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The Movie Lover’s Guide to Robert De Niro

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

An exhaustive look at the filmography of one of the finest actors to have appeared in a Rocky and Bullwinkle movie


Robert De Niro — n. An American actor of immeasurable talents with an agent who apparently smokes crack and never declines a script.

For every Taxi Driver-esque role that Robert De Niro has ever played, there’s about five 15 Minutes (Edward Burns must die.)  Yet, I cannot help but lump him in with the best actors to ever grace the silver screen. 

Nicholson … Pacino … Brando … Hoffman … Hanks … Crowe … debate me on this if you must, but those guys can’t hear you because they’ve got Oscars in their ears.  Plus, at least one of them died from a cheeseburger overdose.  

Either way, if Woody Allen gets an entire article, and so does David Lynch, then De Niro deserves to be examined as our 1st actor of great esteem…although I can never decide if I prefer him or Nicholson…hard to say.  Nicholson never made Taxi Driver, but Bobby never made Chinatown.

Going through all these roles, I must say that De Niro has a unique career filled with everything under the sun: a plethora of gangsters, a handful of assholes, and about four or five mentally handicapped and/or physically challenged dudes dealing with their place in life.  Oh, and at least four priests, 27 cops, and an arson investigator.  But God bless him, he is one of the best, and truly an example of how to lead a successful and respectable career in one of the world’s toughest industries as far as longevity is concerned.

Classic Starring Roles

Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle, man of principle.  He’s a strange hybrid of De Niro characters.  He’s quiet and thoughtful, but underneath, psychotic.  Taxi Driver, accordingly, finds plenty of room to inhabit.  It’s also one of the most thoroughly written characters in film history. Paul Schrader developed the story after living in—was it San Francisco?—for months when he realized he hadn’t spoken to a single person in recent memory. He would just ride around on public transportation and do drugs, I guess.  So he developed a profession for the lonely and isolated among us, and Taxi Driver was born.

We don’t just observe Bickle’s melancholy, either.  We share it.  Only two scenes in the whole thing don’t feature De Niro, and they’re basically just setting up for his arrival.  By the time the shooting starts towards the end, it doesn’t matter anymore, because Bickle’s insides have already turned out—he’s been talking to himself in the mirror for quite a while and writing about rains coming down and washing the streets clean.  

Key scene: Bickle finally is able to sleep, albeit armed to the teeth.

Raging Bull (1980)

De Niro gained something like 50 pounds to play the aged boxing champion Jake LaMotta in a role that saw him douse his balls with ice water, beat up Joe Pesci (for once) and take a massive and strange walloping just to prove his toughness.  Shot in black and white, Raging Bull raised the biopic to new heights rarely equaled since.  De Niro won the Oscar for Best Actor in this one, but more importantly, preserved his street cred for years to come.  Not so great is the fact that this role probably cemented his tough guy image, allowing him to sleepwalk through such fare as Ronin and The Fan when he should have been trying to reinvent himself.  Raging Bull is still classic, though, after all these years.  

Key scene: after his fighting days are over, De Niro stumbles around his restaurant basking in faded glory, while the crowd half applauds him and half murmurs about his gluttonous and deranged appearance.

Cape Fear (1991)

If you want to discuss great, soulful performances, you can’t leave out De Niro’s Max Cady from Cape Fear.  The film itself tends to get bogged down by its own horror-esque plot, but with Scorsese at the helm, and De Niro changing places to play a sociopath, things get interesting quickly.  Not sure I’m too keen on him biting a girl’s face off, but there are so many classic nerve-wracking scenes in this film that it’s hard to dismiss the greatness of the role.  The film is really about the lengths one will go to for revenge, and the limitations of such revenge, whether they be legal, social, or personal.  I love the frank and honest portrayal that Nolte gives opposite, as well.  He’s mostly good at nervous and frightened roles, so he was perfectly cast across the insanity of Max Cady.

Key scene: Cady fights off some hired goons, taking a lot of damage in the process, then yells into the night, “Counselor!” in his southern drawl…

Casino (1995)

Ace Rothstein is perhaps De Niro’s most complex character and also the one he seems to have the most fun playing.  Whereas all of his other characters are out of control and roughly psychotic types, Rothstein revels in control.  He’s a casino manager, the best in the business, able to pick winners and catch cheats like nobody else.  But in order to do what he loves most—running his own casino—he must walk a tight rope above the mafia, his best friend’s insanity, and the woman he thinks he loves, but who’s cheating him out of all his money.

