A Robert De Niro Baker’s Dozen

Over the past fifty years, name the actors with longest, box office successful and most honored careers: Nicholson, Caine, Hackman, Streep, Fonda and De Niro.

Let’s look at Robert De Niro and thirteen must see De Niro performances.

If you glance at the list, you see a lot of omissions. No Mean Streets, The Irishman, Casino, Heat, The Mission, The King of Comedy or Cape Fear. Nope. This is not a list of his top-rated films. These are films with great De Niro roles that showcase his versatile style. I picked them each for a reason. Some of these films represent a role he has played numerous times, so I pick a film to illustrate a repeated type of role. No slight to those other films, but why mention the same type of role, several times, unless I do so part part of that one film review.  De Niro has received very positive comments about The Irishman, but I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t review the role.

Robert De Niro is the American version of Michael Caine, he can’t seem to turn down any film offer.  De Niro has made some wretched films, but thankfully, those have been in the minority of his vast filmography.

The films below are not in any order.

Godfather II  This film that made De Niro a star. A Best Supporting Oscar. A very measured performance as young Vito Corleone. There was glamour in this role, partially by the production, but mostly what De Niro brought to the character. De Niro became young Vito, in as much as he would merge with  Jake La Motta.  To prepare for the role, De Niro lived in Sicily, almost all of his dialogue was in Sicilian.  He used footage of Brando to get accustomed to how he moved, since he was playing a much younger version of him.  De Niro had actually auditioned for the role of Sonny Corleone for the first film.

“Do me this favor. I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me. They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor.”

Corleone. Vito Corleone.

Analyze This The first of the numerous films that gave De Niro a chance to play off of his legacy. He turned his tough guy mobster into a sympathetic and humorous character. Had he not played those other characters as he did, this role would have been humorous, but not really funny. The sequel was less funny. Hard to create the freshness.

Dr. Ben Sobel : You don’t hear the word “no” a lot, do you?

Boss Paul Vitti : Well, I hear it all the time, only it’s more like “no, please, no!”

Paul Vitti taking out some of his aggression with his analyst looking on.

Meet the Parents Again, De Niro gets to play off of past characters, tough and detail anal. That he was paranoid and over the top was part of the charm. The intensity of his character was out of place for the situation, which is why it worked. The sequels were really unnecessary but they sold tickets.

“I have nipples Greg, could you milk me?”

Performing a lie detector test on his daughter’s boyfriend.

Ronin  Part of a group formed to pull a heist, things are not what they seem. De Niro’s character is not the group leader but as the group splinters, he assumes a leadership role. He’s coolly calculating, his background is never really explained, and later it is revealed he is a CIA agent. There is so much going on that is unexplained, the audience relies on De Niro’s character for the story’s foundation. De Niro’s casting gave the film panache and box office appeal.

Spence : You ever kill anybody?

Sam : I hurt somebody’s feelings once.



Some people bring a gun to a gunfight, De Niro brings a rocket launcher

Cop Land De Niro plays a supporting role in an ensemble story with Stallone as the nominal lead. De Niro plays an internal affairs officer who asks for help in busting up a group of dishonest cops. De Niro’s character is unsympathetic, impatience and not without a manipulative trick or two. He’s willing to stand up to crooked cops but you have to be all in. De Niro isn’t given much to do, the character and motivation are limited, but De Niro digs in and makes butter from milk.

“See sheriff, I got a sticky problem. My jurisdiction ends, in a sense, at the George Washington Bridge. But half the men I watch live beyond that bridge, where no one’s watching”

De Niro looking about as square and style-challenged as possible.

Mean Streets  Travis Bickle is one of De Niro’s signature roles. Playing these damaged characters who live outside of society, who can be menacing, or manipulative, fill another kind of De Niro role. The 1970s was full of these meaty, anti-social roles. De Niro, Pacino and Nicholson grabbed these roles. Bickle is unhinged, but De Niro would find deeper, more twisted characters to play, but what a lead-off crazy.

“Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.”

“You talkin’ to me?  Okay, just asking.”

