Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
It’s not that we’d ever refer to many of Robert De Niro’s best roles as “vulnerable” in and of themselves. The legendary actor is one of the all-time great performers of tough guys, in their many forms, and there’s a ferocity to many of his early turns that’s gone nearly unparalleled in the years since. Yet one of the significant aspects of De Niro’s genius as an actor is the way in which he’s been able to build a long career out of playing on the earlier performances he’s delivered, whether it’s in adding new shades to the plethora of gangsters and fallen icons he’s portrayed for Martin Scorsese, or in the later years of his career, when he began to mine his gruff, unflappable persona for comedy.
This week, De Niro returns to theaters with The Irishman, his much-hyped reunion with not only Scorsese, but also Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Given the de-aging technology being utilized, it’s not hard to draw threads back to his eclectic career, one full of unforgettable characters and some highly suspect calls alike. (America forgives, but never forgets … Rocky & Bullwinkle.) Like any actor who’s been around long enough to measure his career in distinct phases, De Niro has left behind a fascinating filmography and has been the unforgettable center of more films than most actors would ever imagine possible. However, he’s also done what many never even try to, finding new wrinkles in audience expectations even as they clamor for just one more inimitable tough guy.
De Niro might be as well-known to audiences today for his comic riffs on his star persona as for some of his most formidable work, but in our latest Top Performances ranking, we’ve tried our best to distill the actor’s 100+ credited performances into the cream of the crop. Let us know if we missed something, and do try to keep it down in the theater…
10. Louis Gara
Jackie Brown (1997)
De Niro has always functioned well in an ensemble environment (see also: our No. 4 choice, as well as the underrated, inside baseball-heavy Barry Levinson comedy What Just Happened). It allows De Niro the lateral room to explore some of his odder modes and tics in a context where it’s not so distracting. There’s always been something of a character actor feel to De Niro as a performer; though he’s always been a commanding leading man, there’s an eccentricity to many of his characters that tends to flourish the most when he’s able to cut a little looser, creatively speaking.
Though De Niro is just one of a great many players in Quentin Tarantino’s ode to blaxploitation movies and the work of Elmore Leonard, he’s memorable in a clear supporting role as Louis, the ex-con affiliate of Samuel L. Jackson’s criminal mastermind. Louis gives De Niro the chance to explore a new shade of “bumbling” as the kind of half-witted figure whose sharper edges have clearly dulled with age, delivering Tarantino’s characteristic patter with a perpetual anxiety that occasionally mutates into De Niro’s trademark menace. He’s just one cog in Tarantino’s masterful hustle, but he’s also the walking manifestation of a doomed idea. It’s a slyly memorable performance. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Line: “She was being such a pain. She made us late for the pickup because she locked herself in your bathroom for hours with her bong getting high. She was nagging and complaining … so strung out. She wouldn’t shut up, so…” [Jackson: “You left her back there?”] “Not exactly. I shot her.”
09. Rupert Pupkin
The King of Comedy (1982)
There’s an entire subsection of Martin Scorsese’s filmography that we’ll call “Weird Scorsese”, projects that exist well outside of the director’s long-running comfort zones of criminal epics, inquiries into Catholic guilt, and acute character studies of selfish, damaged men. Some of his best stuff exists in this area, films like After Hours that feel almost alien to the director, and his savage, seriocomic The King of Comedy may be one of his very best. It also features what might be one of De Niro’s most complex roles, Rupert Pupkin, a fringe lunatic who just wants to be a star for a little while.
Pupkin is the kind of anti-hero (bordering on antagonist) that’s come into popular fashion in so much modern film and television, but in the early ’80s, De Niro offered a complicated morality play in following Pupkin, who abducts Jerry Lewis’ successful late-night host in hopes of taking over the airwaves for a night. Scorsese has rarely engaged with the hazards of modern culture in his work, frequently preferring to find current lessons in bygone eras, but The King of Comedy only continues to gather power with age in its vision of a pathetic, sorrowful figure who sees fleeting celebrity as the ultimate glory.
De Niro’s work here is exceptional, lending Pupkin a relatable neediness that aches in a way the actor has rarely explored since. Rupert is always a figure of some small empathy, but he’s also a symptom of a culture that tells him he deserves everything, even as he probably, objectively does not. So much of Pupkin exists behind his eyes, in the little hesitations that come whenever he’s challenged or reminded that he can’t live in his own reality forever. It’s an emotional (and narrative) high-wire act that De Niro executes with precision, as a man who’s always laughing a little too hard for a little too long. . –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Line: “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”
08. James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas may have seemed like just another chance for De Niro to flex the same gangster muscles he honed in his role as a young Vito Corleone, but it actually afforded him a much more significant opportunity to put his personal stamp on a character. Scorsese gave De Niro and his fellow actors the freedom to truly inhabit their characters, ad-libbing lines and facial expressions until they arrived at something that felt real.
