Robert De Niro at 80: His most memorable film roles

The Euronews Culture team picks their personal favourite De Niro performances
The Euronews Culture team picks their personal favourite De Niro performances Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (GoodFellas, Heat), Columbia Pictures(Awakenings), Savoy Pictures (A Bronx Tale)
Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (GoodFellas, Heat), Columbia Pictures(Awakenings), Savoy Pictures (A Bronx Tale)
By David MouriquandTheo Farrant, Jonny Walfisz, Amber Bryce, Saskia O’Donoghue, Savin Mattozzi
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Robert De Niro turns 80 today - and what better time to celebrate the greatest film roles of one of the finest actors of all time?

We all know how good he was in Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and there’s every chance he may bag a third Oscar (after the 1975 Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II and 1981’s Best Actor for Raging Bull) for the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moonwhich we saw in Cannes this year. If he does, incidentally, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between Oscar wins – 42 years.

In the meantime, the Euronews Culture team list their personal favourites of his... And some picks may surprise you. 

We proceed chronologically.

Jimmy “The Gent” Conway - GoodFellas (1990)

In Martin Scorsese's 1990 classic GoodFellas, Robert De Niro assumes a key role within an exceptionally memorable ensemble cast. While Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta deliver louder and more dynamic performances, it's De Niro's portrayal of the un-hinged Jimmy "The Gent" Conway that somehow manages to quietly steal the show. There’s one piece of acting from De Niro in this movie that especially stands out. An increasingly psychopathic Jimmy Conway sits at a bar, smoking a cigarette, when a menacing grin creeps across his face. In these brief seconds, De Niro manages to communicate to the audience his character’s plan to bump off his associate Morrie, all without uttering a single word of dialogue. It’s a perfect scene and one of the most subtle but brilliant pieces of on-screen acting ever. And I challenge you to find someone who looks cooler while smoking a cigarette than De Niro… I’ll wait. Theo Farrant

Leonard Lowe - Awakenings (1990)

Much as I have adored De Niro’s work playing host to Scorsese’s ample villains, the part of his closest to my heart is one filled with light. In Awakenings, De Niro plays Leonard Lowe, a victim of encephalitis lethargica suffering from locked in syndrome. When his doctor (played with tender grace by Robin Williams) gives him the experimental drug L-DOPA, it wakes him from his catatonic state. Based on neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir, Lowe experiences a short-lived but profound re-entry into waking life. Opposite Williams, De Niro is given a platform to perform the entirety of the human condition, distilled into a matter of months spent in a hospital facility. Though Sacks’ experimentation with L-DOPA ultimately lead to his patients relapsing into their original stasis, the film sells its message of life’s beauty thanks largely to De Niro’s humanitarian display. The same glint in his eye that makes you root for him even when he’s playing the most ghastly gangster brings you into the passion of a man so close to freedom but yet so far. Jonny Walfisz

Lorenzo Anello – A Bronx Tale (1993)

Robert De Niro’s directorial debut, 1993’s A Bronx Tale, delves into the lives of Italian Americans in a working class neighbourhood of New York City in the 1960s. De Niro plays Lorenzo, a bus driver and father to the main character Cologero who also goes by ‘C.’ Lorenzo is surrounded by organized crime in his neighbourhood and tries his best to guide his son away from any temptations of joining or participating in it. This is made harder by the neighbourhood’s mob boss, Sonny, played by Chazz Palminteri, who glamorizes his experiences with crime and lures C into joining in his organization. De Niro’s character breaks your heart as he tries to balance working to put enough food on his family’s table and being the only one in the movie who has the guts to stand up to the criminal organizations around him. De Niro expertly plays the role of a father who desperately tries, and fails, to help his family in the face of external forces that are much bigger then himself. A reality that was, and to some extent still is, present within the Italian American community in New York City, as well as for Italians in Italy. The gut-wrenching disappointment and humiliation De Niro’s character is subject to is enough to make any child of immigrants reach for the tissue box and give their parents an extra tight hug. Savin Mattozzi

Neil McCauley – Heat (1995)

