gangster underneath. He’s essentially playing Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone, which adds another layer to his performance. He can’t veer too far from what Brando established in the first film, but he’s also playing a younger man, the man who would become Don Corleone. (Apparently De Niro learned three dialects of Sicilian for the role, because he’s Robert De Niro and one dialect isn’t immersive enough.) According to Kenny, Coppola later admitted that casting De Niro was “risky,” and modern interpretations of the film don’t fully appreciate how bizarre and scary it was to have De Niro play the part originated by Brando. “I like Bob…I just don’t know if he lieks himself,” said Coppola, reminiscing on De Niro’s unwavering dedication (he skipped the Oscar ceremony at which he won Best Supporting Actor in order to work in Italy with Bernardo Bertolucci. As Kenny points out, the genius of De Niro’s performance as Corleone is that, for a while, he actually convinces you that the future Don really is slow-witted, like the other characters in the film seem to think. But De Niro, like Brando, plays Vito Corleone as a man who plots and ploys quietly and internally—a careful man, careful and considerate and calibrated, antipodal to his hot-headed son Sonny (James Caan), but not as ruthlessly paranoid as Michael (Al Pacino). It’s a genuinely unique role in a career rife with iconic characters. 

Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver

De Niro’s most iconic creation, Travis Bickle has become synonymous with disturbed men, as well as DIY Mohawks. Everyone knows the “You talkin’ to me?” scene, and almost everyone knows that De Niro allegedly improvised the line (the screenplay, which is far worse than people give it credit for, only says that Travis is talking to himself), and I’m not gonna try to convince you that the scene’s in any way overrated. It’s not. But consider a less-discussed scene, in which Travis has lunch with Jodie Foster’s young prostitute, whom Travis desperately wants to “save.” Like a socially inept old man in the body of a 26-year-old, Travis berates the girl for hanging out with scum and pimps, masquerading as being “hip.” De Niro slips into this strange Dad mode, and taken on its own, separate from the scenes of Travis being insane, he comes off like a genuinely concerned nice guy. Or the workout scene, in which Travis gets in shape, purges his body of the stagnation and abuse. (His workout involves burning his forearm on a stove top.) The look on De Niro’s face is vacant; Travis has retreated into the catacombs of his own skull, where he becomes a hero, saving Jodie Foster’s young prostitute and slaying a gaggle of pimps and thugs in de-saturated glory. The coy stare when he fires various guns at the range, when he pretends to shoot the screen at the movies, suggests a man creating what he perceives to be the true self lingering in his head. With cavernous eyes and wiry arms scrawled with veins, De Niro becomes Travis Bickle, a character who becomes a character. 

Jake La Motta, “Raging Bull”

In a lot of ways, the unhinged boxer acts as a coalescence of the themes that permeated all of De Niro’s up to this point: he’s angry and sad, uncontrollable and out of control, a lonely soul who can’t understand, trust, or relate to women. Jake La Motta harbors contradictory convictions, a man who views women as divine until they come into contact with him, at which point they become sullied, no better than street trash. This is De Niro at his most intense, and his most self-loathing. La Motta may be monstrous, but he’s not a monster—he’s a man, capable of the same kind of misogynistic hate as any other man, though not all men have the physical prowess to pummel people’s faces into pomace. De Niro gives new meaning to the term “anger issues.” All of De Niro’s characters are, in varying ways, self-destructive, though none more so than La Motta. He defeats his own purpose. 

Rupert Pupkin, “The King of Comedy”