One result of his mounting paranoia emerges in the nervous tic he develops: smoking.  There’s a drinking game where every time Ace Rothstein lights a new cigarette you take a shot.  I did it with my buddies in college and I don’t remember finishing the film.

De Niro’s work is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall portrayal of a deeply conflicted, troubled man with great abilities but crippling blindness.  Rothstein is one of Scorsese’s greatest creations, and certainly one of De Niro’s top achievements.

Key scene: Rothstein starts his own talk show and uses it as a pulpit from which to denounce the gaming commission.

Classic Supporting Roles

Mean Streets (1973)

Without Mean Streets, De Niro might not have had the same career.  It certainly has helped define his earlier work.  Johnny Boy is a character that everyone knows but few could ever understand.  He’s the guy in everyone’s crew who never seems to get his shit together.  He’s the one who’s always borrowing money and never paying back.  The one we all apologize for time and again.  Yet we keep helping this person and keep insisting they are worthwhile folk deep down.  Maybe it’s because we’ve known them our whole lives.  

De Niro is the heart and soul of this entire film.  He’s the metaphor, the immaterial.  Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, as he constantly strains himself to understand his own neighborhood also finds himself grasping at whatever he can to validate his friendship with Johnny Boy.  Does he turn his back on the streets and his old friend?  The fate of the entire film and Keitel’s character all hinge on their relationship.  See “Worm” in Rounders for a modern example of such a character.  

This is early De Niro before he became typecast.  He’s rarely played such a fascinating bum since, and he might never do so again.  While Mean Streets itself is juuuuussst before Scorsese hit his stride, I still pop it in now and again to see De Niro’s twisted grin.

Key scene: De Niro’s introduction at the night club, when you can tell right away that he’s the Fredo of the gang just by the look on his face.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

This role garnered De Niro’s first Oscar and essentially made Part II one of only a handful of movies that ever seemed to eclipse their remarkable predecessors.  As a young Vito Corleone, stalking the streets of Sicily and Italian New York, De Niro never looked better, wearing his signature white suit and speaking perfect Sicilian Italian.  Sure, Pacino’s work as Michael Corleone once he relocated to Las Vegas keeps things interesting, but the real story here remains that of his father and his rise to power.  Michael took the reins, but Vito built the empire.  If I had to pick one role out of so many great ones that remind me of what De Niro once was, this might just be it.  Sure, he’s a mobster like a dozen other films, but he’s THE mobster, the one parodied most often, and the only one who never really gets his due.   I think it must be the Italian and the subtitles that keeps this role from getting the notoriety it deserves.    

Key scene: Vito kills the current boss by chasing him through Little Italy.

The Untouchables (1987)

Key scene: The baseball bat boardroom scene.  Nuff said.  

Awakenings (1990)

In the interest of shaking his persona as mobster number one, De Niro often takes roles that place him in compromising positions.  Awakenings found him acting virtually like a rock as a middle-aged man frozen solid psychologically by a debilitating childhood illness.  Anyone could play that part, but when his character, Leonard, emerges from his slumber, things get interesting.  

Key scene: Leonard first shaves and combs his hair.  He begins like nothing ever happened to him, holding a childlike grin the entire time, but then he looks in the mirror and sees how much he’s aged.  The expression changes from one of marked stupidity to uncanny dread in an instant.  De Niro is an expert at expressions and subtlety.

Goodfellas (1990)

De Niro is well-known for going to extreme lengths for his films.  In The Real Goodfella, a tiny little documentary sometimes seen on HBO at about 4am, the real Henry Hill says that De Niro used to call him several times a day for help with his character, Jimmy Conway, even asking for mundane details like how Jimmy would shake hands or hold and light a cigarette.  

Key scene: One of the coolest parts in Goodfellas is the scene where Jimmy Conway chokes the wig guy with a phone chord.  You can see him getting angrier and angrier in the background for about a minute before he actually attacks.  

This Boy’s Life (1993)

“You can get it doggy-style or you can get it laying on your side. Those are your only choices. This is my house and I get to say. Got it?”

…Dwight Hansen, De Niro’s character in This Boy’s Life, a film remembered mostly for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the troubled teenager Toby.  

