To see Robert De Niro at his best is to be aware of a new capacity in the art of cinema,’ wrote the actor’s biographer John Baxter. Such was the excellence of this actor. His legendary methods of embodying a role made him the best among the pantheon of performers. Born in August 1943 to artistic parents, De Niro grew up in Greenwich Village, NYC. His first acting role was at the age of 10 as the Cowardly Lion in a school production The Wizard of Oz. He dropped out of high school to study acting, and eventually studied under Stella Adler.
Early in his acting career, De Niro got the chance to work with director Brian de Palma in three films. It was said that the salary for each of his roles was 50 dollars. Couple of decades later, he played Al Capone, an extended cameo role in Palma’s The Untouchables. He was paid 2 million dollars! Such was the extraordinary and electrifying rise of De Niro. From the mid-1990s, the actor was in too many mediocre films, and later in downright bad films like Dirty Grandpa. But that brilliant cameo in Joker and a moving performance in The Irishman show the great actor has still got it in him. So, here goes my ranking of 20 best Robert De Niro performances. From Jimmy Conway To Travis Bickle, there are too many to choose from:
20. The Last Tycoon (1976)
Elia Kazan’s last film The Last Tycoon was based on Scott Fitzgerald’s incomplete, last novel. The story revolves around young Hollywood studio boss Monroe Stahr. Stahr was based on 1930s MGM executive Irving Thalberg. Apart from De Niro, the film has a terrific A-list cast including Jeanne Moreau, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, and Jack Nicholson. Despite the presence of great names, The Last Tycoon isn’t a very enjoyable, lively film. Yet, it must be watched for the way De Niro shoulders the narrative with his quiet, brooding performance. It’s one of the most brilliant non-acting roles of De Niro, that never gets dull.
19. A Bronx Tale (1993)
A Bronx Tale marks the directorial debut of De Niro. The script, which was written by actor Chazz Palminteri, was based on the actor’s Broadway show. Set in the 1960s Bronx, the film deals with the corruptive influence of the mafia on the youth. De Niro plays a supporting role as the father who attempts to save his teenage son from a life of crime. It’s an interesting film and a performance since De Niro has often played glamorized gangster characters. Here he intensely expresses the anxieties and fears of a working class dad, who is afraid of losing his son.
18. Awakenings (1990)
Among the long-standing history of memorable performances, De Niro’s turn as catatonic patient Leonard pulls at our heart strings. Robin Williams offers a low-key performance as Dr. Sayer, who has partial success with his severe catatonic patient. The moving episodes of the film involve middle-aged Leonard rediscovering the world around him. It was a very physically demanding role and De Niro nails little twitches and tics of the character. One of my favorite scenes involves De Niro’s Leonard meeting young Paula (Penelope Ann Miller). The drug that has cured his catatonia has caused unstoppable muscular tics. During their meeting, Leonard awkwardly twitches, until she takes his hand and starts to dance. The tics gradually stop, my tears didn’t.
17. New York, New York (1977)
New York, New York is among the forgettable Martin Scorsese films. But it’s watchable for the surprise factor, i.e., Scorsese making a dramatic musical with De Niro playing a love-struck jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Doyle. This is the odd one out among the director-actor collaborations, since De Niro mostly played a crazy sociopath or a ruthless gangster. Though not a great film, De Niro as usual committed himself to playing this role. He really learned the saxophone, at least enough to play for the film. His overall performance alongside a terrific Liza Minnelli stands out in the film. It earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
16. The Untouchables (1987)
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino made a name for themselves playing tough guy roles. In De Palma’s extravagant blockbuster, De Niro plays the famous psychopath gangster Al Capone. From Jason Robards, Rod Steiger to Tom Hardy, good actors have embodied the role of Capone. De Niro’s Capone is full of bluster and deadly menace. Kevin Costner and Sean Connery play the force of light and goodness. But the narrative’s dark beating heart was De Niro’s chilling villainy. Rage boils beneath his cool-headed exterior. Look out for the dinner party scene and the way he recklessly swings the baseball bat.
15. This Boy’s Life (1993)
Set in the 1950s, This Boy’s Life marks the first lead-role for young Leonardo Di Caprio. It tells the tale of a 15-year old boy Tobias and his mother who lead a nomadic existence. The mother marries a man named Dwight, who turns out to be abusive. De Niro plays Di Caprio’s physically abusive stepdad. The series of confrontations between Tobias and Dwight become the central narrative premise. De Niro, though plays a very unlikeable character, doesn’t portray Dwight as a monster. We get to understand his character’s insecurities and low self-esteem though it doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior. Di Caprio and De Niro once again shared screen space in the 1996 drama Marvin’s Room.
