The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Robert De Niro
Nowadays, it's very common to say that Robert De Niro has lost his edge, that he's slumming by taking countless roles in goofy comedies like THE BIG WEDDING or starring in VOD dreck like FREELANCERS or HEIST. This is true in some regard, but De Niro deserves a lot more respect than he's getting. In between 1972 (the year of MEAN STREETS) and 1998 (RONIN) De Niro was responsible with such an incredible array of classics that my top ten at the bottom of the article could have easily turned into a top twenty (some of my favorites like MIDNIGHT RUN, CASINO and THE UNTOUCHABLES- didn't make the list) as that's simply how solid he was. If the output has tapered-off a bit, more of the blame should be placed on the kinds of movies Hollywood is making rather than De Niro himself. When given the right film, such as David O. Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK or JOY, he's able to deliver no problem.
Whatever his recent film output has been, no one will ever challenge De Niro when it comes to listing the most important actors of the last fifty years. Even his closest contemporary, Al Pacino, can't quite challenge him as far as the body of work goes. While Pacino would sometimes take extended sabbaticals from film to work on-stage, De Niro kept churning out movies regardless of the commercial viability. In the eighties, many of his best performances in movies like ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and THE MISSION were virtually ignored by American audiences (although they were rightly celebrated in Europe) only to discover an audience later.
Being an elder statesman of cinema, De Niro is still in-demand, with many younger actors viewing it as kind of a stepping-stone going toe-to-toe with him, as he's still considered one of the few true master actors left in the industry. Hopefully De Niro, before packing it in, will get another classic role to sink his teeth into especially if his pal Martin Scorsese finally nails down the long-gestating THE IRISHMAN. We'll see, but even if not his career exists as a master-class in the art of film acting and he certainly gets my vote for perhaps the greatest actor to ever work in the medium.
This is very difficult as De Niro's given dozens of classic performances. I guess for me, De Niro's best acting is featured in Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER. De Niro actually has the less showy part, as the quiet Michael, one of a gang of steel town workers who lives through the hell of Vietnam only to find himself adrift when he comes back. The evolution of the character is fascinating, as he starts-off as this stoic guy, one who holds himself up higher than his friends, only to totally break down following his time in Nam. There's a scene where De Niro, locked-up in a cage with Christopher Walken, just totally loses his shit and starts screaming motherf**ker at one of the guards that feels like De Niro might actually be identifying with the character so much that he was starting to lose his mind (indeed, De Niro has said it was the hardest shoot he was ever involved in). De Niro really runs the gamut in this in that we see the badass De Niro during the Nam war scenes, the funny De Niro when he gets drunk and streaks a wedding, and finally the vulnerable De Niro in the movie's second half (or has I used to refer to it in VHS days tape two).
I despise ANALYZE THIS. OK, it's not actually that bad a movie. As a seventeen-year-old in '99 I thought it was OK even though it's massive success baffled me. The reason I hate the movie is that it marks the moment De Niro's career split-off into a more commercial direction, with ANALYZE THIS leading to MEET THE PARENTS and so on. Without ANALYZE THIS I'm tempted to think De Niro would have bailed on doing comedies (although it was a genre that always fascinated him to the point he flirted with starring in Penny Marshall's BIG). Then again, it did open De Niro's body of work up to a younger audience, so there's that. Still, for massive fans of his like me it's a bittersweet film.
Oh, there are so many. A BRONX TALE (which he also directed), THE MISSION, JACKNIFE, RONIN, JACKIE BROWN, COP LAND, etc all are amazing and not given enough love. However, the one truly brilliant film De Niro (initially) never got his proper due for was THE KING OF COMEDY. A flop back in 1983, THE KING OF COMEDY is now viewed as one of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces, and it's a fascinating companion piece to TAXI DRIVER, with wannabe-comic Rupert Pupkin very much cut from the same cloth as the more dangerous Travis Bickle. I've known many Rupert Pupkin's in my life. Heck, at times I've almost been a Rupert Pupkin myself but luckily my sanity held out somewhat. Anyone who hasn't seen KING OF COMEDY is missing out on one of the essential pieces of film acting ever.
Again, there are so many classics. That said, whatever could it be but the you talkin' to me? scene from TAXI DRIVER. I recently heard Tom Sizemore go-on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast where he went on about how De Niro's performance in this unerved him as a young man, in that it forces us to relate to a man who's clearly insane and dangerous. However, what/s especially brilliant about both the performance and Scorsese's directing is that Travis is never judged, and as such the film is infinitely more complicated.
While THE IRISHMAN may or may not ever happen, De Niro's as busy as always, acting opposite his JOY co-star Edgar Ramirez in HANDS OF STONE, and then hopping over to HBO's THE WIZARD OF LIES a Bernie Madoff biopic from his SLEEPERS/WAG THE DOG director Barry Levinson.