But it’s De Niro’s terribly abusive character who acts as the real catalyst, biting Leo’s injured finger, pounding an empty bottle of mustard on his new son’s forehead, yelling, “Does that look finished!?”  He can play a prick like no other.  I especially love the battles between him and Leo and the ending, when he’s left all alone to stew in his own juices.

Key scene: When Toby’s mom beats Dwight in a shooting contest.  De Niro thinks he is all that is man…but not in that particular moment.

Heat (1995)

Back to gangster form in Heat, but this time in a Michael Mann vehicle, De Niro was positively electric as the cold, calculated Neil McCauley, leader of one of the most vicious and skilled gangs in film history.  Beneath his sunglasses and anomalous goatee, De Niro moved like a samurai, wasting little motion and exacting perfectly timed and placed strikes, like when he slammed Wayne Grow’s face on the diner table.  

Key scene: I especially loved the little sit down between his character and Pacino’s, where De Niro says, “A guy told me one time, ‘Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’ Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage?”  He summed his entire character up—and the whole film—in just two lines.  Classic.

Excellent Starring Roles

The Deer Hunter (1978)

De Niro rises above his steel worker buddies by being a bit of a philosopher and an all around badass.  This movie gets a little smarmy towards the end, but the message remains: it’s pretty sissy to hunt with automatic weapons, and Russian Roulette isn’t very fun.  One bullet, one shot.  No excuses.  

Key scene(s): after the Polish wedding, De Niro runs naked through the streets.  I also love the very end when De Niro goes hunting for the first time since Nam.  He lets the deer go even when he has it in his sights.  That scene—with no dialogue—is vintage De Niro and one of my favorite moments in cinematic history hands down.

New York, New York

Haven’t seen this one since my 9th grade music class, and most of the R-rated moments were edited out for us, but I do recall that De Niro didn’t act very much like his normal self in this one.  He plays Jimmy, basically the world’s most self-absorbed dousche ever, but a person capable of redemption, to be sure.  Liza Minnelli also stars, playing her usual bouncy self as a lounge singer that Jimmy meets who actually manages to challenge him both professionally and personally.  It’s vintage Scorsese—lots of sleeveless T’s and cigarettes mixed with shots of, you guessed it, NYC—and probably one of De Niro’s least discussed roles.  I need to see it again.

Key scene: Don’t remember.

The King of Comedy (1983)

God, how many Scorsese films has De Niro starred in?  We watched this in a film class I took in college, and I found it fairly predictable while still being Scorsese.  De Niro plays an aspiring comedian who stalks his idol because he thinks that will make him rise to the level of a professional somehow.  It’s a little claustrophobic to watch, but the performances are as good as any other Scorsese film, and the subject is a little bit fresher.  Again, this is a film where De Niro does a lot of expressive acting.  The comedic parts are wonderful, as well, serving as clever juxtapositions to the subterranean psychology at play.

Key scene: De Niro attempts stand-up after a particularly unpleasant encounter…

Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

I must admit that I don’t really like this movie.  It’s too long, for one thing, and too rooted in 1940’s noir for my tastes.  There wasn’t much that kept me going, and I felt like I could have done a better job editing the damn thing than Nino Baragli.  I’m sure I’ll get flamed for saying that, but that’s OK.  De Niro is good in this role, but I don’t like him as the wandering local who returns from a lengthy soujorn to battle the demons of his past.  It’s too Thomas Hardy, too Spaghetti Western, and that’s what this film is: Sergio Leone’s attempt to bring his successful Western formula to semi-present day NYC.  For the most part it works, but there’s just something about this film that doesn’t sit with me.  De Niro is not the problem, however, as he turns in a wonderful performance as usual alongside James Woods and that little bastard Joe Pesci.

Key scene: De Niro first arrives in his old neighborhood and takes it all in.

Wag the Dog (1997)

De Niro plays opposite Dustin Hoffman in a political send-up for the ages.  This is probably one of the more underrated films around and definitely ahead of its time.  I think they were trying to ape the whole bombing Iraq during the Lewinski scandal thing, but watch this film now and it is definitely more and more relevant with each passing day.  I love how self-assured everyone acts in their roles, like this sort of thing isn’t more than simple routine.

Key scene: De Niro and Hoffman actually cast Kirsten Dunst in a fake shot of a fake war in a fake country.  Brilliant.