By John H. Foote
He had been rising in the ranks slowly but when he shared the screen with Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (1973) a trio of stars were born. De Niro, Keitel and Director Martin Scorsese were about to embark on a journey that would alter American cinema.
De Niro would – zenith like – dominate the late seventies drawing comparisons to Brando with the furious intensity of his work. Working with world class directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Scorsese again, Elia Kazan, Michael Cimino and yet again Scorsese, De Niro quickly established himself as one of the greatest actors in modern film.
There was something that suggested a danger about the characters De Niro was recreating, something you could not take your eyes off.
A hardcore method actor his preparation was legendary, even driving a cab in New York several shifts to get the feel of the job. What De Niro had, hugely, was an intensity that was truly alarming. You felt it, and in no way could not look away. In the years spanning 1974-1991, he was among the greatest of American actors with Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.
Though his limitations became evident in New York, New York (1977), the dazzling surrealistic musical from Martin Scorsese, De Niro was truly dreadful in the picture, and sporadic weak performances from the eighties gave way to awful work in the nineties and New Millennium. The great actor was nothing of the kind in films such as Falling in Love (1984), The Mission (1986), truly terrible in We’re No Angels (1989), The Fan (1995), horrific in The Adventures Of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Godsend (2004), Hide and Seek (2005), Righteous Kill (2008), Last Vegas (2013), Grudge Match (2013) and the lowest he has sunk, the most embarrassing performance of his career as a randy gramps in Dirty Grandpa (2016).
Thank the movie Gods his early films are on Blu Ray to remind us of what he can do. Once in a while through that long drought he would pop up in a film with a strong performance, reminding audiences and critics that he was a great actor.
He was outstanding in the criminally over praised The Deer Hunter (1978) and shone opposite Robert Duvall in True Confessions (1981).
Fine work in Angel Heart and The Untouchables, both in 1987, his self-directed work in A Bronx Tale (1993), Heat (1995), Jackie Brown (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), and a stunning cameo in American Hustle (2013) each demonstrated De Niro could still command the screen.
With an Oscar nomination for Best Actor very likely for his fine work in The Irishman, here is a study of his work.
Here are his 10 best. Yes, #10 is a tie.
10. SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK (2012)
There had not been many performances worth celebrating since the nineties. Though he is a degenerate gambler who has put the lives of he and his wife at risk by gambling away their future, he is also a loving father and husband. With his son struggling with mental illness, he does his best to understand, while juggling bets he has made hoping to win enough money to open a restaurant. De Niro has one really heartbreaking scene with Bradley Cooper, where he attempts to understand his son’s actions, blaming himself as tears fill his eyes. Though very much a supporting role, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, he steals every scene he is in.
10. STARDUST (2007)
So shoot me, I loved him as the puffball pirate Captain Shakespeare who lives in fear of his band of cutthroats discovering he is a sissy who likes men when in fact they already know and frankly don’t give a damn. De Niro gives the film a welcome burst of energy and silliness as the mincing, prancing tough guy who like to dance in ladies’ clothes alone in his chambers in front of a mirror. He was something he had rarely been … fun! It displayed a different type of courage from the usually intensely serious actor, a willingness to make fun of himself and be silly. The fantasy film is uneven, but great frothy, goodly fun if you give yourself over to the nuttiness of it all. De Niro was priceless, nailing a silly character while sending up his own tough guy persona and obviously enjoying every second of it.
9. GOODFELLAS (1990)
As Jimmy Conway, De Niro is so strong, you might miss his greatness alongside the more flamboyant performances of Joe Pesci or Ray Liotta. However, as the stone-cold killer Conway, a born thief, De Niro is quietly unsettling and radiates danger and menace throughout the film. With the ability to level a room with his presence, end an argument with a stare, he moves through the film dealing out death. It is a commanding performance of profound authority in one of the greatest films ever made, with De Niro aware, he was very much a part of a superb ensemble. It takes a great actor to happily be part of something special as opposed to being front and centre. In his role he elevated the work of every actor in the film, and every one of them was better for it. The actor was more frightening silent than many who rage loudly.
8. THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
In one of the most daring performances of his career, De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a pushing 40 messenger, still living at home with his mother, never married, with big dreams of being a stand-up comic. His greatest dream is to be a guest on The Jerry Langford Show, a Carson-like late show with a dour, unhappy Jerry Lewis as Langford. When Rupert bails the talk show host out of an awkward situation, in his mind they become friends, though what he does is stalking and scares Langford. Faced with rejection of his routine, it seems the only chance Rupert has of getting on the show is to kidnap Langford and hold him hostage while he goes on the program. So he does just that. With his accomplice Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) the pair grab Jerry, tie him up and while Rupert does the show Masha, hopelessly deluded, will seduce Jerry. The film is a black comedy with a terrible reminder of the dangers for celebrities because of the unstable fans out there. De Niro is superb as Rupert, with whom something is just off, all the circuits do not connect. The sequence where he and a date show up at Langford’s country home aches with discomfort for all but Rupert, who has convinced himself he was invited and belongs there. Jerry Lewis steals the film, but De Niro is never anything less than brilliant portraying a man who has slipped over the edge into madness. The great irony? His crime gives him the fantastic celebrity he so desires. Frightening.
