To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.
9) Robert De Niro
The greatest roles of Robert De Niro’s career are generally considered to be the ones he played between 1973 and 1984, from Mean Streets to Once Upon a Time in America. I’m not contrarian enough to disagree with that, but I think The Irishman showed us that De Niro has maintained his greatness further than most other actors have. Only so many performers get the opportunity to continue making movies into their seventies. Some die. Some lose audience share, some get into other fields, some retire. De Niro has continued to work, and while he has certainly made some meh pictures in the past decade, he has also shown that even in his mid-late seventies he absolutely has the reach he showed decades ago. Though they are not literally his first and last roles, young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Frank Sheeran of The Irishman are bookends. The young gangster we knew would grow old someday and the aged gangster who is staring a lonely death in its grizzled face are the magnetic poles of the De Niro image. As Vito, he is soft-spoken and calm, though that placidity is, for his rivals, a sign of his simple-mindedness. (At home that calmness is often verges on comic relief, as it is when he brings home a stolen rug and his infant son wails on it. What, you don’t like the rug? he asks.) In truth it is a mask for a decisive ruthlessness, the iron which allows him to wrap a towel around a handgun as a silencer to blow away the neighborhood boss without calling attention from the festival below. It is what allows him to walk up to an old mafioso in his wheelchair and then slice the defenseless geezer’s torso with his knife.
That old man in The Godfather Part II is not so different from Frank Sheeran, who begins and ends The Irishman trapped in his own wheelchair, secure from vengeful young hoodlums like Vito but emphatically not safe from God’s damnation. Young men do not fear death, and so they can do horrible things without getting into a tizzy about their immortal souls. Old men like Frank have their whole lives to look back on, some incredible number of guns tossed into the Schuylkill, corpses as far as the mind can reel. I maintain that Joe Pesci gives the best performance of anyone in The Irishman, and of course Al Pacino and whatever goofy voice he was doing were wonderful, but De Niro’s performance, the bridge between Pesci and Pacino’s characters, holds that movie up with so much strength. Frank aches in this movie, and the further the film goes on the more we see that terrible, pounding ache in this bad, bloody-minded man. A one-sided phone call that he can only get through by muttering, almost non-verbally, to the end. A sequence where you watch him shyly enjoy a gala in his honor only to watch him begin panicking as his god tells him that his best friend is next in line to be smote. De Niro has had any number of showy parts before, but in his old age he seems to be settling in with these more natural, soulful pieces.
In The Intern, Robert De Niro plays a role which I am pretty sure was written with somebody else in mind. He plays someone named “Ben Whittaker,” which is the kind of name that only Martin Scorsese would purposely give him in a movie. (For Scorsese, De Niro is fake Italian; for everyone else, Robert De Niro is basically Garibaldi bearing a platter of arancini.) Ben is a retired executive who decides to fill the wife-sized gap in his life with an internship at a tech-savvy clothing company, and while he is there, he steals the hearts of, well, the entire tech-savvy clothing company. The younger men at the company look to him for advice about how to be a professional adult man, from the way he dresses to his use of handkerchiefs (for the ladies) to his understanding of work-life balance. Along the way, he basically becomes the founder’s dad, since Anne Hathaway desperately needs a dad in this movie and he’s the right guy for that job. In short, he plays a cute old man. While I don’t think The Intern is ever going to challenge Taxi Driver as one of the great American movies, and while I don’t think Ben Whittaker is likely to go down in history like Travis Bickle has, that doesn’t mean De Niro is anything less than wonderful in the role. Without relying on cantankerousness or infirmity, De Niro still creates a delightful older character, someone who surpasses “he reminds me of my dad/grandpa” and reaches “I wish this were my dad/grandpa.” This is at the center of De Niro’s success. He is never just believable, never just excellent. When he is reaching his great heights, De Niro taps into springs of more-than. More than just a work dad, but the work dad. More than just an aimless psycho, but the aimless psycho. More than just a tortured athlete, but the tortured athlete. More than just a benighted gangster, but the benighted gangster. For nearly five decades, De Niro has been the gold standard.
Personally I prefer De Niro when the more grandiose or lachrymose edges are sanded down some, which is admittedly part of the reason why The Irishman speaks to me the way it does, why The Intern charmed me, why I think he is the best part of Heat. But the greatest roles in his oeuvre are, for better or worse, the kind of roles that even other great actors have flopped in the face of attempting. Granted the movie that an actor is in has some effect on the quality of the performance, but watching Joaquin Phoenix take bits and pieces of Robert De Niro’s manic characters in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy and glue them on his emaciated frame was such a bummer. There are any number of enormous psychopath performances, but few of them are as truly, frighteningly unsettling as De Niro’s interpretation of Max Cady in Cape Fear. This is no small feat, because the original portrayal by Robert Mitchum is outstanding; De Niro makes him all new. Cape Fear is one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever seen, up there with your average Haneke cringefest. Where Haneke uses understatement, Scorsese goes for preposterous bombast, and everything De Niro does, from sticking his fingers in Juliette Lewis’ mouth to laughing riotously in front of fireworks to clinging to the undercarriage of a moving vehicle makes that portrayal ever more uncanny. Some horror crazy is not necessarily a hard part to play effectively, but it is a hard part to make transcendent; De Niro owns that movie from beginning to end.
The same is true of Raging Bull, where De Niro gives one of the handful of performances which might measure up to Renee Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Jake La Motta is a circus freak who can always hear the barrel organ and smell the popcorn, even when the big top has come down. The boxing scenes are terrific, for sure, but the incredibly physicality of the part far surpasses any punching the man does. Watching De Niro beat his head against the wall of his jail cell, stand at attention to the mirror while his fat acts like a gravity well, sit in the kitchen over a steak he doesn’t like and scream…it’s all spellbinding and horrifying. Even this is the kind of performance which has been borrowed from once too often. Nowadays, to train like a boxer or to eat your way through Italy are par for the course for actors who are trying to get into some character, and it tends to create par for the course performances. To see all that effort actually come through effectively on screen, one has to look to De Niro.