De Niro responded with one of his most impeccably researched and nuanced roles of his career, transforming himself into the real James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway with the help of screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. He had accomplished a similar feat a decade earlier with Raging Bull, but everything about his performance as Conway — right down to the man himself — feels more refined, and as a result it has become the archetype for tough-guy gangster roles ever since, a master class in suave ruthlessness right down to the way he holds his cigarette. –Collin Brennan
Best Line: “I’m not mad, I’m proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man, and you learn two great things in your life. Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”
07. Jack Byrnes
Meet the Parents (2000)
Paired with an especially hapless version of Ben Stiller’s Everyman, De Niro shines as a retired CIA counterintelligence officer who takes an instant dislike to his daughter’s soon-to-be husband. Though it poses as a lighthearted comedy, Meet the Parents revels in the flashes of darkness hidden beneath the disarmingly normal exterior of De Niro’s Jack. Stiller deserves credit for gamely suffering his way through boyfriend hell, but it’s De Niro who provides the best lines (“Are you a pothead, Focker?”) and bemused expressions as he slowly peels back his facade to reveal his hardened, slightly deranged true self.
Watching the film again today, there’s something weirdly Trumpian about Jack’s ability to gaslight Greg to the edge of sanity, all while making himself seem downright reasonable by comparison. Nobody’s going to mistake Meet the Parents for Taxi Driver, but the film’s central drama still involves a psyche being pushed to the point of breaking. Here, as per usual, it’s De Niro doing the pushing, and it’s rarely more of a pleasure to watch. –Collin Brennan
Best Line: “I will be watching you, and if I find that you are trying to corrupt my first-born child, I will bring you down, baby. I will bring you down to Chinatown.”
06. Pat Sr./Patrizio
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
The seventh of De Niro’s Oscar nominations came after a 20-year gap, between his nominated leading turn in Cape Fear and his performance as the patriarch of a boisterous, chaotic family in David O. Russell’s much-loved dramedy about football, reckless gambling, and the total inconvenience of love. The father to Bradley Cooper’s emotionally unstable ex-teacher, De Niro envisions Patrizio as a man who reached the end of his rope some years ago and is now content to chase his unlikely dreams of opening a restaurant with funds gained from betting on the Philadelphia Eagles.
But what starts as a characteristically gruff De Niro role eventually shifts into something warmer, the actor flexing his comic chops with a rare subtlety and elegance. O. Russell’s shout-heavy dialogue is a perfect match for De Niro’s ability to tower over a room when needed, and in his more intimate moments with his struggling son, De Niro finds boundless fatherly warmth in his rendering of a man who doesn’t understand what’s happening to the people in his life and just wants to make things better even without the slightest clue as to how.
It’s hard to capture the inarticulate cadences of men from an older generation as they try to reach out in whatever way makes sense to them, and De Niro bridges this difficulty by turning Patrizio into what could be an aged version of any of his youthful firebrands. That spark never truly leaves; it just dims with time. But it’s always there, waiting for something worthwhile enough to reignite it. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Line: “Let me tell you, I know you don’t want to listen to your father, I didn’t listen to mine, and I am telling you you gotta pay attention this time. 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.”
05. Neil McCauley
Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat is a sprawling 170-minute masterpiece that hovers over the lives of a dozen cops and criminals in and around Los Angeles. Given the star-power alone, some might consider it an ensemble piece, but they’d be wrong. As its poignant, dramatic ending proves, it’s about two achingly similar souls who share an intense determination for crime, only they exist on the opposite sides of the coin. A quiet and mild-mannered De Niro plays professional thief Neil McCauley, while a manic and (arguably) coked-up Al Pacino chases him as Lt. Vincent Hanna. Through their various cat-and-mouse interactions, we learn that they live for this stuff, enough to die for it.
De Niro relishes every moment as McCauley, blending in with Mann’s vivid portraits like a shadow on the wall. It’s a very stoic performance, as often is the case given Mann’s patient style of filmmaking, but there’s so much to glean from De Niro’s reserved silence. He’s a man who always has to be three steps ahead of everyone, willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice, and De Niro plays that notion with steely determination. But you can tell he’s waiting for the page to turn, and when he’s not inferring that with his eyes, he’s saying it through his whispery interactions. His late-night chats alongside love interest Amy Brenneman ooze with this tortured brand of masculinity that’s eerily affecting.
It’s a very, very good look on De Niro — arguably his sexiest to date. –Michael Roffman
Best Line: “I am alone. I’m not lonely.”
