Having recently written a piece on Al Pacino, considered by many as one of the heavyweights of acting in cinema, it would be a great disservice not to write a piece on Robert De Niro. That would be like Mick Jagger without Keith Richards, or bourbon without coke!
Born in 1943, De Niro came to prominence in the early Seventies, where roles in films like “Bang The Drum Slowly” and “Mean Streets” bought him to the attention of the world. He continued to shine in challenging, blistering roles throughout the next four decades of cinema. Here are fifteen essential performances from one of the finest actors of his or any other generation.
15. Awakenings (1990)
Sensitively directed by Penny Marshall, this is based on neurologist Oliver Sacks’ memoir of the same name. Robin Williams, in one of his first straight roles, plays an Americanisation of the doctor. De Niro, in one of his more subdued and low key roles, plays a patient that has been in a coma for decades, suddenly awakened by use of the drug L-Dopa.
The almost childlike way in which De Niro takes in the world in this film is a joy to watch. As a viewer, it makes you appreciate those small things in life that make it worth living. This is a classic Hollywood tearjerker of the highest order.
14. The Mission (1986)
Director Roland Joffe, hot off “The Killing Fields”, this is epic, powerful filmmaking in the style of one of the great masters, David Lean. It is written by one of Lean’s frequent collaborators, Robert Bolt. De Niro stars as a mercenary and slaver who, via his contact with Jesuit priests, experiences healing and redemption in his life.
Featuring gorgeous cinematography and one of composer Ennio Morricone’s finest scores, “The Mission” shows a great balance between the physical aspects of the story and the more intimate and personal, buoyed considerably by first rate performances from both De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
13. The Untouchables (1987)
In Brian De Palma’s hugely enjoyable take on the old Fifties television show, De Niro, packing on the pounds again, makes for an absolutely formidable and intimidating foe for Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his crew.
De Niro plays the one and only Al Capone, who rules his criminal empire with an iron fist. Check out the scene when De Niro talks about being a ‘team player’ with his crew, all the while wielding a baseball bat. A truly iconic moment in cinema from the Eighties.
A ballsy, showoff of a performance, De Niro nails this effortlessly, which is perfectly in tune with De Palma’s operatic, over the top directing style-check out the nod to “Battleship Potemkin”, with the sequence on the steps.
12. Angel Heart (1987)
In Alan Parker’s stylish and shocking noir, set in Louisianna in the Fifties, De Niro is a great example of how it’s not the amount of screen time that you have, but how you use it. In “Angel Heart”, he plays Louis Cypher, a mysterious individual who enlists private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke at his sleaziest) to find a missing singer. However, there’s much, much more to it than that.
The sign of how good De Niro is in this film. You feel this sense of dread and unease in your bones when he is both on screen and off. That’s the sign of some great work. Dennis Hopper did something quite similar in the David Lynch masterpiece “Blue Velvet” a year earlier. “Angel Heart” is an underrated entry into the De Niro canon.
11. Midnight Run (1988)
Showing a previously untapped flair for comedy, Robert De Niro plays a bounty hunter charged with bringing in an accountant that has turned against the Mob, played by Charles Grodin.
A classic mismatched buddy film, the chemistry between De Niro and Grodin is nothing short of absolute gold in Martin Brest’s criminally underrated comedy/action film from the late Eighties.
It also had one of the best taglines ever on a movie poster. “The FBI want him alive. The Mob want him dead. Robert De Niro just wants him to shut the !@#$ up!”. Hunt this one down. You can thank me later!
10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
After some years in the cinematic wilderness, making a stream of utterly shit film (“Rocky & Bullwinkle”, anyone?!?), “Silver Linings Playbook” signalled something of a comeback for this fine actor.
With a strong director, David O. Russell, kicking De Niro’s ass every step of the way and refusing to let him coast on past glories, the results were triumphant. De Niro plays the patriarch of the family, Pat Sr. Seeing the mental issues that his son (Bradley Cooper) faces through the course of the story, one sees that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
De Niro is incredibly effective in conveying the mental instability that has plagued his family, particularly the life of his younger son. There is a conviction in his portrayal of a man that has struggled with what could be described as ‘the bipolar life’ that really hits home with the viewer.
It really was a joy to see this performance late in De Niro’s career when just about everyone had written him of as something of a joke and a has been. One hope he continues to put forward performances of this calibre and quality.
9. Mean Streets (1973)
The start of a remarkable partnership with director Martin Scorsese, this was a loose, freewheeling look at life and crime in New York in the early Seventies. De Niro plays Johnny Boy, a reckless criminal on the lower echelon of the scene in the city. De Niro’s hair trigger, ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude and demeanour stay with you long after the end credits roll. This is the performance that made many lovers of cinema sit up, pay attention and as themselves “Who’s this guy?”.