An actor or filmmaker’s career is sure to have its ups and downs throughout. However, this can magnified when the talent is known for ground-breaking performances, in some of cinema’s most unforgettable masterpieces. Today, we’re celebrating the UK release of all-star romantic comedy, THE BIG WEDDING, with a look back at some of the offerings of, arguably, the greatest living actor (although, Pacino will undoubtedly have something to say about that); two-time Academy Award-winner, Robert De Niro.
With an acting credit list of close to 100 films, we can’t look at them all, but we’ve focused on what we believe are Bob’s best, along with a few of his worst…
First coming to prevalence in Brian DePalma’s late 1960s cult trio GREETINGS, HI MOM and THE WEDDING PARTY, before stand-out roles in gangster comedy, THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT, and baseball drama, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, his breakout role came in Martin Scorcese’s MEAN STREETS. His scarily psychotic performance as the hot-headed cousin, Johnny Boy, to Harvey Kietel’s lover, set him on the road to stardom and a continuing collaboration with his pal, Marty, after losing out on the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime-thriller, THE GODFATHER, to Al Pacino.
Coppola hadn’t forgot about him, and following the critical and commercial success of the Mario Puzo adaptation, cast him as the young Vito in his epic, interweaving sequel, which juxtaposes Michael’s current ascent in cementing a criminal empire, with that of his father’s rise. It landed De Niro his first Oscar, in a role entirely expressed in a masterful Italian language.
The late seventies were decent to Bob. A re-teaming with Scorcese on the gritty psychological character study, TAXI DRIVER, landed him with a second Oscar nomination, only for him to lose out to Peter Finch in NETWORK. He played the notoriously unhinged Travis Bickle, an avenging angel, sick of seeing scum wash his beloved city down the drain. De Niro and Scorcese’s next collaboration was a huge misfire with the public. NEW YORK, NEW YORK saw the method actor opposite Liza Minnelli in a wartime musical drama that failed to connect with viewers, despite landing four Golden Globe nominations. However, the following years saw him give arguably his two finest ever performances, in Michael Cimino’s devastating vietnam drama, THE DEER HUNTER, and another grim portrait of a damaged individual – former boxer-turned-comedian Jake LaMotta – in RAGING BULL, with Scorcese. The latter gives a jaw-dropping portrayal of a muscular athlete before he piles on the pounds, becoming a grotesque brawler, happy to use anyone as a punchbag. Oscar number two was a deserved cert, after missing out two years earlier for the former.
The first Scorcese collaboration of the 1980s was another failure in the eyes of the public, but again won much critical acclaim for having the roles reversed in THE KING OF COMEDY. Starring opposite comedy icon Jerry Lewis, De Niro may have been in basket-case mode again, but the humour in the dark comic tale of obsession was lost on most. A uniting with famed Italian director Sergio Leone was next in a star-studded sweeping four-hour gangster epic spanning several decades. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is brooding brilliance that again garnered plaudits for its shear ambitious scope, faultless attention to detail and top performances. However, it was released in a two-hour version in US cinemas, missing out many pivotal plot details and leaving American audiences confused.
A change of pace saw De Niro FALLING IN LOVE with Meryl Streep, as well as an amusing cameo in Terry Gilliam’s cult fantasy, BRAZIL, all before taking on the supporting role of Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) in Alan Parker’s supernatural-like murder mystery, ANGEL HEART, which was led by a top-of-his game Mickey Rouke (pre-plastic surgery). A first reuniting with DePalma since his early days saw him give a brilliant head battering performance as rotund organised crime leader Al Capone, in grandiose ensemble, THE UNTOUCHABLES. My own personal favourite performance from the main man came in Martin Brest’s quotable buddy action-comedy, MIDNIGHT RUN, in which he plays down-on-his-luck bounty hunter Jack Walsh, opposite the equally sublime Charles Grodin. He gives a tortured and touching performance underneath the hilarious events. Sadly, he ended the decade in Neil Jordan’s disappointing remake of 1955 comedy WE’RE NO ANGLES, co-starring Sean Penn, as a couple of escaped convicts passing themselves off as men of the cloth.
He couldn’t have opened the nineties any better than the gripping and grisly GOODFELLAS. Another pairing with Scorsese and Joe Pesci in the fact-based biopic of career criminal Henry Hill, who “always wanted to be a wiseguy”. The look at the low-level life of the Brooklyn underworld was scandalously ignored on Oscar night, with Pesci the only one seen deserving for his psychotic portrayal of Tommy DeVito. The same year saw him work alongside Robin Williams on Penny Marshall’s moving drama AWAKENINGS (nabbing a fifth Oscar nod), before knocking it out of the park for Scorcese in his CAPE FEAR remake, as the terrifying, tattooed sadist, Max Cady, which again landed him an Oscar-nomination.
1993 saw De Niro as the abusive step father to a future Scorcese muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, in the Michael Caton-Jones adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s best-seller, THIS BOYS LIFE, whilst in the same year embarked on his impressive directorial debut with A BRONX TALE. The film was based on the acclaimed stage play by Chazz Palminteri, a story based on his own experiences as a youngster who idolised the lifestyle of a local mobster. Palminteri, who studied at the same acting school as Bob, took on the main role, whilst De Niro directed, also starring, but taking more of a back seat, as the protective father who doesn’t want his son to go down the wrong path.
A surprising departure from the expected saw De Niro don deformities as The Monster in Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN, that despite the critical mauling and bloated self indulgence, was never as bad as you remember. Another go with Scorsese saw many conceive CASINO as essentially GOODFELLAS 2, but it deserves better than that, as we see the grit of the hoodlums of the East Coast, transformed into the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas underworld. Sharon Stone steals the show as a drug-addicted former prostitute, unable to shake off her past. Next up was Michael Mann’s tactical masterpiece, HEAT, a riveting tale set on the steely blue streets of L.A., which follows the grudging respect between an obsessive cop, Vincent Hanna, and his new-found nemesis, Neil McCauley. Yes, the film in which Pacino and De Niro first appeared onscreen together to bring us one scene of sipping coffee that’s more gripping than the entire output of Michael Bay.
A first collaboration with the late Tony Scott saw De Niro as a baseball obsessive, who takes his shine to the newly signed superstar slugger (Wesley Snipes) a little too far. THE FAN had more style than substance but again is one that was never fully appreciated. Certainly from the critics. Emotional scenes showing De Niro as the troubled, yet doting father to a young son, who is struggling to come to terms with the separation of his parents, was lost amongst the murderous mayhem. He also stood out in a small supporting role in all-star ensemble, SLEEPERS; Barry Levinson’s unsettling true-life drama of a close friendship turned tragic.
The same can be said for James Mangold’s compelling COP LAND. Another star-studded cast led by, in my opinion, Sylvester Stallone’s finest hour. A reuniting with Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on brilliant quirky political comedy WAG THE DOG, centred on a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer, who unite to fabricate a war in an effort to cover up a presidential sex scandal. De Niro portrayed Louis Gara in Quentin Tarantino’s terrific ‘Rum Punch’ (by author Elmore Leonard) adaptation, JACKIE BROWN, rounding off a fine year.
John Frankenheimer’s international espionage actioner, RONIN, boasted another all-star ensemble cast, with De Niro as a mysterious mercenary on a mission through the fast-paced crushing Parisian streets (and the same tunnel that notoriously claimed the life of Princess Diana in the same year), to nab the classified contents of a suitcase. He then sent himself up in Harold Ramis’ hit comedy ANALYZE THIS, as a mafia chieftain undergoing an emotional breakdown, in desperate need of help from Billy Crystal’s psychologist. He then ended the decade in Joel Schumacher’s engaging, if little-seen dramedy, FLAWLESS, that saw him appear opposite drag queen, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The naughties couldn’t have started any worse and contained the film many believe started the rot. Des McAnuff’s woeful animated/live-action mix, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE. A budget of over $75 million assured the director would never work on the big-screen again and embarrassed the whole cast. The film didn’t even make a third of its money back. MEN OF HONOR didn’t fair much better in telling the true-story of the first African American, then also first amputee, US Navy Diver (Cuba Gooding Jr.), with De Niro as the man who trained him. Surprisingly, an uninspiring bore not helped by a poor script. Thankfully, salvation (well, for some), came from crazy family comedy, MEET THE PARENTS, which introduced us to overprotective father and retired CIA operative, Jack Byrnes, along with his Focker clan. A huge, and much needed hit.
The impressive trio, De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando couldn’t lift THE SCORE from being anything other than average, whilst the likes of SHOWTIME, CITY BY THE SEA and GODSEND failed to even manage that negative title. Returning for hit sequels ANALYZE THAT and MEET THE FOCKERS again brought some box-office business, while receiving some woeful reviews. HIDE & SEEK marked De Niro’s first genuine foray into horror (well, if you don’t include ROCKY & BULLWINKLE) and suggested he’d better stay away from the genre.
Epic espionage ensemble THE GOOD SHEPHERD marked his second directing effort (and so far last), with Matt Damon headlining the story of the early rise of the CIA. A top cast in a top drama chronicling an important subject (and secrets) in American history. He next donned drag himself, as the crossdressing Captain of Matthew Vaughn’s family fantasy, STARDUST, before the exciting-sounding RIGHTEOUS KILL, reuniting Pacino and De Niro, ultimately proved to be as enticing as a 50 Cent album (who, coincidentally, also featured in this wasted heap of shit). LITTLE FOCKERS left us wishing they would all just Fock off, while proving Ben Stiller is as useless as sucking on a rusty tinned tit, unless he’s pouting ‘Blue Steel’, or cameoing in Adam Sandler golf-themed comedies.
His first appearance alongside Bradley Cooper showed LIMITLESS promise in the story of a struggling author, who pops mind-expanding pills to open gateways in the brain never utilised before. A team-up with Jason Statham and Clive Owen in fact-based action-thriller, KILLER ELITE, was essentially a no frills and forgettable affair. Mention Garry Marshall’s semi-VALENTINE’S DAY sequel, NEW YEARS EVE, to someone in the offices of THN, and you’re lucky to leave with just a bloody nose, so much is their detestation of sugar-coated shittery. All involved should be ashamed and offer apologies on bended knee to each and every cinemagoer thick enough to sit through it.
We now come to his sensational resurrection in David O. Russell’s heartfelt and hilarious SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. It sees De Niro well and truly back on form as the father to Bradley Cooper’s troubled Pat, a bipolar former teacher trying to get his life back on track following his divorce and release from mental health care. It landed all involved well-deserved Oscar-nods, with only the stunning Jennifer Lawrence walking away with a bald statue. Still, it holds promise for the future of De Niro with upcoming projects KILLING SEASON (a survival thriller opposite John Travolta), Luc Besson’s mob comedy, MALAVITA, O.A.P. HANGOVER-style farce, LAST VEGAS and of course, THE BIG WEDDING, to name only a few of many.
THE BIG WEDDING is released in UK cinemas 29th May.