Awakenings  One of De Niro’s most unusual roles. Playing Leonard, a catatonic patient, with medication he is “awakened” from his state. De Niro must navigate various physiological states of mind and physical afflictions as he wakes to a seemingly normal life but begins to backslide into personality and physical spams and tics as his body returns to a catatonic state. Aside from the physical challenges, De Niro mastered the emotional journey from making plans for a new life and love, to realizing that will never be possible.

“Read the newspaper. What does it say? All bad. It’s all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded.”

Better living through chemistry.  In this case, it was only temporary.

Goodfellas Or Casino, but I would pick one or the other. The mob role is well-worn by De Niro. These characters are very precise in their functions, they do what the do very well, and when the world doesn’t act the way he expects it to, there’s trouble. As Jimmy, De Niro is quite the mob boss, he orchestrates many crimes and even more murders. This not as showy a role as others in the film, but he is the straw that stirs this film.

“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”

Three guys trying to figure out how to dispose of a body.

Untouchables A psychopath in a suit. De Niro chews some scenery as Al Capone in his battle with Elliot Ness. He gained weight for the role, kind of an older Jake La Motta with a very bad attitude. Instead of a cerebral role De Niro goes for the visceral approach. Capone is arrogant and crass.  If you see him pick up a baseball bat, head for the door.

“When you got an all-out prizefight, you wait until the fight is over, one guy is left standing. ‘N’ that’s how you know who won.”

“Does this color make me look fat?”

Falling in Love  De Niro in a love story, albeit, an unusual one. De Niro in a love story? Playing a successful architect, but quietly unhappy, he meets a woman on a train and develops a friendship that turns into a failed affair. His character’s marriage unravels and he admits the relationship, although events keep them apart. His character moves to another city to start over, and in the meantime his friend’s marriage also ends. On a trip back to the city, he happens to run into her, unaware of her changes situation. Instead of realizing they can reconnect, they say goodbye, but he catches up to her. De Niro’s character is subdued, almost to the point of boring. He is sleepwalking through life. You have to look for subtleties in his his performance, but they are there.  You might have to hunt for this film.

Molly Gilmore (Streep) : [talking to Isabelle about Frank (De Niro]  “No, I think about him every day. Last thought before I fall asleep and first thought when I wake up. I talk to myself all day about him, even when I’m talking to somebody else, even when I’m talking to you now I’m talking to myself about him. Brian thinks I’m ill, he thinks that it has to do with my father, he thinks the stress and, you know, all that… Thinks I’m having a breakdown, but I’m not, there’s nothing wrong with me. Except that I love him.”

“How’s come we never worked together again?”

The Deer Hunter  De Niro’s character is somewhat like Vito Corleone, in that Michael is the quiet, but strong spine of his community of friends. He’s the leader. In a story where his friends are destroyed by war, Michael is able to navigate the challenges to try and save them. He has the less showy role, he represents the traditional values of the people of the region he grew up, honor, sacrifice and patriotism – even when the results are confusing.

“You wanna play games? All right, I’ll play your fucking games.”

The film’s little known sequel: Looking For Bigfoot

Raging Bull  I hated this film, but I loved De Niro’s performance. Here’s a guy who inhabited Jake La Motta’s character. From chiseled fighter to soft and gregarious old man. De Niro’s brutality was hard to watch and the film was painfully painful, but it’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors. De Niro was awarded a Best Acting Oscar.

“I get ya’s both in the ring, I’ll give ya both a fuckin’ beatin’, ya both can fuck each other.”

There may be blood.

A Bronx Tale De Niro takes a supporting role, but he’s also the director, his first time. De Niro plays a working class father, whose son is tempted by the neighborhood crime boss and must decide what kind of person he wants to be. De Niro as his bus driver father, is earnest in this unglamorous role, who puts him at odds with his son. De Niro’s character is willing to stand up to the boss over his son’s future. Not a showy role but a solid film.

“Sometimes in the heat of passion, the little head tells the big head what to do, and the big head should think twice about what you are doing.”

Actors who also wrote and directed the film.

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