At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
In this month’s retrospective we reflect on the career of one of Hollywood’s most prolific and versatile actors. With a career spanning from the late 60’s to today, Robert De Niro has played characters that range from culturally iconic to downright silly. We look back on the entirety of this diverse range of acting performances.
Mean Streets (1973)
By Ben McDonald
One of De Niro’s great early performances came in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 Mean Streets. Playing low-life criminal Johnny Boy, De Niro brings an undeniably charismatic swagger and bravado to the role despite its relative simplicity. Johnny Boy is a punk and a debtor, one who seems to always owe money to everyone at every time. It becomes abundantly clear that his foolish behavior will easily put an early cap on his life expectancy, but Johnny Boy doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. His self-destructive confidence is positively mesmerizing as he taunts dangerous gangsters with a mischievous glint in his eye. Though Johnny Boy is admittedly a shallow character against the likes of Jimmy from Goodfellas or Ace from Casino, De Niro’s magnetic, almost Brando-esque screen presence makes Mean Streets one of his most unforgettably charming appearances.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
By Matt Schlee
Few films are as ubiquitously well regarded as the first two entries in The Godfather series. Virtually any more-than-casual fan of movies has had the debate of which they prefer. For me this is a decision between two Vito Corleones: Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro (an impossible choice to say the least). De Niro took on the task of emulating Brando, one of early Hollywood’s greatest method actors, as one of his first major roles. Playing the young version of Brando’s mafia patriarch, De Niro shocked everyone and became an instant star. Though he wasn’t entirely typecast, the role did set the stage for a prolific career of gangster roles.
Sandwiched between performances in two classic Scorsese films (Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), The Godfather still manages to stand out as one of the most iconic entries in De Niro’s filmography. Though he played mobsters in many films over the years, none were as understated as young Vito. Perhaps it’s because Vito’s backstory was as much the classic tale of the American immigrant as that of a crime boss. There is little doubt that without this performance, De Niro’s career would’ve unfolded very differently.
Raging Bull (1980)
By Alex Sitaras
Raging Bull is one of those films where you can credit the actor just as much as the director for the film’s success. The film is a boxing film directed by Scorsese yet he despised boxing as a sport. Raging Bull came into fruition after Robert De Niro repeatedly badgered Scorsese until he agreed to direct the film. And to great effect.
Robert De Niro stars as Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer whose self-destructive habits eventually take the best of him. We see De Niro undergo a body transformation for the role given that the film shows both LaMotta at the peak of his career and when retired as a performer at a comedy club. De Niro gained 75 pounds- assisted by a food tour through Europe- to play the retired LaMotta, the production of Raging Bull shut down until De Niro gained this weight (read: fat). Apart from De Niro’s body transformation, he trained with the real Jake LaMotta and the sport came naturally to him. De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull as well as his camaraderie with Joe Pesci as Joey LaMatta went on to inform Mark Wahlberg’s performance in another superb boxing drama, David O. Russell’s The Fighter.
The King of Comedy (1982)
By George Morris
Martin Scorsese’s pitch-black The King of Comedy failed to find an audience upon initial release, yet it’s picked up an oddly profound nature (worryingly so) thanks to contemporary fan culture and the rise of the internet. At center stage of course is Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin (often misspelled or mispronounced) as the child-like and deranged struggling stand-up comedian who kidnaps a late-night talk-show host in a misplaced effort to secure himself some screen time.
Pupkin is almost an extension Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, another obsessive who becomes consumed by the presence of an individual. But where Bickle knew what he was doing, Pupkin is the exact opposite. He lies and bluffs his way through a series of meetings with his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and is so caught up with the perfect imaginary scenarios within his head that he refuses to believe real-life could happen any other way. It’s a surprisingly deep character study and a testament to De Niro that he doesn’t go too far with his performance, especially at a time in his career where he was known for his more ruthless roles. The sense of entitlement and superiority is achingly real throughout, and the audience is often left wondering how far Rupert’s willing to go in order to achieve his goal. Watching the film back recently it’s frightening how plausible the whole concept is, we’ve all met an extension of De Niro’s Pupkin and can certainly identify the traits to look out for. It makes me wonder if De Niro knows something that we don’t…
By Kevin Jones
Brazil, the second part of Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination”, tells the story of a middle-aged man trapped in a bureaucratic and dystopian world undoubtedly inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Along the way, this man, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), encounters Archibald “Harry” Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Tuttle worked for a company known as “Central Services” that seemingly works on household items, including air ducts. However, he now works off-the-books in order to avoid paperwork, intercepting service calls, and arriving before Central Services can get there. He is also a suspected terrorist.
Compared to many of De Niro’s most famed roles, his turn in Brazil is far less serious. Though Gilliam’s film depicts a dystopian and overall suffocating society, the film is nonetheless filled with Gilliam’s trademark oddity and whimsy. De Niro feeds off of this perfectly. As he informs Sam as to who he is, what he is doing with his air ducts, and his relationship with Central Services early on in the film, he practically makes Sam’s head spin. The facial expressions and rapid delivery by De Niro capture the odd nature of the character, while also tapping into the oddity of the world around him. Later, as Tuttle winds up in the middle of the action, tries to help Sam in his mission to find the woman he dreamt of, and even winds up being literally consumed by paper, De Niro always brings a fun and whimsical energy that shows his range. He is somewhat of a comedic figure here, leaning into the insanity of the world around him to great effect while his facial expressions only add further to the character’s charm. While his character is quite small – De Niro had initially wanted a different role, but due to prior promises and De Niro’s willingness to be involved in any way possible, he wound up in this role – it is a testament to De Niro’s skill that Tuttle remains so memorable. He brings so much to the table, it is hard to not take notice, no matter how small the role.
