It is fair to say that Robert De Niro is an acting institution; so great is he in some of his performances that one would not hesitate to place him among the best actors of his generation, and even of all time. Despite taking on some questionable roles over the last decade and a half, De Niro has fashioned a career that stretches over six decades and includes a string of truly iconic, utterly sublime performances. His actor-director partnership with Martin Scorsese – currently represented by nine films; here’s hoping for that elusive tenth – rightly stands beside the likes of Ford and Wayne, Kurasawa and Mifune, and Herzog and Kinski as one of the great collaborations in film’s history. Together, the infamous pair went on to make such iconic classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, and Casino. It is a testament to De Niro’s significance as a performer that those films only represent a handful of the masterpieces he is associated with.
For an actor so universally beloved, it’s sad to say that his career can essentially be split in two: pre- and post-The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. While not unanimously panned as many would like to think – it holds 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, ample praise when compared to the 4% of positive reviews that 2003’s ironically titled Godsend went on to garner – Rocky & Bullwinkle represents a watershed moment in De Niro’s career when he appeared more content to send himself up, cash in easy paycheques, and leave behind the critical glory of his former years.
Born in 1943, Robert De Niro spent his younger years growing up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy areas of Manhattan, New York City. As the son of painter and poet Virginia Admiral and painter and sculptor Robert De Niro, Sr., De Niro grew up among the arts and began acting at a young age. De Niro, like fellow method actor Marlon Brando some years before, was taught at New York’s famous Stella Adler Conservatory and later the Actors Studio run by iconic method acting instructor Lee Strasberg. Before his break in 1973 with fellow New-Yorker Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, De Niro starred in a collection of independent films, most notably Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama, Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, and John D. Hancock’s Bang the Drum Slowly which won De Niro acclaim for his performance as a dying baseball player.
Means Streets, however, marked the real beginning of De Niro’s ascent. Co-starring Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorsese and De Niro’s first masterpiece is a gritty tale of crime and morality on the streets of Little Italy. Despite providing an excellent audition for the role of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola chose to use De Niro as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II; De Niro was incendiary in the role and went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble. Two years later, in 1976, Scorsese and De Niro teamed up once again for Taxi Driver. Beside winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Actor (De Niro’s first nomination for the main prize) and has gone on to be regarded as one of the finest films of all time; De Niro’s terrifying performance as deranged vigilante loner Travis Bickle remains one of the actor’s definitive moments. The star continued to garner acclaim in Michael Cimino’s Best Picture-winning opus The Deer Hunter while courting riskier material in Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated 1900 and Scorsese’s nearly disastrous jazz musical New York, New York; by the decade’s end De Niro was already one of the most respected names in the industry.
If the 1970s were kind to De Niro, the 1980s were arguably even kinder. The actor opened the decade playing Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, delivering one of the great performances of all time. The role brought him his first (and last, for now) Best Actor Oscar. Scorsese’s bruising boxing biopic is not only one of the greatest works of film, De Niro’s performance in it is second to none. Over the course of the decade De Niro would go on to star in a number of great movies including Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Roland Joffé’s The Mission, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run. As great as those films are there is only one 1980s De Niro film that can hold a torch to Raging Bull or Taxi Driver: Sergio Leone’s operatic gangster masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America. Leone’s epic is a work of perennial genius and at least as good as The Godfather, a film that often overshadows it.
Proving once again that De Niro knows how to open a decade in style, De Niro and Scorsese returned in 1990 with Goodfellas. Recently celebrating its 25th birthday, Goodfellas remains one of the star’s most iconic roles and a canon text in the gangster genre. Over the course of the 90s De Niro had memorable roles in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Casino, Michael Mann’s Heat (in which he performed opposite Al Pacino for the first time), James Mangold’s Cop Land, and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, not to mention his directorial debut A Bronx Tale (his second directorial feature The Good Shepherd came over a decade later and proved far less popular). Although De Niro had successfully proved that he could handle comedy in Midnight Run in 1988, turn of the century films such as Analyze That and Meet the Parents suggested that the actor was segueing towards lighter material.
2000-onwards might well stand as the weakest era of the actor’s career, but that reflection only serves to reaffirm the enduring quality of what came before it. While an unprecedented string of flops was starting to emerge – the less said about Showtime the better – there remains flickering embers of hope upon his slowly saturating CV. While the sequels were increasingly tiresome, the first Meet the Parents film is not without its moments, and a self-reflexive turn in Stardust does amuse within a generally enjoyable family film. With these drastic changes of tone in mind, it could be said that the actor we knew and loved is but a memory? Well, we shouldn’t be saying that just yet. It is clear that De Niro works best when paired with an equally great director and great material. In David O. Russell, De Niro might have found a creative partnership to fuel his considerable talents. His Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook and his explosive, film-stealing cameo in American Hustle are fond reminders of what the actor can achieve when gifted the right material – here’s hoping that Russell and De Niro’s next collaboration Joy (co-starring Jennifer Lawrence, Russell’s current muse) can continue this trend. While initial reports suggest that De Niro’s upcoming comedy The Intern is for the most part middle-of-the-road, one can hope that there is more greatness on the horizon, not to mention a Scorsese/De Niro reunion project – here’s hoping, cross everything! In light of his truly wonderful golden years, no film on De Niro’s CV is unforgivable. Sure, he might no longer be offering the consistent greatness he once did, but who doesn’t enjoy a fewer lighter acting gigs as they enter their autumn years? If anyone’s earned a break, it’s De Niro. Of course, it is never too late for a renaissance, and we might yet see him deliver another masterful performance. De Niro is without question one of the greatest living actors; to see him at his best is to witness the heights that film is capable of reaching. For that, we will always be in awe of his inimitable brilliance.
Top 5 Robert De Niro Films:
Raging Bull (1980) – Scorsese and De Niro’s fourth partnership is one of the great experiences of film. Exquisitely beautiful, ferociously brutal, hauntingly heart-wrenching, this is cinema at its best.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Only beaten by Raging Bull for the fact that the former film offers a more perfect De Niro performance, Once Upon a Time in America is perhaps the best film the actor ever starred in, after all it is perhaps one of the best films ever made. Once Upon a Time in America plays like an epic poem, it is sublime.
Taxi Driver (1976) – De Niro’s Travis Bickle is one of the great screen creations, a character who is all the more terrifying for how resolutely human he is. A vital work of New Hollywood, Scorsese’s paranoid vision of the city at breaking point remains a striking classic nearly 40 years after its release.
Heat (1995) – Beside the intricately choreographed heist setpieces, Michael Mann’s masterstroke here was his decision to cast De Niro opposite Al Pacino. Heat remains one of the great action films of the 1990s and its influence can still be felt in films such as The Dark Knight.
Midnight Run (1988) – This entry is included in part to demonstrate De Niro’s often under-appreciated range. Yes, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, Brazil, The Mission, and Goodfellas are, without question, better films, but rather than fill this list with predictable celebrations of his genius, here is Midnight Run, a film that brilliantly illustrates the actor’s knack for both action and comedy.