Bob De Niro is one my favorite actors of all time as well as one of the greatest to ever do it (when he isn’t collecting a check for Grudge Match) and he seems to have more iconic roles that we even realize. From his friendship and partnership with Martin Scorsese to being a staple is gangster/crime dramas of kinds, DeNiro can do it as we’ve seen with some later films of his. He directs, he acts methodically unlike anyone else, and he is a stable of American filmmaking, happy f**kin’ birthday ya bum!
1. Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull (1980)
Daniel Day-Lewis may be the man we go to as far as “The” method actor and that’s probably fair, but if you’re naming others you have to say Marlon Brando, Christian Bale, and Robert De Niro. In his Oscar winning turn as controversial boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro became someone almost unrecognizable when he lost and gain weight for the role. A violent and antagonistic role for the ages it is without a doubt one of the best film roles in history as far as iconic and technical elements and is a role that actors and film buffs likely measure with roles after it.
2. Vito Corleone – The Godfather II (1974)
The Godfather the year prior was already being heralded as one of the most outstanding films ever created and the sequel did the rare thing in arguably improving the story of the Corleone’s through time hopping narrative and De Niro as a young Vito Corleone was the scene stealer of the whole movie without question. Going off of the momentum of an Oscar winning Marlon Brando in the same role and winning an Oscar as the same person is unheard of and you can see why. He is tragic, but violent, warm and cold yet always doing what he feels is necessary. He is the heart, soul, and mind of The Godfather Part II.
3. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)
In one of the many iconic roles with friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese, De Niro set himself apart from most with his turn as the troubled Vietnam veteran who wants to clean the streets of New York through vigilante justice, but he ain’t no Batman by any stretch. Through murder, drugs, and sex does Scorsese allow his friend De Niro to let lose as the sociopath with a conscious in this classic film and we wouldn’t have gotten the always misquoted line of “You talkin’ to me?” without De Niro deciding to adlib.
4. Rupert Pupkin – The King of Comedy (1982)
There aren’t enough people that have seen this film, but this is the subtle Scorsese/De Niro collab that people get wrong in trivia games. Not only is De Niro at his best, but it’s not because he’s an anti-hero, but in fact a normal human being who wants to be famous, normal used loosely. It’s a masterful study on the human psychosis that Scorsese loves to bring to life, but this time it’s with a regular guy who happens to give commentary on something that is more relevant than ever in this world, celebrity.
5. Michael Vronsky – The Deer Hunter (1978)
De Niro describes this as his most draining film role he’s ever done which says a lot because the guy has been in about a thousand movies, but the tiresome work didn’t go unnoticed. The film itself won five Oscars and got his co star Christopher Walken his first Academy Award, but De Niro plays silent and tragic really well as the scarred Vietnam veteran and Pennsylvania steelworker. Some of the most intense scenes come from De Niro in an iconic and terrifying round of Russian roulette.
6. Pat Solatino – Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012)
Once De Niro started to veer away from the “young man” roles you wondered where his career would go and it turned out he went to being the father of nearly every actor and actress he could find, but through all those cash grab films he did in his career he found a new collaborator in David O. Russell who seems to have found exactly what De Niro needs the older he gets, and that’s the meatier roles as a dad/grandfather aged man, but it was taken in stride with Silver Lining’s Playbook where we saw that warm and flawed character in a new light. It’s such an understated role that takes your attention each time he’s on the screen.
7. Max Cady – Cape Fear
In this remake of the 1962 classic, De Niro becomes the most villainous character we’ve seen from his illustrious career. Tatted up with a southern accent and ambition for revenge, De Niro’s Max Cady is terrifying and makes you uncomfortable when he’s on screen providing a visceral reaction from the audience. It’s a great performance because it’s scary and makes you feel a way you aren’t used to from actors, but especially De Niro. It’s one of those performances you won’t forget from De Niro which should say enough.
8. Ace – Casino (1995)
This list could have just been Scorsese movies De Niro has starred in and you can see why. De Niro returns in what feels like a sequel to Goodfellas as the star of the film rather than the background. His calm and conflicting demeanor make for a compelling character who narrates the three hour epic gangster film and takes us for a ride like we hadn’t seen. We don’t know whether to love or hate Ace a lot of the time, but you’re always enamoured with him when Sharon Stone or Pesci aren’t in the scenes doing what they seem to do best. What makes Ace a great character and role for De Niro is that he says a lot, but not all at once. De Niro uses his body to speak in most scenes while his own voice narrates in the background.