Rupert Pupkin is one of the all-time creepy characters because he’s so… normal. He’s delusional, of course, but what does he fantasize about? World domination? Amalgamating humans and animals on a remote island. No: being famous, shaking hands with his favorite movie star, having lunch in five-star restaurants. His derangement is so average. He’s a celebrity chaser, the kind of person who reads Us Weekly, who has lofty ambitions and dreams of stardom; he’s not a murderer, or a sadist. He doesn’t skin girls in his basement. We never see him hurt anybody, though we never doubt that he’s capable of it. He apologizes when he kidnaps his idol. He’s the most affable creep of Scorsese’s legion, but he’s not a schmuck. There’s a kindness behind his eyes, instead of that fiery lunacy we expect post-“Raging Bull.” De Niro’s mile-wide smile, the way his cheeks rise up so high, has never been more apt. Whereas his infectious grin guised the horrors percolating beneath Travis Bickle’s face, and acted as a tic that gave away Johnny Boy’s perpetual lying, here it’s genuine. With his manic streak and his flailing arms and his relentlessly jovial demeanor, De Niro taps into a quintessential American malaise: lust for fame. Despite his peacock attire and almost coquettish small talk, Pupkin is a nobody, but an average nobody. He’s one of 8 million nobodies living in New York. De Niro displays a surprisingly keen comedic timing, too; every time Jerry Lewis turns around to head to his apartment, De Niro gets that “Hey, Jerry!” at precisely the right moment (Lewis himself is no slouch in the comedic timing department). His rhythm is tight throughout the whole film—he’s the Jaco Pastorious of acting. (Pointing to a signature: “That’s Woody Allen,” a sliver of pause, “He’s a personal friend of mine.”) And that final monologue, when Rupert finally gets his chance on TV, is deeply disturbing because it humanizes a man for whom we’ve been gradually building up abhorrence for 90 minutes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fantasy scene, since the monologue is rooted in Rupert’s mind, regardless of whether he gets to recite it on national television. We never have reason to think Rupert is a liar (delusional, but not a liar). With five minutes of stand-up, De Niro usurps all of that hate and turns it into sorrow. Pupkin amuses us, but he’s not a clown. He’s The King. 

The Worst

Tom ‘Turk’ Cowan, “Righteous Kill”

Fans waited for two decades to see De Niro and Al Pacino share the screen (I obligatorily must remind you that they were both in “The Godfather Part II” but were never on screen at the same time), and Michael Mann finally granted us our wish with “Heat.” Mann has the two titans grab cup of coffee in a quiet diner scene, while the two actors carefully lace each sentence with double meanings and serene threats. It’s under-acting at its finest. Their subsequent pairings have been considerably worse. In “Righteous Kill,” De Niro and Pacino both phone-it-in; they’re only here to add novelty to this dull none-thriller. De Niro looks like he’s day dreaming about better movies. 

Mitch Preston, “Showtime”

Remember when Eddie Murphy was funny? If you were born after 1990, then no, you don’t. De Niro rehashes the slapstick shtick he first used (and very well) in 1988’s “Midnight Run,” a buddy cop film that brilliantly paired the volatile method actor with Charles Grodin, while Murphy does that thing he does—you know, that annoying thing. Buddy cop pictures are nothing new, and “Showtime” doesn’t pretend to be innovative. Whoever thought Murphy and De Niro were a good match (and maybe they would have been, 20 years earlier) hopefully got fired.

David Callaway, “Hide and Seek”

De Niro’s wife (Amy Irving, wasted in a nothing role) commits suicide, so poor old dad has to raise his daughter (Dakota Fanning) by himself. And everyone knows men can’t raise children. But something, or someone, is terrorizing the young girl; she says it’s an imaginary friend, but experienced horror fans know better. M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of this film’s preposterous twist, which I won’t ruin for you (hint: De Niro’s character has split personality disorder!). If cheating spouses triggered murderous split personality disorders as often in real life as they do in films, our population problem would be solved.

Jack Byrnes, “Little Fockers”

Confession: I didn’t know this movie existed until last week. I was a happier person back then. De Niro, doing his angry shtick again, reprises the role of angry father-in-law opposite Ben Stiller, who does his likable Jewish guy shtick again. Best as I can remember, mayhem somehow ensues, that darn cat escapes again, and a lot of penis jokes are thrown around. The first film was good—really, it was. The second was funny enough, with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand really committing to their eccentric neo-hippie parent roles. (Hoffman has a great comedic streak in him that I wish he used more often, and he seems like a perfect foil to the always-intense De Niro.) But this. This… this I cannot abide. 

