What can you possibly say about Robert De Niro? He’s our greatest living actor? He’s an actor’s actor? He’s an outstanding actor who at one time owned the game and changed the rules? Well, you can say all three, but love him or worship him it’s safe to say that from the most obsessive movie buff to the casual cinema-goer, there’s not many movie fans who have not been blown away by at least one of Robert De Niro’s trademark powerhouse performances.
De Niro has featured in over 90 films and although there’s been a fair few duds in amongst the mercurial magic, who but the hard of heart and the devoid of wonder has not had their senses electrified and their imaginations captivated by the boarding intensity, compelling majesty, gripping authenticity, and elusive charisma that De Niro brings to bear on his most memorable creations.
You want realism? You got it! Here’s Screen Rant’s list of the 12 Best Robert De Niro Performances Of All Time.
12 The Deer Hunter (1978)
They don’t make films which possess the sense of stillness and quiet quality of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter any more, which is just as well because they no longer make many actors who can hold the viewer’s attention in the same way as De Niro does in this 1978 epic on war, friendship and loss.
De Niro plays steel worker Michael “Mike” Vronsky like a thunderstorm personified. Mike is the sort of uncompromising, no nonsense, and fiercely individualistic character who’s entire philosophy can be summed up in five words - “My way or the highway.” He’s a complex guy who is fiercely loyal to his friends and the things he loves. It’s these things which are torn apart, blown up, and shattered as the Vietnam War decimates the ideals and securities the characters once took for granted.
As his friends are tortured, take refuge in insanity, or are killed, De Niro’s character remains stoically defiant and keeps his head while all others are quite literally losing theirs. In The Deer Hunter's legendary Russian Roulette scene, De Niro gives a tour de force performance without equal, as his character not only embraces the madness but becomes its master.
11 Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have done a lot of great things together, but Raging Bull has to be their masterpiece. Physically changing his appearance from that of a fighting fit Greek god into a beer guzzling couch potato is impressive in its own right, but it’s De Niro’s complete immersion into the psyche of an emotionally conflicted, uncompromising, and fiercely masculine fighter that makes his portrayal of Jake LaMotta as intimidating as an atomic bomb.
Strutting from show-stopping scene to scene, De Niro is at his most venom spitting, artery busting, frothing at the mouth best as the boxer who fought so well in the ring because he was fighting the rest of the world outside of the ropes every second of every day.
De Niro captures the very essence of a mentally unstable killing machine, and you can almost cut the approaching tsunami of terror with a knife during the scene where Jake asks his bother Joey (Joe Pesci) “Did you f**k my wife?”
10 Mean Streets (1973)
Just starting out and keen to build on the name he had made for himself in Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro obviously relished his role as the youthfully exuberant, volatile and fearless John “Johnny Boy” Civello in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Johnny Boy is as hungry as a Great White and as unpredictable as a storm, and De Niro channels a particular brand of wide-eyed, manically grinning chaos to give Mean Streets its star turn.
When Iggy Pop sung in the Stooges classic "Search and Destroy," “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm, I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb, I am a world's forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys,” it’s almost the perfect description of the leather-jacketed, wisecracking, tragic clown that is Johnny Boy.
You get the sense that De Niro definitely knew characters like Johnny Boy when he was growing up on the streets of Little Italy and, as such, was able to create the right amount of pathos in a character who isn’t afraid of the law, the Mafia, or dying, and who instinctively knows he’s going to hell in an handcart before the final curtains fall.
9 This Boy’s Life (1993)
Putting a psychotic De Niro in a Boy Scout’s uniform and casting him as the archetypal stepdad from Hell is the stuff of nightmares, and in Michael Caton-Jones This Boy’s Life, De Niro plays the seemingly respectable but downright deranged and sadistic Dwight Hansen with an edge so sharp you could cut angel’s wings on it.
When Tobias Wolf (a young Leonardo DiCaprio) first meets Dwight, he seems like a nice guy and a regular laugh a minute, but it’s all a facade. After Dwight gets Toby’s mother safely where he wants her, under his roof, he begins to treat young Tobias with a resentment bordering on the psychotic.
For three long years, Dwight rules the roost with an iron rod and torments his family with his aggressive behavior and terrible saxophone playing. Things come to a head over a jar of mustard, which turns De Niro into the sort of raging lunatic you just wouldn’t want to encounter when the moon is full.
8 Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
A good actor is capable of expressing a few script pages worth of dialogue through their eyes and facial expressions alone, and in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, De Niro does just that.
For a film which essentially documents the passage of time and the ravages it inflicts upon our friendships, dreams, ambitions, and ideals, you need an actor who is capable of expressing a certain world weariness and able to portray a person burdened with a lifetime of regret. De Niro’s performance in Once Upon A Time In America is understated, smoldering, resigned and completely compelling.
De Niro plays the opium addicted gangster called Noodles, looking back in a world weary fashion on a lifetime of broken promises and failed friendships. The film’s non-chronological order gives it a dreamlike quality and De Niro’s performance has an elusive, mysterious quality to it.
7 The Untouchables (1987)
De Niro has always been a go to actor when it comes to directors looking for a convincing gangster, but in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, he plays the most famous gangster of them all, Al Capone.
If there’s one worthwhile criticism of The Untouchables, it’s that De Niro just doesn’t get enough screen time, because when he does, he’s simply electric in all his repellent and imperious villainy. Slug like and oozing corruption from his every pore, De Niro’s Capone is evil to the core and as deadly as a nest of vipers on a bad day. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) may radiate a glow of righteousness and incorruptibility, but it’s Capone’s darkness and wicked web of shadows which hypnotizes the viewer.