14. Cape Fear (1991)
In Scorsese’s gritty remake of the 1962 thriller, Robert De Niro plays his darkest role Max Cady, a convicted rapist on a vengeful path. Staying true to his method acting approach, De Niro hit the gym for six months before the shoot. He trained 2-3 hours a day to get the toughened body of an inmate. And he doesn’t flex his muscles just for the sake of it. De Niro uses the daunting physicality to bring out a terrifying performance. Even when playing a bad guy, there would be something benign or appealing about the actor’s malevolence. But, here he totally makes us hate his character. The ‘face-biting’ sequence with Illeana Douglas still remains a shocker (it took 2 days to finish the scene).
13. Jackie Brown (1997)
De Niro has a penchant for playing inexpressive characters, for whom physical violence becomes the sole form of communication. De Niro’s ex-con Louis Gara in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown isn’t overtly volatile like Scorsese’s characters. Yet, Louis shares the inexpressive and introspective nature of his previous great roles. On the other hand, Louis was too quiet and passive so as to be an ineffective loser. His character always remains in the shadow, providing perfect counter-point to Samuel Jackson’s rambunctious presence. Although Jackson is the scene-stealer, De Niro’s deeply understated turn increasingly fascinated me in repeat viewings. His glazed, opaque looks are so satisfying to watch.
12. Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets marks the first of seven incredible movie collaborations between Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. The film opens with famous Scorsese voiceover, ‘You don’t make up for your sins in Church…’ which brilliantly sets up protagonist Charlie’s inner life. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time mobster, collecting protection money in New York’s Little Italy. Robert De Niro plays one of Charlie’s men named Johnny Boy, a volatile young guy. De Niro and Keitel’s performances are masterclass in opposite character types. Case in point: the scene when Keitel takes aside frivolous De Niro to talk about the responsibilities he needs to face.
11. Midnight Run (1988)
Like every other great 70s American actor, De Niro’s position in the mainstream cinema became unclear by the late 1980s. Martin Brest’s brilliant buddy comedy Midnight Run, however, turned De Niro into a bankable ‘star’. Although the film looks like an ordinary genre film, De Niro’s channeling of his distinct talents elevates it to cult status. The actor plays Jack Walsh, an ex-cop and down-on-luck bounty hunter. Jack’s new assignment revolves around the capture of ‘The Duke’, a gentleman accountant who donated mob money to a charity. Of course, the unexpected partnering of the actors results in a truly hilarious, unfeigned chemistry.
10. The Irishman (2019)
Robert De Niro has undergone many great physical transformations early in his career. For Scorsese’s The Irishman, the transformation wasn’t just in the hands of De Niro, but also made possible by Hollywood’s top visual-effects and makeup artists. One can complain that the de-ageing technique is somewhat distracting, and has had an adverse impact on De Niro’s performance. There’s some truth to it. Yet De Niro gave his best to play the cryptic mob hitman, Frank Sheeran. There are lots of subtly powerful moments in his performance, the most memorable being his phone call with Hoffa’s wife and the ‘It is what it is’ scene. You can catch The Irishman on Netflix.
9. Heat (1995)
In Michael Mann’s mega-intense crime thriller, Robert De Niro’s no-nonsense high-skilled thief is pitted against Al Pacino’s compulsive, workaholic detective. The two great actors previously appeared in The Godfather Part II. But, it was only in Heat they shared screen space. Although they appear together for less than 10 minutes, it was incredible to watch these two, gazing and conversing with each other. De Niro delivers a powerful, low-key performance compared to Pacino’s equally good, but a boisterous performance. He beautifully showcases his character’s quiet desperation, beneath the cool-as-ice persona, throughout his romance with Amy Brenneman’s Eady. Watch Heat on Amazon Prime.
8. Goodfellas (1990)
It is strange to see De Niro-Scorsese collaborate where two other actors happen to be the focal point of the narrative. De Niro’s Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas doesn’t get the chance to flex his gangster muscles. But the actor, as always, puts his distinct stamp on the character. Jimmy is refined and a master at expressing smooth ruthlessness, balancing the blazing acts of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito. From the earlier posture of coolly holding a cigarette to the part where he turns paranoid, De Niro’s Jimmy remains as terrifying as Tommy. He delivers one of the movie’s best lines: ‘Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut’. Goodfellas is streaming on Netflix.
7. Once Upon a Time In America (1984)
In Sergio Leone’s gangster epic, De Niro plays Jewish gangster David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson. Most part of the narrative unfolds in flashback as mellow, middle-aged Noodles looks back at his snappy past. He visits the place of his past to make sense of his own explosive story. Robert De Niro gives a richly textured performance, his placid face a reflection of the wrong turns he took in his life. Although we don’t see the three-decade ‘exile’ of Noodles, De Niro brilliantly carries the weight of it. Above all, the great actor’s haunting smile in the opium den is one of the best cinematic images of a guilty conscience.
6. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s emotionally shattering movie of the Vietnam-war era owes its success to the ensemble cast including Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, Cazale, and De Niro. The film tells the story of a group of Pennsylvania steel company workers, some of who have joined the marines. De Niro plays Michael, the leader of small group. He is a pragmatic guy who is livelier when hunting deer on the mountains. Michael exemplifies De Niro’s versatility and the depth he brings to a character. Though the film became famous for the intense Russian roulette sequence, the biggest highlight is De Niro’s reflective stance. The emotional intimacy he shares with Streep’s character is astounding to watch.
5. Casino (1995)
Martin Scorsese’s Casino does feel like Goodfellas with Joe Pesci playing a similar role. The film had the standard Scorsese flamboyance, like seen later in Wolf of Wall Street. Yet, the film worked for me, thanks to De Niro’s muted performance as the unlikable Ace Rothstein. Unlike most of De Niro’s tough guy roles, Ace is more of an outsider. He imbues his character with a dead pan quality, providing a perfect vantage point to gaze at the chaos surrounding Ace. From Raging Bull, Joe Pesci proved to be De Niro’s best sparring partner. In Casino, apart from Pesci, he had one more sparring partner: Sharon Stone. The instability of the on-screen couples’ relationship is so terrifying. And, the scene where De Niro drags Stone out of the house is still spine-tingling.
4. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Coppola’s sequel to mafia masterpiece presented young De Niro a unique challenge: to play younger Vito Corleone, performed by acting legend Marlon Brando. De Niro effectively succeeded in his challenge, showing incredible nuance. He went on to win an Oscar – Vito Corleone is the only character to give separate actors an Oscar. The role of Godfather was exact opposite of the turbulent Johnny Boy in previous film Mean Streets. De Niro perfectly balances the ruthlessness (behind killing of Don Fanucci) and genuine humanity of his iconic character. Vito’s journey through the streets of Little Italy happens to be the most enjoyable portion in the film.
3. King of Comedy (1983)
In this timeless satire from Scorsese, De Niro plays a creepily funny, aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin. The character could serve as companion to the actor’s more dangerous, obsessive outsider Travis Bickle. De Niro diffuses his character with a cowering stature, irritable grin, and naïve optimism. Pupkin is a narcissist, teetering on the edges of insanity. Yet, thanks to De Niro, he is someone you just can’t bring yourself to hate. This is a wonderful work that exhibits the darker side of the American dream and celebrity culture. Pupkin’s imaginary interviews are both funny and disturbing. In fact, Pupkin’s incessant fantasies will highly resonate in this digital era, as people are evermore desperate to get a piece of the celebrity culture.
2. Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro’s performance as boxer Jake LaMotta is a monumental feat. There are interesting facts like how De Niro participated in real, amateur boxing matches to physically prepare for the role. Or the fact that he put on 55 pounds to play the older Jake LaMotta. But what’s truly great about this performance is the way he wholly encompasses Jake’s psychological profile. Jake’s ugly confrontations in his domestic life (with Pesci’s character) are so realistic you don’t feel you’re watching an actor ‘playing a role.’ The explosion of Jake’s pent-up emotion, on and off the boxing ring, will forever linger as one of the most unsettling performances in cinema.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver drew its story from the genre works of the past – chiefly from Westerns like The Searchers. Paul Schrader’s script and Scorsese’ immaculate direction boiled the story with existential angst. Yet, the film’s daunting success relies on De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle. The actor turns this violent guy into someone we can identify with. His senseless behavior can be attributed to the societal cesspit he inhabits. He is a man who echoes our thoughts about the increasingly phoney nature of ‘reality’. His breathtaking performance, however, also forces you to question the masculine codes and idealization of women. The iconic “you’re talking to me?” scene was an improvisation on part of the actor. The script simply said, “Travis looks in the mirror”.
There’s much to be said about the fall of Robert De Niro’s career. But as one gets old – however great their acting abilities are – good roles tend to dry up. Of course, there were many phoned-in performances from him after the 2000s. Yet he really likes working, and at least from a critical perspective De Niro did offer some good performances in supporting roles. Cue, Silver Linings Playbook and The Intern. There’s another exciting upcoming project he is involved with. Killers of the Flower Moon sees De Niro collaborating once again with Martin Scorsese, and it also has the director’s other frequent collaborator, Leonardo Di Caprio. Eventually, it’s important to remember that the 5-decade plus acting career of Robert De Niro can’t be judged by his bad choices.