Gil Renard, “The Fan”

De Niro brings Travis Bickle to the Sportscenter generation. Gil, a crazy knives salesman (ugh) and Mets fan (UGH), is infatuated with Wesley Snipes’ superstar baseball player, and decides to… well, be crazy. Travis Bickle doesn’t fit in with society; he resides in a small, sordid room alone. Rupert Pupkin lives in his mother’s basement. But Gil, who is clearly more insane than the rest of De Niro’s insane characters (little league practice drives him into a homicidal rage), has somehow made it well into his 40s without anyone noticing that he’s not quite all there. De Niro does that angry guy shtick again, really hard.

Walter Koontz, “Flawless”

De Niro plays an angry, womanizing New York City cop (what a stretch) who suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed in half his body. He lives in a building apparently inhabited exclusively by LGBT people, and one of his neighbors takes it upon himself to help Walter recover. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is stellar as the pre-op transsexual (described as a “drag queen” on Wikipedia, so make of that what you will) who befriends Walter, but De Niro, admirably trying to shed his usual angry New Yorker shtick, hits, and sustains, and off note here. Joel Schumacher, still recovering from “Batman & Robin,” helmed this stinker, and he has genuinely good intentions. But he’s just not a good filmmaker. “Flawless” came out the same year De Niro reinvented himself as a self-parodying comic in “Analyze This,” which is why we all forgave De Niro for this grave miscalculation. 

Louis Cyphre, “Angel Heart”

Mickey Rourke is excellent as Harry Angel, a private eye hired to find a missing person by the not-so-mysterious Louis Cyphre, a man who eats hardboiled eggs insidiously and grows his nails in a Vampira fashion. Alan Parker’s bizarre commingling of Chandleresque noir and souther gothic horror story is mostly successful, and it looks fantastic. It serves as a reminder that Rourke can be the best actor on earth when he feels like it. But De Niro is completely hammy as the obvious Satan stand-in; the film is brooding and subtle, while De Niro practically farts brimstone. Al Pacino does a much better job chewing evil scenery in the underrated camp gem “The Devil’s Advocate” a decade later.

Stan Harris, “New Year’s Eve”

De Niro fell asleep while filming his brief scene. Really.

Fearless Leader, “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”

Sadly, this was De Niro’s passion project, which he fought to make. He tries to lampoon of his Travis Bickle “You talkin’ to me?” scene, but instead he just comes off like a geriatric crazy person with a Hitler haircut. It’s certainly not a lazy performance, but it’s also certainly not a good one. If this were done as a brief SNL skit, it might be forgivable.  But it wasn’t, so it isn’t.

The Creature, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”

Inspired by Francis Coppola’s brilliantly flamboyant and sexually ripe adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Kenneth Branagh decided to do a flamboyant adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” He follows the source material closely but veers from it in style and tone drastically. The film is a baffling, though fascinating study in miscasting and tonal fluctuation. Branagh strives for a brooding and loyal adaptation, making his monster articulate and giving it a yearning heart and almost justified sense of vengeance—a creature that keeps its promises. But Branagh’s direction and Andrew Marcus’ spastic editing work against the dark heart of the novel, instead turning the film into an inadvertent comedy. De Niro has never been so badly miscast; he’s the only Frankenstein Monster who retains a New York accent, while everyone around him shouts in melodramatic Victorian accents. Take, for instance, the scene in which the Creature rips out the heart of his creator’s lover, and then accidentally lights her head on fire. This should be a deeply troubling scene—I repeat, HE RIPS OUT HER HEART AND LIGHTS HER HEAD ON FIRE— yet somehow, Branagh’s hammy direction and De Niro’s unmistakable De Niro-ness render the scene silly. That the heart continues to beat in the Creature’s hand is more “Tales From the Crypt” than “Frankenstein.” Shelley’s novel is, in essence, a literary, philosophical work, whereas Stoker’s is proto-grand guignol; Coppola’s direction and Gary Oldman’s performance work so well because the source material calls for histrionics. “Frankenstein” is far more somber, the creature a tragic victim of science. It seems that De Niro and co. didn’t consider the consequences of their actions.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox