Today screen legend Robert De Niro turns 72 and, what, you didn't get him a present? You may have insulted him “a little bit, a little bit.”
Mr. De Niro (Bob to his friends, but I'm gonna call him Mr. De Niro) was born in lower Manhattan to two artist parents. Here's something you maybe didn't know: he's only one quarter Italian. He went to private schools and caught the acting bug at the age of 10 as the Cowardly Lion in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz.
As a young man he studied at the legendary Stella Adler Conservatory and Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio. He fell in with the “New Hollywood” film brats, discovered by Brian De Palma and was brought to prominence by Francis Ford Coppola. But it's his eight film collaboration with Martin Scorsese for which he's best known. The importance of their work – the John Ford/John Wayne of the second half of the 20th century – can not be overstated. A full 40 percent of our “best 10” list comes from Scorsese films, but to pick otherwise would be a lie. (I'm going to catch enough hell for leaving off their first picture, Mean Streets, but you'll see why as you read on.)
The recent years haven't quite been so kind. De Niro still works a lot, but other than appearing as Bradley Cooper's father in David O. Russell's Silver Lining's Playbook in 2012, this new century hasn't been so spectacular for De Niro. But as one of the films on our list shows, he's a fighter. I suspect he's still got a masterpiece or two left in him.
Hi, Mom! (1970), dir. Brian De Palma
Robert De Niro's first substantial work were the experimental, underground films of Brian De Palma (who would go on to make mainstream fare like Scarface and the first Mission: Impossible, and direct De Niro in The Untouchables.) Hi, Mom! takes De Niro's character from an earlier collaboration, Greetings, and sets him loose in the heart of New York's East Village counter-culture. It's mainly a series of vignettes in which De Niro plays an outsider artist/pervert (he calls it “peep art,” not “pop art.”) There are fantasy sequences in which De Niro is transformed into a 9-to-5 square, and a black-and-white stretch in which he joins the company of a play performing something called “Be Black, Baby,” in which audience members are then hassled by police. Most people would pick Scorsese's Mean Streets as the representative movie from his early days, but Hi, Mom! is one of the most unique films of the era.
The Godfather Part II (1974), dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Looking back now, who else could possibly play young Vito Corleone other than Robert De Niro? But back then, this was the big break he needed. In this film's prequel sequences you'll see the character Marlon Brando played in The Godfather as a humble, wide-eyed immigrant in New York's Little Italy who slowly becomes a criminal mastermind. Watch as he wipes out of the Don Fanucci, the “Black Hand,” then make his vengeance-fueled trip back to Sicily to settle an old score. Set against his son Michael's “current” problems in keeping the family together, you can see why some critics think this is one of the few sequels that's actually better than the first. De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, a matching set against Marlon Brando's two years earlier.
Taxi Driver (1976), dir. Martin Scorsese
Mixing grindhouse and arthouse, this portrayal of urban loneliness is equal parts gritty crime exploitation film and brooding psychological inquiry. No wonder it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival! Travis Bickle is the physical manifestation of young, male, misdirected aggression that's just about ready to blow. Martin Scorsese's camera rides along with him through the disgusting, hellish nightscape of pre-gentrified New York, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Michael Chapman to the haunting melodies of Bernard Herrmann's final film score. Everyone needs to see this movie, but especially young men so they know what not to do on a first date. De Niro was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for this one.
Raging Bull (1980), dir. Martin Scorsese
Much like Taxi Driver was, in a way, a streetwise violence cinema, Raging Bull is basically a sports biopic. But when De Niro and Scorsese were in their stride, they made epic psychological portraits, this time dealing with sexual jealousy, masochism, self-loathing and every other dysfunction in the book. While uncredited, De Niro is said to have essentially rewritten the script himself, and he put his body through the ringer for this one. Production was halted so he could gain 60 pounds to play the older boxing champ Jake LaMotta in his sad, loser years. It got De Niro his second Academy Award, this time for Best Actor.
The King of Comedy (1983), dir. Martin Scorsese
Somewhat overlooked at its initial release, you can look at The King of Comedy as next in a series with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. This time it's a silly, screwball comedy that plunges into a dark psychological territory. De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, the 1983 version of an obsessed Internet commenter, who idolizes a late night talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. He's convinced that if he just gets Jerry's attention, he'll help him become a star. So, he kidnaps him. What's amazing is that while you are repulsed by Pupkin, you also kinda like him, too. It's a masterpiece look at tabloid fantasies.
The Mission (1986), dir. Roland Joffé
Half a world away from all these New York films is Roland Joffé's The Mission, set in the Latin American rainforests in the 1700s. De Niro plays a slaver looking for redemption. He takes a grueling walk to join a missionary (Jeremy Irons) who, we'll soon discover, has been caught in some political horse trading. Will they allow villagers to fall to slavery due to a arbitrary colonial laws, or will they stand for something greater? Warning: this movie gets kinda heavy, but with the location photography and Ennio Morricone's score (one of the best in all of cinema) it's all very well-earned. The Mission won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Cinematography Oscar.
Midnight Run (1988), dir. Martin Brest
The King of Comedy had laughs, but they were dark. Martin Brest's Midnight Run is a straight-up road picture comedy and it's just about perfect. De Niro is a bounty hunter hired by a bail bondsman to grab a white collar criminal in New York and bring him to Los Angeles. The only one who can undo Robert De Niro? Charles Grodin, in his best film role. The odd couple snipe and bicker, with Grodin always scheming to somehow sneak away. With just the slightest tweaks to his weary, tough guy persona, De Niro found that he could win incredible laughs from an audience. The formula was repeated a number of times (and is still going strong) but nothing tops this original.
GoodFellas (1990), dir. Martin Scorsese
It's a little strange. Martin Scorsese's best film has De Niro as something of a side character. Ray Liotta's neophyte entry into the world of crime has De Niro as just one of three characters that guides him to the dark side. Alongside Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci, De Niro's Jimmy “The Gent” Conway is, actually, one of the more calm and collected folks in this mobster's tale. That is until the end, when bodies start showing up on meathooks. It's GoodFellas more than anything that shows just how terrifying De Niro can be just with a wordless glance. (And it helps if shot in slow motion with a classic rock tune thrumming underneath.)
Heat (1995), dir. Michael Mann
The alpha male meet-up of the 1990s. Al Pacino is the cop, Robert De Niro is the criminal and Michael Mann is the director whose sleek California epic puts them head-to-head with all sorts of moral gray area. The machine gun shootout in the streets of LA is one of the best action sequences to appear in what is, otherwise, a fairly cerebral drama. If at some point during this nearly three hour film you think, “Wait, who's the good guy again?” then the movie has done its job.
Meet The Parents (2000), dir. Jay Roach
When picking a ten best for Robert De Niro it would be a little silly to spend too much time in the here and now. (Normally I don't like living in the past, but I'm willing to make an exception.) Still, in an effort to find something at least quasi-current that's worth including, let's go with this dopey comedy. The sequels got kinda dumb, but the first one, in which Ben Stiller's Gaylord Focker ran afoul of his girlfriend's retired CIA badass Dad, is pretty damn entertaining. Best water volleyball scene in cinema, I say.