7. AWAKENINGS (1990)
In one of the most demanding physical performances of his career, De Niro is Leonard, a grown man in 1969, who has been in a coma since 1937. Based on a true story, the film explores the close relationship between Leonard and the gentle doctor who tried to cure him, portrayed by Robin Williams in the finest work of his career. When the doctor realizes that a group of seemingly catatonic patients are alive but frozen by a terrible disease, he experiments with a drug and brings first Leonard, then a group of them back. Childlike, Leonard has no idea so much time has passed until he sees his mother and a reflection of himself in a mirror. No longer a little boy, he is a grown man, expected to act like one. In addition to dealing with staggering culture shock, he also begins to experience side effects which make him dangerously paranoid. In one heartbreaking scene, as the tremors overtake him and the good doctor tries to help him, he begs the doctor, “Learn from me” hoping he can fix others. The shaking and wild motions completely take his body over, and bit by bit, he slips back to where he was, frozen in time, though now the nurses know a person is in there. De Niro won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor for his work and was nominated for an Oscar. Williams sadly was ignored as was the director of the Best Picture nominee, Penny Marshall. Powerfully acted, De Niro and Williams have a strong, fascinating chemistry. Watch the lovely glint in his eye when in the middle of the night Williams tells the long comatose patient that it is late, everyone is asleep. Like a mischievous child caught in the act, De Niro’s Leonard says with a shy smile and magical sparkle, “I’m not asleep.”
6. CAPE FEAR (1991)
One of Martin Scorsese’s most successful films, Cape Fear is a remake of a pot boiler of the same name from 1962, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. De Niro is Max Cady, a southern criminal just released from prison, covered in tattoos that offer Biblical verses, a body ripped with muscle, and a burning desire for revenge. Seems his lawyer portrayed by Nick Nolte with held evidence that would have prevented Cady from serving time, any time. His former lawyer, a family man with a penchant for cheating on his wife, is stunned when Cady targets not only him, but his teenaged daughter and wife. Having educated himself while in jail on law, Cady knows the law inside out, making it very difficult to get him on something minor even when he kills someone or terrorizes his daughter and wife. De Niro is a force of nature as Cady, he seems indestructible, though of course he is not. In the huge action-packed set piece to the film, which takes place during a vicious storm on the water, it is Cady we are watching no one or nothing else, all eyes are fixed on De Niro as Cady. His eyes are blazing with ferocity and rage before he is swept under the water, his single-minded purpose the only thought on his mind. Genuinely creepy is his scene with young Juliette Lewis, posing as a teacher though she figures out who he is, walking a line but never crossing it into seduction. One of the most vile men De Niro has brought to life.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Sergio Leone’s four plus hour gangster epic spans 50 years and is a breathtaking achievement. Be sure, absolutely sure you are seeing this version and not the butchered version that the studio cut without input from Leone. In many ways it echoes Scorsese’s current film The Irishman in being about memory and the myriad of emotions that wash over you as you get older and memory overwhelms your waking moments. De Niro is Noodles, one half of the brains of a gang of Jewish youngsters who make their mark after the turn of the century in Little Italy. Sent away for manslaughter, Noodles is fully grown when released and welcomed back with open arms. Though smart, he is prone to explosions of violence that cost him much, including the love of the woman he loves after he rapes her one night. Yet Noodles does something that will haunt him far more than that, betraying his gang, to the extent they are ambushed and slaughtered, all but one, but not to Noodles knowledge. Leaving town, he lives for years with the guilt he betrayed his now dead friends. He returns an old man, pushing 70 to learn his partner Max (James Woods) survived the ambush and is rising in government, though remains corrupt. De Niro gives a beautiful performance filled regret, shame, sadness, merged with happier memories of youth. The actor ages 50 years in the film and does so seamlessly; I remain shocked to my core the film, De Niro and Leone were not Oscar nominees for this elegiac masterpiece, one of the finest films of the decade.
4. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
His latest is as fine a film as Scorsese has made, and De Niro gives his best performance in years as a former WWII combat veteran turned professional hitman, attracting the attentions of the mob and labour chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film is tinged with a deep melancholy as Frank (De Niro) looks back on his life from the intense loneliness of a nursing home. He knows no one gets well here, this is where death will find him, seeking him out at last. Haunted by the ghosts of his long career as a killer, Frank recalls his life and those who shared it with him. Aging 40 years, De Niro is helped by computer generated effects, and while not perfect, the process works quite well. I think it is easier for a 30-year old actor to portray his character at 70 than it is for a 70-year old actor to move like a 30-year old. While all the actors are excellent, there are small moments where the stiffness in their movements is easy to spot, giving away their true age, but the film is too good for it to matter. De Niro is the constant, the shoulders on whom the narrative is built. He responds with his finest work in a long, long time, reminding audiences of his genius as an actor. Been a long time coming, but damn was it worth the wait. An Oscar nomination seems likely.
3. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Imagine being cast in this role. You are a young, on the rise actor when cast as the young Don Vito Corleone. You will portray a younger version of the iconic 70-year old Mafia chieftain portrayed by no less than Marlon Brando, arguably cinema’s greatest actor in an Academy Award winning performance in The Godfather (1972). You must suggest the character you are playing will become the character Brando plays. Little bit of pressure? De Niro, upon being cast, immediately headed to Sicily to soak in the culture, the essence of the people and, of course, the language. When the film opened to rave reviews, it was at once clear director-writer Francis Ford Coppola had surpassed the genius of the first and De Niro was nothing short of astonishing as young Vito. He captured to perfection that rasping voice, the look, the body language of a man aware of his immense power and the confidence of knowing he was in charge, always. You can feel and see the change in him, emotionally and physically after he murders Fanucci, taking his place as the main Don in Little Italy. While a killer, who will murder again ruthlessly before ordering the executions of more men, he is also a loving father and doting husband, and loyal friend. De Niro was brilliant, giving the entire performance with the exception of one line of dialogue in Sicilian. For his masterful performance he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, one of three nominees in the category from the film.
2. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
The first time we see him we know something is off. His attempts to joke fall flat, he does not know how to conduct himself socially, his eyes mask a sense of, what? A quiet desperation? No, we learn Travis Bickel is sliding into madness, a free fall he cannot stop, one that he has no control over happening. A Vietnam veteran, he cannot sleep, instead wandering from cheap porn cinemas day and night, hardcore, triple X porn, the worst kind. He takes a job driving cab at night, “when the animals come out” to the worst parts of town, seeing the worst of the city. He becomes more enraged by what he sees believing New York to be an open toilet and that those walking about at night should be flushed into the sewers. He attempts to date, which ends in disaster, and then fixates on a man running for President. Befriending 12-year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), he tells only her about what he is planning, though vaguely, no real details. Shaving his head into a Mohawk cut, he loads himself up with guns and knives and hits the street to do his work. His attempt to assassinate the candidate is thwarted by the Secret Service, but he mows through the pimps guarding Iris like a hot knife through butter, finally turning his empty revolver on himself in vain. Elevated by the press to hero statues for rescuing Iris, returning her to Minnesota, Travis is soon behind the wheel again. But a glance in the rear-view mirror show his eyes, and we see the madness back, the time bomb is ticking again, to eventually explode. De Niro is astonishing as Travis, seething with anger, resentment, rage, he moves through the film like a time bomb, we know he will go off, we just do not know when. It was a dark, hypnotic performance that firmly established De Niro as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Best Actor awards came from the National Society of Film Critics, and The New York Film Critics and though nominations for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe, he was bested by the late Peter Finch in Network (1976). Rather shameful. One of the most terrifying characters ever committed to the screen.
1. RAGING BULL (1980)
Best by a hair, and tomorrow I might argue for Taxi Driver as his greatest. One of the most remarkable performances, transformations in film history. As middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, De Niro was trained by LaMotta himself who announced proudly in peak condition De Niro could have fought anyone he did and not looked out of place. To portray the fighter in the latter third, he gained 80 pounds of fat, causing breathing troubles, impacting his health negatively, but allowing for a transformative performance. LaMotta was known as the Bronx Bull for his manner of hitting with savage brutality and being able to take a punch. He would fight Sugar Ray Robinson several times, and though LaMotta knocked him out, Robinson, though delivering a savage beating, never knocked LaMotta down or out. The film traces his career as he headed towards the championship, then losing the title, gaining weight, retiring, operating a bar where he was arrested for serving minors and it was suspected he was having sex with minors. In the opening credits, Scorsese foreshadows what the film is about as we watch LaMotta shadow box in the ring. He was at war with his inner demons all his life. Extraordinary performances from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are highlights, but this was De Niro’s film and his performance was devastating in its visceral power. His Jake raged through life as he did in the ring, unable to control his pathological jealousy or ferocious temper. He would drive two wives from his life and his brother, who also managed him, accusing the younger LaMotta of sleeping with his wife. It is a tough film to watch, in the near 40 years since its release I have screened it just five times, it is a punishing dark force of a film driven by De Niro’s ferocity. He won all the major critics awards, LA, Boston, NY and the Golden Globe, completing the sweep with an Oscar for Best Actor. All richly deserved as De Niro inhabited Jake LaMotta with every fibre of his being.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.