I’ll always remember the first time I saw Heat. I was visiting Paris for the first time in 1995 with my parents and it was pissing it down. The rain meant that the last few days we had were spent mostly indoors, visiting museums and trying to stay dry. My parents had clearly run out of ideas and decided trips to the cinema were a good idea. We caught three films: Renny Harlin’s swashbuckling dud Cutthroat Island (which I remember quite liking at the time – mostly because I had a crush on Geena Davis in pirate garb); Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s first time in the 007 tux (a highlight and still his best Bond outing); and Heat. I was technically too young to have seen Heat. But the poster was so appealing that I pressganged my mum into convincing her it was alright. I’d already seen The Exorcist on VHS, so how bad could this gangster film be for my delicate sensibilities? Plenty, as it turns out, as Michael Mann’s intense crime epic hit hard. I also didn’t know at the time what a momentous occasion it was to have Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing a screen for the first time. But while everyone tends to remember Mann’s film for pairing the two screen legends for the first time (The Godfather Part II never sees them share a scene, so pipe down you pedants), I remember the quiet stoicism and the effortless cool of calculated career thief Neil McCauley. He was precise, tightly wound, but De Niro’s strength was allowing subtle glimpses of the man behind the steely gangster to peer through, especially towards the end. He was ice cool, but the hairline cracks in the armour De Niro perfected was what made Neil such a fascinating character. To this day, it’s one of his most impactful and measured performances, far from some of the many great De Niro creations I also treasure, ones which are defined by a sense of unpredictability (Max Cady in Cape Fear, Al Capone in The Untouchables, Louiiiiiissss in Jackie Brown). So, thanks for the rain, Paris. Young me would have had to wait until the VHS. David Mouriquand

Jack Byrnes - Meet the Parents (2000)

In sharp contrast to the fierce and frenzied characters that have defined much of Robert De Niro’s career, his portrayal of Jack Byrnes, a retired CIA counterintelligence agent with a severe lack of boundaries, called to attention his comedic chops. As the title suggests, Meet the Parents follows the unfortunately named Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller), a male nurse who's meeting his girlfriend Pam's (Teri Polo) family for the first time, with the intention of proposing. Things do not go smoothly - and how could they when you’re faced with an overly-suspicious father that keeps doing creepy “I’m watching you” gestures. Gaylord doesn’t help matters by flooding the back garden with sewage and replacing the human-toilet-using cat, Jynxy, with a stray. It’s De Niro’s role as cranky old man (one he would inhabit many times in his later career) that makes this movie so fun. His knitted brows and exaggerated intensity, even when faced with the mundane, nod to the silliness of the movie, but also make for some truly hilarious moments. Amber Bryce

Fearless Leader - The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

Only Robert De Niro could get away with not just playing a character called Fearless Leader, but playing the role in a flop so spectacular that it earned the undesirable title of one of the biggest box office bombs in history. Most of you have no doubt cast the horror show that is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of your mind. We wouldn’t mind betting that De Niro has done exactly that. Playing alongside the titular, animated Rocky and Bullwinkle - a flying squirrel and a moose respectively - the Oscar winner’s choice to take on the role of the main protagonist is still baffling 23 years after its release. Did the squirrel and moose duo who had their TV series taken off air in 1964 really deserve a 21st century reboot? We’re not sure, but De Niro clearly did. Not just starring in the movie but acting as co-producer too, his performance was a departure from his typical, usually more serious roles, as he embraced a more comedic and over-the-top persona for the character. The jury is still out on whether that slightly rogue choice was a good idea. Despite De Niro's star power and the nostalgic appeal of the source material, the movie has long served as cautionary tale over adapting animated classics to live-action. Although it’s not likely to be very many people’s favourite turn of De Niro's on the big screen, his comedic performance adds an interesting layer to his super diverse career. His willingness to take on unconventional roles like this one has ensured he’s remained one of the Hollywood greats throughout his decades in the industry. Saskia O’Donoghue

Happy Birthday Bobby D – and we’ll be rooting for you for the Oscars 2024.

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