The Untouchables (1987)
By Dalton Mullins
When talking about De Niro’s best performances, his explosive and violent portrayal of Al Capone in The Untouchables hardly gets mentioned. Despite his impressive list of performances, this one is often unfairly neglected and ignored. That has always struck me as odd. De Niro continually draws you in and steals most of the scenes he’s in. He’s an absolute force in every scene. De Niro is well-known for his gangster roles and this is quite simply, one of his best.
Al Capone is the ringleader of an illegal alcohol smuggling and distributing operation in Prohibition era Chicago and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is trying to arrest and convict him. Capone and his gang have handsomely payed off the police force, so Ness is forced to handpick his own group of lawmen. Capone is unafraid to use violence to command other to do his bidding. He walks around in the finest clothes surrounded by a bevy of armed cronies and henchmen. Robert De Niro disappears into the role. He manages to perfectly mix Capone’s arrogance and hotheadedness with his cold, calculating mind. Then in moments of extreme tension, De Niro detonates and takes the film to another level such as the moment he takes a baseball bat to one of his errant and untrustworthy subordinates. The Untouchables often gets lost in the shuffle of Brian De Palma‘s extensive filmography, but it’s a film worth watching and remembering. Robert De Niro’s performance is one of the main reasons why.
By Nick Adrian
Martin Scorsese’s penultimate crime drama has endeared critics and audiences for years, due in no small part to its ensemble cast that includes Robert De Niro in one of his most acclaimed performances. As James “Jimmy the Genty” Conway, inspired by real-life gangster James Burke, De Niro takes his uncanny ability of playing villainous roles to another level. A lesser actor would have fallen into the mix of such an impeccably cast film that also includes an iconic performance by Joe Pesci, but De Niro holds his own with ease.
An excellent example of his acting power is evident in the scene where Conway is watching fellow mobster Morrie walk into the bar. As his eyes follow his prey, Conway devises a plan to sabotage an upcoming heist in order to pocket the money himself. The mood grows cold and uncomfortable as the camera slowly zooms in on De Niro as he smokes a cigarette almost in sync to Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. Dialogue isn’t necessary, for everything the viewer needs to know about Conway’s intentions is evident in his eyes. Scorsese himself likened Conway to a wolf in this particular scene, sizing out his victim before making the attack. Robert De Niro is truly frightening in this role and it’s a wonder that more characters were not watching their backs.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)
By Matt Schlee
Yes, I’m serious! Maybe The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is not an iconic film. Maybe it is not even a good film. However, for this critic it was a formative piece of my childhood, and I will happily die on the hill of calling for this movie’s reappraisal. Calling on the nostalgia of the once-beloved kids’ show, the movie captures the spirit of Rocky and Bullwinkle while dwelling in the type of meta, self-referential humor that audiences weren’t ready to appreciate.
De Niro’s role in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was the familiar character of the head of a crime syndicate. In this case he played Fearless Leader: the Russian mob boss who instructed grunts and Rocky and Bullwinkle’s primary antagonists Boris and Natasha. Though his screen time was limited, the blending of absurdist humor with a familiar archetype makes for a fun performance. Plus it gave De Niro the opportunity to revisit his famous “Are you talking to me?” line to much hilarity for those viewers who were in on the joke.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
By Ian Floodgate
The turn of this century has seen De Niro take on more lighthearted roles and one that stands out is his portrayal as Pat Sr. in David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook. The film explores mental illness and obsession with De Niro’s on-screen son played by Bradley Cooper having been recently released from a mental institution seeking to win back the affections of his estranged wife and ends up enlisting help from Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) a young woman with problems of her own. De Niro’s character is also part of the film’s exploration into obsession as he has lucky charms and rituals that he believes help the Philadelphia Eagles win. Pat Sr. sees his actions as healthy and perfectly normal behaviour whereas others view it as obsessive. For me, the joy is in the way De Niro displays these characteristics. They are subtle but distinctive and give added depth to his performance. It was a performance that earned De Niro has seventh acting Academy Award nomination and his first for over twenty years proving he still has the ability to encapsulate audiences.
The Intern (2015)
By Gregory Canzio
The Intern may not be what immediately comes to mind when thinking about De Niro’s extensive catalog of films yet it contains one of his best recent performances to date. While audiences have seen De Niro play many “tough guy” roles throughout his career, his outing as Ben Whittaker in Nancy Meyer’s 2015 The Intern, shows a much softer side from the multi-time Oscar winner. With a performance filled with an abundance of warmth, heart, and humor, De Niro is a standout as he effortlessly showcases his diverse range as an actor.
The Intern follows a retired widower named Ben (De Niro) as he looks to fill in an empty part of his life by accepting a senior internship position at an e-commerce fashion company called About the Fit. Ben gets paired with Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) – the busy founder of About the Fit – in which Ben’s role as an intern transforms into a friendship. There is a great amount of chemistry between De Niro and fellow Oscar winner Hathaway as the unorthodox friendship between Ben and Jules comes off genuinely authentic. For those looking to dive into De Niro’s filmography, The Intern is a feel-good entry that is suitable for most ages. If you don’t want to take my word for it, director Quentin Tarantino named The Intern as one of his favorite films of 2015. Now that’s an endorsement.