Top 10: Robert De Niro Performances

 For those who knew of Robert De Niro only from the late 90s on, you know him as the funny old guy from Analyze This, or the father-in-law from Meet the Parents. During the 70s and 80s, De Niro was considered one of the greatest and best actors of his peers. He used the Method for many of his roles, physically and emotionally transforming himself to become some of the greatest characters in film history. From his start in early Brian DePalma comedies to becoming Scorsese’s first protege before Leo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro has a long career spanning the decades, starring in some of the greatest films in movie history. It’s really impossible to choose just 10 great performances, many of them are going to be unmentioned, but here’s what I consider to be his Top 10 performances.

1. Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull

Robert De Niro won the Oscar for his emotionally intense performance as the brutal boxer Jake LaMotta. There is so much that I could say about this performance. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest film performances of all time. This scene below (which I analyzed here) reveals the tenderness inside of LaMotta, revealing his broken humanity for all the outside chaos and destruction he causes.

2. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver

The isolated and delusional psychopath is one of De Niro’s most famous and memorable roles. . His infamous “You talkin’ to me” scene was completely ad-libbed, which proves just how much De Niro absorbed himself into this role of rage-fueled loner.

3. Leonard Lowe – Awakenings

It’s often looked upon as a cliche that when an actor plays a character with a disability they are baiting for an Oscar. But what many people don’t understand is just how difficult it is for an actor to effectively pull off a physical or vocal disability. When I first saw Awakenings, De Niro’s performance blew me away. Leonard Lowe has a disability, almost a “locked in” syndrome, losing all movement and speech patterns. A drug is developed that nearly cures him, but it slowly starts losing it’s power and Leonard regresses back. De Niro received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (and should’ve won, in my opinion) for his heartbreaking and inspiring performance. It takes a lot of talent to pull something like that off.

4. Michael Vronsky – The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is an intesnse portrayal of the Vietnam War. The famous Russian Roulette scene shown below shows just what high stakes and tensions De Niro had to portray. (As well as the amazing Christopher Walken) The rest of the performance is a quiet but devestation study of trauma. De Niro described it as the most draining film he ever performed in. Watching it, you can easily see why. De Niro effectively portrays the uneasy act of assimilation after returning back home from seeing such horrors of war.

5. Rupert Pupkin – The King of Comedy

De Niro and Scorsese teamed up in a change of pace from dark gangster pictures with The King of Comedy, a social satire on the obsession with fame and celebrity. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabee comic who goes so far to kidnap and hold his idol hostage to be on his show. De Niro gives Pupkin over the top mannerisms and speech, a performance that perfectly balances the desperation and tenacity of the character. This role can be seen a sister role to Travis Bickle, for Pupkin is just as delusional and unhinged.

6. David “Noodles” Aaronson Once Upon a Time in America

Noodles is a complicated role in Sergio Leone’s near four-hour epic. It is a mostly somber and quiet performance, Noodles spends most of the film as a sad and heartbroken wanderer, or an introspective outsider of his gang. But Noodles is not entirely likeable. There are two, one especially shocking, rape scenes in the film. Noodles can be equally savage as he is subdued. De Niro manages to brilliantly pull it off. (You can see more of my thoughts on his performance here)

7. Max Cady – Cape Fear

This is a deliciously over-the-top but equally terrifying performance. De Niro is a released convict that terrorizes the family of the lawyer who ineptly defended him. De Niro dons a thick Southern drawl, body builds for tight muscles which are decorated with religious tattoos. His eerily accurate portrayal of a sexual predator is in the scene below. (I analyzed that scene and his performance here)

8. Vito Corleone – The Godfather Part II

De Niro had a difficult job to do when being cast as the young Vito Corleone. Not only did he have to learn and perfect Sicilian dialogue (his lines were mostly in that language, with only sprinkles of English) but he had to fill the shoes of the great Marlon Brando. Brando made his role of Don Vito Corleone infamous in film history. De Niro had to evoke his performance while making it his own. De Niro achieves this and more. He tactfully echos familiar gestures and expressions that Brando used as Vito. He won Best Supporting Actor for this performance.