Cool as ice and simmering with rage at the same time, De Niro’s Capone is a walking hot-bed of mental disorders forever in danger of escalating into an extinction level event. The scene where Capone beats one of his men to death with a baseball bat at a dinner party is not one you’ll forget in a hurry.
6 Cape Fear (1991)
In Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, there are certain scenes where De Niro plays Max Cady with all the charm, eloquence and charisma of a southern gentleman from another time and another place. Which makes his metamorphosis into a deranged deviant within the blink of a lazy eye all the more compelling.
When Cady snarls lines such as, “I'm Virgil and I'm guiding you through the gates of Hell. We are now in the Ninth Circle, the Circle of Traitors. Traitors to country! Traitors to fellow man! Traitors to God! You, sir, are charged with betraying the principles of all three!” You just know the sentries at the gates of reason have put down their weapons and left town.
Max Cady is probably the most damaged charter De Niro has ever played, and he’s played a few. Cady’s a product of his environment, and that environment is called Hell. There’s no understanding, no forgiveness, and no redemption for a character like Cady, his rage is blind, complete, and unrelenting. De Niro has never appeared meaner.
5 Meet The Parents (2000)
Not so long ago, you wouldn’t have put quirky comedy and Robert De Niro in the same universe let alone the same film, but "Mr. Intense" may not exactly play it for laughs in Jay Roach’s Meet The Parents, but his uptight and eccentric mannerisms are the perfect foil for a funny guy like Ben Stiller to bounce off.
Playing Jack Byrnes, De Niro is the protective dad of Gaylord Focker’s (Stiller) fiancé. Needless to say, Byrnes doesn’t like the hapless Focker and definitely doesn’t want such a geeky guy marrying his princess. Byrnes is not only deeply conservative and set in his ways, he’s also a retired CIA counterintelligence officer and distrusts Gaylord with a paranoia bordering on mania.
De Niro makes the role work because he gently mocks the intensity and intimidating presence he has become renowned for, and also because Meet The Parents is a very funny film.
4 Casino (1995)
De Niro was so good as James “Jimmy The Gent” Conway in Goodfellas, it was only fair that Scorsese provided his old mate with a mob epic of his own - Casino.
The eighth collaboration between the two cinematic comrades saw De Niro playing casino boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein, and from the opening scene, when Ace gets blown up, Casino is a hell of a movie. De Niro’s performance is more Machiavellian than monstrous, but he gives a fine account of a man trying to keep his cool under immense pressure and the additional burden of the actions of his deeply psychopathic friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).
In Casino, De Niro gives one of his most restrained performances and in Ace, De Niro creates a likable character whose winning combination of heart, cynicism, and street smarts allows him to hang out with the regular guys and mix it with the hoodlums.
3 King of Comedy (1983)
De Niro is one of the most famous people on the planet, so it’s ironic that one of his most memorable performances is as Rupert Pupkin, a character who’s neurotic appetite for fame at any cost is alive, well, and more psychotic than ever before in today’s celebrity crazed culture.
In King of Comedy the humor is more subversive than Meet The Parents, and the jokes a lot darker, but that’s probably because Pupkin is a dysfunctional desperado for whom kidnapping is just a means of getting what he wants above anything else - fame, fame, fatal fame.
Governed by the mantra that it’s “Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” Pupkin is a walking time bomb of insecurities and melodramatic mediocrity. He’s a fantasist who believes, like so many others, that world wide renown and universal acclaim are his for the taking. When it’s not forthcoming, he doesn’t so much hold fortune to ransom but a famous figure in the shape of comedian and talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).
In King of Comedy De Niro walks the tightrope between borderline personality disorder and complete howling at the moon lunacy to make Pupkin an unhinged and creepy character who will haunt your thoughts long after the film ends.
2 The Godfather Part II (1974)
Playing a younger version of a role that Marlon Brando made his own in The Godfather, De Niro doesn’t disappoint in The Godfather Part II. In fact, he soars like a eagle and give an extra dimension to the legendary charter that is Vito Corleone.
Looking the very essence of Sicilian menace, De Niro brings a vulnerability and measured savagery to the role of Vito. He’s a family man but he’s also a killer, and will do what it takes to get to where he wants to go. He is known to hold a grudge and you cross him at his peril, as his father’s murderer, Don Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato), finds out to his cost.
Vito is strictly old school and De Niro brings the dilemma of a man trying to balance the reality of violence and the ideal of honor to the table. Vito wants to lead the good life but to do that to a certain degree he must do bad things, very bad things. It’s a contradiction that De Niro pulls off with aplomb.
1 Taxi Driver (1976)
In popular culture, you can count on one hand the outsider and loner figures who have reached an almost iconic status. At the head of the pack would be Holden Caulfield, and his fellow General in the army of misfits would be the protagonist of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle.
Taxi Driver is, at heart, a deeply apocalyptic film and De Niro’s performance is worthy of any apocalypse. Travis is a man born out of time in a world gone wrong. His attempts to understand the horror and corruption which surrounds him and still cut it as a regular guy result in a dispiriting series of encounters as Travis slowly loses his mind and finally reconciles himself to the fact that “There’s no escape,” he’s “God’s lonely man.”
Taxi Driver’s “You talking to me,” scene has been much parodied in cinema and there’s a reason for that. It’s genuinely chilling and one of the finest portrayal’s of a man’s slow descent into the abyss ever documented on camera.
De Niro has never created a stranger, more striking, or genuinely intriguing character than Travis Bickle, he is a man who walks his own path, does his own thing, and chooses to stand up against the horrors of society because it’s the only choice he can make to stop himself becoming a part of the horror he despises.
Now if that list of classic De Niro performances didn’t cause your boat to rock and your soul to soar, then climb on board and tell us what films featuring the world’s greatest living actor do.