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Top 10 Robert De Niro Performances

Actor Robert De Niro Turns 72 years old Today

Legendary actor Robert De Niro turns 72 years old today. Of course, this allows me the excuse to do a Top 10 Robert De Niro performances list.

Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors ever, there’s almost no doubt about that. Sure, over the past few decades he hasn’t nearly turned in the quality of work we saw out of him from the 70’s – 90’s, but the actor can still bring it when he tries. Just as Jimmy Cagney and Marlon Brando influenced Robert De Niro, he himself has become an inspiration to many young actors today.

Although he doesn’t do it much anymore, Robert De Niro is most known for his method acting, for which he’s received praise. De Niro gained 60 lb (27 kg) and learned how to box for his role as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, ground his teeth for Cape Fear, lived in Sicily for The Godfather Part II, worked as a cab driver for a few weeks for Taxi Driver, and learned to play the saxophone for New York, New York. He again put on weight for his performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables (1987).

De Niro’s brand of method acting includes employing whatever extreme tactic he feels is necessary to elicit the best performance from those with whom he is working. During the filming of The King of Comedy, he directed a slew of anti-Semitic epithets at co-star Jerry Lewis to enhance and authenticate the anger demonstrated by Lewis’ character. According to People magazine, the technique was successful, with Lewis recalling: “I forgot the cameras were there… I was going for Bobby’s throat.”

Robert De Niro has starred in over 90 films, and many of the best have been with his long time collaboration with director Martin Scorsese. Indeed, it was Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets that launched both of them to stardom. De Niro’s longtime collaboration with Scorsese later earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal ofJake LaMotta in the 1980 film Raging Bull. He also earned nominations for the psychological thrillers Taxi Driver(1976) and Cape Fear (1991), both directed by Scorsese. There are many great De Niro performances that don’t involve Scorsese also.

Let’s countdown the Top 10 Robert De Niro Performances:

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Honorable Mention: Pat Solatano, Sr. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

The performance that proved De Niro still has it. This earned Robert De Niro his first Academy Award nomination in 21 years. You can tell that De Niro finally brought back that fiery passion he was known for earlier in his career, and not the laid back comatose performance he would churn out in the 2000’s.

10. Jack Walsh, Midnight Run (1988)

After a somewhat lackluster early to mid 80’s career for De Niro (in terms of box office post Raging Bull Oscar), he would reveal one of his best kept secrets in the 1988 film Midnight Run — his knack for comedy. Thanks to the great pairing with the underrated Charles Grodin, Midnight Run remains one of De Niro’s somewhat underrated classics.

9. Louis Gara, Jackie Brown (1997)

It’s easy to overlook this subdued Robert De Niro performance in the likewise subdued Quentin Tarantino exploitation flick Jackie Brown, but it shouldn’t be. De Niro plays a schmuck named Louis, who half the time is always stoned out of his mind, even though he’s awful at taking hits. De Niro get’s to play him as equal parts fly on the wall and movie star. Most of the movie he’s in a borderline comatose if stoned state, but when he finally snaps against Bridget Fonda’s character, it’s as if the giant has awoken from his slumber.


8. David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

De Niro is at his most sad and vulnerable in Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America. Thankfully, with the help of De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Leone’s full vision has been restored to a once maligned film.

7. Sam “Ace” Rothstein, Casino (1995)

This underappreciated (how many times must we hear the Goodfellas comparison?) Scorsese – De Niro collaboration is Robert De Niro at his most subtle and benevolent. De Niro plays Ace Rothstein as a man boiling inside with anger who, because of his profession and public persona, require him to appear pacified.

6. Dwight Hansen, This Boy’s Life (1993)

Oddly enough, even though this film stars Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro (Di Caprio would later be known for his collaboration with Martin Scorsese as well), this film has been largely forgotten. De Niro is incredibly frightening as DiCaprio’s step father. Definitely one of De Niro’s best villainous roles.

5. Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974)

Robert De Niro won his first Academy Award playing the young Vito Corleone in perhaps the greatest sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II. What definitely adds another layer to this performance is that De Niro is essentially playing a young Marlon Brando, a hero of De Niro’s.

4. Johnny Boy, Mean Streets (1973)

As I said earlier, this is the film that made De Niro and Scorsese a household name. As Johnny Boy, he’s the kind of friend who seemed cool when you were younger because of his reckless, carefree attitude, who really ends up being more of a liability, especially in a world filled with gangsters. Johnny Boy is always slightly full of shit, but it’s De Niro’s bravado that makes the performance and character so interesting.

3. Jake La Motta, Raging Bull (1980)

The most intense and self loathing of all De Niro performances, Raging Bull deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar in 1981. Again De Niro channels his hero Marlon Brando.

2. Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy (1983)

One of the most unsettling performances of De Niro’s career is also one of his greatest. Rupert Pupkin is insane of course, but his delusions are so average, he’s merely a celebrity chaser. However, in the film’s brilliant ambiguous conclusion, perhaps Rupert is a success in this starved talent America.

1. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

De Niro’s most iconic creation is the role that made him an acting icon. Even if Travis Bickle was the only great performance Robert De Niro gave, it’d still be an incredible legacy.

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