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s 1978 masterpiece is one of the great films about the psychological toll of war (Vietnam, specifically), and one of De Niro’s most overwhelming, emotionally rich performances can be found in his portrayal of Michael, a characteristically internal De Niro character who’s sent off to a war he’s scarcely ready to wage. Michael is the through-line of The Deer Hunter. When they go to war, it’s through Michael’s eyes that the horrors of Vietnam unfold, and when their time in a POW camp reaches its end, it’s Michael who has to wander lost, both back at home and when he fatefully returns to Saigon to try and rescue Christopher Walken’s shell-shocked Russian roulette junkie. De Niro is tasked with no less than the full weight of Cimino’s epic about grief and cultural loss, and his work here is some of his most defining.
That’s especially true of the harrowing final act, which is somehow even more so than any of what goes on during the film’s middle section in the POW camp. The Deer Hunter makes as powerful a case as cinema ever has about the impossibility of returning home to a blissful civilian life after having been away at war, and it’s in De Niro’s exhausted, wrenching portrayal of grief in all its immovability that the film finds its moral soul. There is no victory in this kind of war, just the men like Michael who get to bring their friends home and try to live a life after it’s all over, toasting to their dead as though it makes any kind of a difference. In his sorrow and in his quiet, physical imposition of will, De Niro accomplishes no less here than a portrait of the wounded American consciousness. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Line: “A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that, but they don’t listen.”
03. Vito Corleone
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Though it’s hard to call out just one performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping epic, De Niro’s role as young Italian immigrant Vito Corleone best captures the strange, menacing moral code of Mario Puzo’s original 1969 novel. De Niro’s version of Vito might be the most compelling (sorry, Brando) because it’s the most conflicted; part of the actor’s task is to show the audience how a hardworking man who loves his family transforms into a murderous crime boss who … still loves his family very much.
De Niro’s Vito is quiet and thoughtful but capable of an almost casual kind of brutality. He’ll kiss his daughter and then turn around and talk about making a man “an offer he don’ refuse,” all the while revealing precious little information about what’s actually going on in his head. One of the most rewarding aspects of The Godfather Part II is trying to interpret and reinterpret Vito’s moral code as it continually evolves, and never is this evolution more fascinating than in the extended scene in which he stalks Fanucci like a cat over rooftops, not quite sure (or is he?) of what will happen when he finally traps him. –Collin Brennan
Best Line: “Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me. They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor.”
02. Jake LaMotta
Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese originally intended Raging Bull to be his final project — a capstone to a decade-long exploration of the darker recesses of the male psyche. Though we know he and De Niro would go on to make plenty of other films together, this black-and-white sports drama does have a whiff of finality about it, as if both men had agreed to leave everything they had on the screen (and in the ring, as it were). De Niro, of course, stars as real-life Italian-American boxer Jake LaMotta, an emotionally crippled man who communicates via violence and routinely allows his demons to get the best of him.
And yet, De Niro’s performance wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if LaMotta were merely a character defined by his hulking, animalistic rage. The actor instead presents him as a tragic hero engaged in a constant struggle between what’s right and what merely feels right at the moment, a man prone to descending into fits of jealous rage as soon as things begin to look up. While Scorsese’s expressionistic touches lend an extra dose of drama to scenes like Jake’s self-mutilating prison-cell breakdown and his beatdown by Sugar Ray Robinson, the real drama in Raging Bull plays out in De Niro’s pained (and often brutalized) facial expressions. –Collin Brennan
Best Line: “Hey, Ray, I never went down, man. You never got me down, Ray! You hear me, you never got me down.”
01. Travis Bickle
Taxi Driver (1976)
De Niro’s long-standing connection with director Martin Scorsese isn’t just the product of familiarity. If there’s a common theme amongst Scorsese films, it’s that most of them set out to probe the inner workings of the insecure male psyche, and few actors are better equipped to do so than De Niro. In his iconic role as Travis Bickle, an honorably discharged US Marine working as a New York City taxi driver to fend off insomnia, De Niro portrays a man still dealing with the traumas of war but unable to find an appropriate outlet for those traumas. There’s something stilted about his speech and behavior, as if he’s seen the worst life has to offer and simply can’t play-act normalcy anymore.
Though he’s less imposing and certainly less forthcoming than, say, Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, Bickle remains the most menacing of De Niro’s characters. The iconic scene in which he challenges himself in the mirror (“You talkin’ to me?”) has been parodied so much that the real darkness at its center may seem obscure to modern audiences. That’s a shame, because it’s a masterful illustration of the psyche struggling to express itself and choosing — finally, having exhausted all other avenues — violence. More than 40 years later, we could still learn a thing or two about the human mind from watching De Niro drive himself mad in Taxi Driver. –Collin Brennan
Best Line: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”