9. Father Bobby – Sleepers

Sleepers is rather underrated, but De Niro gives a great performance. He plays a priest who is a mentor to a group of boys in the city. The boys end up in prison where they are terrorized and raped by one of the guards. There’s a scene that is just a slow close-up on De Niro, a reaction shot to him hearing what happened to his young friends. De Niro encompasses a huge array of emotions with just one look.

10 Jack Walsh – Midnight Run

De Niro is well-known nowadays for making fun of his tough guy image with Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and the shameful The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But one of his lighter roles in the hilarious Midnight Run is a great performance. De Niro has a clear flair for comedy as the fast-talking curmudgeon Jack Walsh. If you want to see more of his better comedic roles, watch We’re No Angels and Jackie Brown.

Scene Sound Off: Cape Fear

Martin Scorsese directed a remake of the 1962 film Cape Fear in 1991. Robert De Niro starred as the sadistic psychopath Max Cady, who after serving 14 years in prison for rape seeks vengeance on his former public defender, Sam Bowden. Cady blames Bowden for purposefully sabotaging his defense in order to make sure he went to jail.

One of the most pivotal elements of Scorsese’s remake is the added dynamic of Cady’s obsession with the Bowden’s young 15-year-old daughter. This relationship was not as explored in the original film. De Niro’s Max Cady manipulates young Danielle as another way to get revenge on his lawyer’s family. It also adds a pedophiliac perversion to Max Cady’s already sexually deviant character. It is Danielle’s narration that opens and closes Cape Fear, and the film can be viewed viewed through her relationship with Cady even more so than Sam Bowden’s.

The most pivotal scene in portraying this relationship, and perhaps the most notorious scene in the film, is the school scene. Max has entered Danielle’s school, posing as her new drama teacher. He meets her at the theatre where he, in a way, acts out and directs a scene of his own to coerce and seduce young Danielle. It is a quiet scene that halts the action and stops the audience dead in their tracks with it’s lingering sexual uneasiness.

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But what is so fascinating is that one of the most intense moments in the scene, where Danielle sucks Max Cady’s thumb before kissing him, was completely improvised by De Niro. Juliette Lewis knew from the script that De Niro would come close to her, possibly kiss her. But that moment was completely off-the-cuff. De Niro approached Scorsese about doing it, but did not let Juliette Lewis know. Scorsese set up two cameras simultaneously to get both actor’s reactions. This scene shows the power of improvisation works just as well on film as in theatre, and is masterfully acted by both De Niro and Lewis.

We see the power of Max Cady’s manipulation through his charismatic wickedness topped with fallacious southern charm. He waxes poetic about ecstasy and paradise, (He wants her moment ecstasy to be in his upcoming seduction, reach paradise through him.) talks philosophy to prove how wise he is. He appeals to her teenage struggle, validating her as a person to get on her good side. Her parents don’t understand her at all. But he does. He can be the one adult that really listens to her because he knows what she’s going through.

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After he is done getting inside her head, he then appeals to her desires. He asks her if she thought about him last night and if he can put his arm around her. We really see how fantastic Juliette Lewis is at portraying this young girl. Not only through the costuming, with her childish barrettes and mouthful of braces. But also in her mannerisms, the bashful avoidance of the eyes, the nervous giggling, they all fit a teenage girl to a tee. You can read so clearly both the embarrassment and joy she feels at receiving an older male’s attention. (Of course, it also helped that she had a real life crush on De Niro) It’s forbidden, scary, and exciting for her.

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When De Niro walks towards her, he slowly peers, taller than us, into the frame. As if we are in Danielle’s shoes, we see it from her point of view. The wolf looming in for his prey. The thumb-sucking moment is a genius idea of De Niro. There is something far more perverse about that than just kissing. This sexual predator convincing her to do this unusual act of penetration.

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The film opens with the narration of “My reminiscence. I always thought that for such a lovely river the name is mystifying: ‘Cape Fear’. When the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end and real life would come crashing in.”

This may not be in the night, but the moment is enchanting and filled with the sexual mist of summertime for Danielle. The real life that comes crashing in happens towards the end of the film, when she realizes who that charming man turned out to be. It shows how easy adults can manipulate young girls sexually. Here was a girl just on the cusp of dealing with newly sexual feelings manipulated by this evil man. The end of her innocence was approaching (After all, her father declares in the film that “she’s not a child anymore”) and thusly ended in reign of Max Cady’s terror over her family.

Watch this engrossing and eerie scene below.