WHY I LOVE ROBERT DE NIRO PART ONE
Robert De Niro was born on the 17th of August, 1943, in Manhattan, New York. He was an only child. He was born into an artistic family. His parents, Robert De Niro Sr and Virginia Admiral were painters. His first appearance in a feature length film came in 1965 in the film Three Rooms in Manhattan, where he had an uncredited role as a client in a diner. Since 1965, he has made 103 films. While his career hasn't maintained a 100% hit rate from 1965 to today -largely down to the last fifteen years or so - it is fairly safe to say that Robert De Niro is one of the greatest talents to ever act in a film. He is peerless in his ability to occupy any role with astonishing credibility, whether that is as a psychopathic loner, a dedicated and decent father, a romantic lead or as someone with impeccable comic timing. Please find the first 10 best performances, in chronological order, below with 10 more to come tomorrow and 10 more the day after. Part two and part three.
- Mean Streets: The first collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Mean Streets is a semi-autobiographical picture from Scorsese's youth and one of the tensest experiences one can have at the movies. The use of music throughout - which accounted for a large part of the $500,000 budget - would influence many, and would define much of the style for which Martin Scorsese would be known. Starring Harvey Keitel in the lead role, with De Niro in support as the troublesome Johnny Boy, Mean Streets is a superb work of art. It punches hard and is electrifying from start to finish. Robert De Niro's performance is an early case of his expressing a character who is continually on edge, with a powerful, dangerous energy. Keitel and De Niro have intense chemistry on screen together, and there is more than a touch of tragedy about how they end up. Two friends, bound together.
- The Godfather Part II: Robert De Niro had auditioned for the role of Sonny in Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic, The Godfather, as can be seen here. Coppola didn't think De Niro was right for the role, but kept him in mind when making the sequel. He would play the role of a young Vito Corleone, the role made famous by Marlon Brando who won an Oscar - though didn't accept it - for Best Actor. De Niro would also win, and instead accept, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. De Niro is hypnotic as a young man who would soon run a vast criminal empire. Very few people could ever follow Brando, but De Niro not only followed him but somehow managed to craft a performance that further enhanced Brando's work, as well as putting himself on that level.
- Taxi Driver: If I had to pick just one performance from Robert De Niro that, to my mind, defines his unique talent, it would be this masterpiece by Martin Scorsese. De Niro is utterly terrifying as Travis Bickle, a dangerous, confused and terribly lonely man. Everything about this movie hits hard and De Niro's performance is otherworldly in its crushing desperation, a man gasping for air under the weight of a city full of sin. He doesn't know how to relate to other human beings, and the way in which he is depicted at once as a psychopath and then a hero, unchanged by his violence but merely for the objects of his brutality, leads one to rethink how close a hero is to a low down killer. The cinematography by Michael Chapman and the musical score by Bernard Herrmann - his last - combine with De Niro's lead performance and create a peerless atmosphere of rainy, filthy streets, and a looooong road to Hell. The script, written by Paul Schrader is poetic in the extreme.
- New York, New York: Martin Scorsese made a musical??! Yep, he did, and more importantly, it's really good. That this was a major influence on La La Land is not really up for debate. Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli star in a Musical that subverts the genre tropes, giving a sad, downbeat ending. Minnelli may have since become something of a punch line - thanks in no small part to Arrested Development - but if you are unsure if she was the real deal, watch this picture. She is incandescent as Francine Evans and she and De Niro have a real spark together. De Niro plays a saxophone player, Jimmy Doyle, who falls in love with Minnelli's character. De Niro shows in the opening scenes of the movie a real feeling for comedy - which we will get to in a bit - and he manages to play Jimmy as a bit of a louse and a heel, but also someone who is strongly in love with this woman. This is a great movie to show someone who is only acquainted with his more aggressive, criminal roles. He is just as capable of playing a madly in love fool as he is a psychopath.
