It’s no secret that Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors that ever lived. Just look at the list of classics: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Heat, and Casino. Is there any other actor that can claim to have been in this many great movies and given this many great performances? That’s of course a topic for another story, but notice how Casino was listed last. That’s where many people believe De Niro “gave up” serious films and for the next two decades resorted to choosing movies that didn’t live up to his talents. In fact, there are people in their twenties today who think De Niro is best known for the Fockers trilogy! That’s just criminal and doesn’t do justice to the now 72-year-old legend.
Well, there is great news this week that made movie geeks rejoice. While being interviewed by Digital Spy for his latest film, The Intern, De Niro was asked about the long-planned Scorsese collaboration, I Heard You Paint Houses. “We are doing it… We should be doing it sometime next year,” De Niro said. “We’re slowly, slowly getting it in place.” This is quite possibly the best news a die-hard movie fan could hear, especially with the fact that De Niro and Scorsese are not getting any younger and that Joe Pesci is rumored to be coming back after announcing his retirement back in 1999. Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro -– does it get any better than this? Their collaborative efforts are right up there with Bergman/Von Sydow, Hitchcock/Stewart, and Huston/Bogart.
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Although Scorsese has been as productive and brilliant these last few years as ever before, replacing De Niro with DiCaprio as his muse, De Niro’s career arc has been a different story. Maybe years of method acting and gaining/losing drastic amounts of weight for iconic roles took a toll on him; how else can you explain the constant duds that he’s been churning out year after year?
It’s of course not all that bad, and shades of the brilliance he once showed in abundance have poured down in a few well-chosen movies here and there. If you do catch Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, you will notice a sweet, soulful performance from De Niro that is the clear highlight of the movie. These kinds of performances from De Niro are few and far between these days, but they do happen. A few weeks from now, he’s set to appear in the highly anticipated Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by David O’ Russell, his third film with the filmmaker. The buzz is that De Niro’s performance is great –- we all hope it is -– and that he could garner an eight Oscar nomination for it.
Despite his recent duds, here are six examples post-Casino De Niro performances that prove he’s still got it and will “bring it” next year when the new Scorsese film is shot.
Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog (1997)
A presidential sex scandal hits and his advisers try to cover it up as fast as possible. What do they do? Hire a Hollywood producer and a professional spin doctor played by De Niro. “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow,” says De Niro’s Conrad Brean, who cooks up a phony international crisis with Albania. De Niro plays Brean as a poker-faced genius who makes you believe a spin doctor can save the day by telling lies: “We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war,” he says with much-garnered confidence. Just like in Ronin, De Niro seems like a match made in heaven for David Mamet’s poetic street dialogue. He’s never been this wittily relaxed before.
Sam in Ronin (1998)
“You ever kill anybody?” De Niro’s Sam is asked in Ronin. “Yeah I hurt somebody’s feelings once,” he replies in a deadpan way. In my opinion this was the last De Niro-esque performance of his illustrious career: it’s raw, edgy, and dangerous. John Frankenheimer’s movie has some of the best car chase scenes ever put on celluloid and has altogether remarkable chemistry between stars De Niro and his director, two old-school giants. Playing a CIA strategist turned mercenary, De Niro turns out be a pretty badass James Bond in a role that has him spouting out words by screenwriter David Mamet –- who also wrote a great latter De Niro role in Wag the Dog. “You worried about saving you own skin?” Sam is asked midway through the film. “Yeah, I am,” responds De Niro, “It covers my body”.
Paul Vitti in Analyze This (1999)
It’s not uncommon for De Niro to play a gangster, but it is uncommon for it to be in a comedy. Analyze This was one of the first times we saw De Niro’s comedic side. Playing respected mobster Paul Vitti, he visits Billy Crystal’s shrink to try and take control of his crumbling psyche. It works. “You got a gift my friend. You, you, you’re good,” tells Vitti to his frightened shrink. De Niro is hilarious, encompassing to perfection a viciously intimidating side to his gangster, but adding self-contained humor to his role. “Fuck Freud,” says Vitti to a scared shrink who tries everything to get rid of him as a client. The chemistry between Crystal and De Niro is contagious and feels so naturally delivered. The misbegotten sequel that followed should be forgotten, and this original movie always remembered.
Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents (2000)
Playing father-in-law from hell Jack Byrnes, De Niro perfected the comedic gold that he started with Analyze This just a year before Meet The Parents. Byrnes is a retired horticulturalist who might also be an ex-CIA agent. It helps that co-star Ben Stiller and De Niro seem to be feeding off of each other’s manic energy. “Have you ever purchased pornographic material?” hilariously asks De Niro to Stiller’s ill-received and aptly named Greg Focker during a now iconic lie detector test. Everything about the De Niro’s performance works here, from his sizing up of Stiller’s character, to telling him that he’s going “down, down to Chinatown,” and even down to the smallest details as in the way he calls Greg “Focker”, this is pure comedic gold.
Nick Wells in The Score (2001)
It took four decades for the two Don Corleone’s -– De Niro and Marlon Brando –- to finally make a movie together. The fact that it was The Score might disappoint some, but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s actually a good caper movie. A weaker actor might have overplayed the character of Nick Wells -– an aging thief who is persuaded by a rookie, played by Edward Norton, to execute one last heist -– but it’s De Niro’s steadiness that becomes part of the movie’s subtle, refraining style. Norton and De Niro basically compete to see who can under-act the other (it sounds dull but it isn’t). He’s positively mesmerizing and overshadows the Brando scenes quite a bit.
Pat Solitano Jr. in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
De Niro richly deserved his Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Playing Pat Sr., a sports bookie with a major case of OCD and an even unhealthier obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, De Niro found a role worthy of his incredible talents. In a memorably touching scene, De Niro wakes up his son in the morning and, failing to convey the repressed emotions in his mind, all Pat Sr. can do is subtly cry and hug his son. In another poignant moment he tells his son to seize the moment, and seize the fortune that has been dealt in his hand: “When life reaches out at a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reach back, I’m telling you it’s a sin if you don’t reach back! It’ll haunt you the rest of your days like a curse.” It’s the best De Niro performance in 20 years and proof that the legendary actor still has it in him to deliver.