- The Deer Hunter: There are some really incredible films set in Vietnam during the long running, controversial and morally compromised war. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket come to mind at once. Personally as undeniably great as those movies are, I give the edge to Michael Cimino's epic on the strength of the performances of Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, and the incredible supporting cast, including Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The intensity of this film is incredible to experience. Everyone knows the famous scenes of the characters, at first, being forced to participate in a game of Russian Roulette, and then later choosing to do so because something broke inside them during the war. De Niro's attempts to reassimilate following this trauma are heart breaking, and the moments that come late in the film when he tracks down Christopher Walken's character, are on the all time list of emotional power.
- Raging Bull: If Taxi Driver is the best expression of De Niro's individual power, Raging Bull, released in 1980 is quite possibly his all around best performance. Based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull is unrelenting, brutal and deliriously, punch-drunk beautiful. De Niro excels at playing damaged people, and there are few roles where he has played a more damaged human being than in this picture. LaMotta was a vicious man, in and out of the ring; a superb athlete who would win many a big fight, becoming the World Middleweight Champion. This match was secured through LaMotta agreeing to throw a fight for the Mafia. There was much talk at the time, and still is today, of De Niro's weight gain to play the older LaMotta. This is something that is a testament to De Niro's commitment to getting inside the character, but should in no way overshadow his performance here as being one of mere gimmickry. This is a meticulously crafted role and one which won De Niro the Oscar for Best Actor. Joe Pesci and the sublime Cathy Moriarty are perfection in supporting roles, and De Niro plays off and with them with such skill and dramatic flair.
- The King of Comedy: There has been a fair bit of talk and theorizing on the significance of the ending of this picture, as also seen with the conclusion of Taxi Driver. One may argue, and not be in too much danger of appearing foolish, that this is the same basic story of that earlier masterwork, but with Black Comedy replacing that blistering Neo-Noir. Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, wants to be a stand-up comedian. Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, is his hero and Rupert is sure that if he can just get his material to the late night talk show host, that he will hit the big time. Things go badly and Rupert kidnaps Jerry. The King of Comedy is funny and well observed, and ultimately strangely moving. As with Taxi Driver the meaning of the ending, and its reality - is it a fantasy? Did it really happen like that? - is in question. However you look at it, this is an exceptional bit of work and proof that De Niro could play any role he set his eyes on.
- Once Upon a Time in America: Sergio Leone's last film, Once Upon a Time in America is the only non-Western picture from that great Italian director. Those who thought that I Heard You Paint Houses was long are in for a surprise here, with the Extended Cut clocking in at 250 (!) minutes. Leone didn't make any bad pictures but there is a strong argument to be had that this is his greatest work. I go back and forth on which is my favourite, but there is no doubt at all in the power of Robert De Niro's performance here. There are scenes that shock and horrify, as with the rape scene in the back of a car, De Niro expressing the conflict in himself as a criminal and as a man who believes he is deeply in love with this woman. But how can he really love her if he would do such a thing? We don't know. Anyone who digs gangster movies and admires Sergio Leone's flair for the moving picture should give this a watch. A classic.
- Falling in Love: While I don't usually care to differentiate between the actor and the actress - the job is the same regardless! - it can be confidently stated that if Robert De Niro is widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation, then Meryl Streep can be seen as the greatest actress of hers. Falling in Love is a minor film in De Niro's career, but it is well worth a watch on the strength of the performances from him and Streep. It's romantic, it's charming with a decent sense of humour. Don't expect to have your life changed, but if you want to see two masters going at their craft, you're in for a treat.
- The Mission: I am not a religious man. However I found this to be an incredibly powerful bit of work on the nature of faith and trust in a higher power. Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro are great together, with Irons playing a priest and De Niro a man who is seeking redemption after killing his brother in a duel. The ending of this movie is particularly powerful and is a great example of the craft of film making making me feel something that I had no intention of feeling: the possibility of there being a higher purpose to our existence on Earth, and the hard won admiration for a deeply religious man, trying to do the right thing. OH and the score by Ennio Morricone is superb.