Yet another of my favorite Italian-American actors celebrates his birthday this summer! Robert De Niro turns 69 today, and we’re going to look back at his best films over the last 40 years. Even before Godfather Part II in 1974 De Niro had caught the eye of director Martin Scorsese, and they would go on to become lifelong friends and collaborate on 8 films together. Since those early years audiences have seen the myriad of roles that De Niro can pull off, best known of which is, of course, the tough-as-nails gangster.
De Niro was born and raised in Manhattan, NY mostly in the ‘Little Italy’ part of town (my favorite neighborhood in NYC). His parents were both painters, so he had a predisposition to the arts from early on. Nicknamed ‘Bobby Milk’ because of his fair complexion, De Niro enjoyed his youth mostly by hanging out on the streets with his friends. His attention turned to films during his teenage years, and he dropped out of high school at 16 to study acting. In the 60’s he had a few small roles, and by the mid-70’s he was a star!
Bang the Drum Slowly– 1973
This is the first film that brought attention to the young actor. He played a slow-witted, professional baseball player dying from a terminal disease.
Mean Streets – 1973
Bring on the mob flicks! This is the first time Scorsese directed De Niro, and the pair would go on to define the dramatization of organized crime in modern cinema. Decades later, when talking about De Niro’s versatility and panache, Scorsese said “Even now I still know of nobody who can surprise me on the screen the way he does… No actor comes to mind who can provide such power and excitement.”
The Godfather Part II – 1974
I don’t know what else can be said about this one. I told you back when it was Al Pacino‘s birthday, that this film was the first sequel to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it marked De Niro’s first ever Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Here are the two big hits that turned a small time crook into Don Corleone, the head of the powerful Corleone crime family. First he knocks off Don Fanucci in Little Italy to take over his territory, and then he claims revenge on Don Ciccio back in Sicily, who killed his father years earlier.
Taxi Driver – 1976
In De Niro & Scorsese’s second film Bobby D. plays a disturbed veteran who drives a taxi to cope with his insomnia. He takes up the cause of rescuing a young Jodie Foster from a life of prostitution, and comes up with the iconic line ‘You talking to me?!
Side Note – It was this film that caused John Hinckley Junior to become obsessed with Jodie Foster, and drove him to attempt the assassination of President Ronald Reagan. He reportedly watched the film 15 times consecutively without rest.
New York New York – 1977
Scorsese intended this musical drama to be a tribute to classic Hollywood, and to his beloved New York. It was not a successful film, but audiences liked De Niro’s performance alongside Liza Minnelli, who played a fellow musician and his love interest. He even learned how to play the saxophone for the role.
The Deer Hunter – 1978
This story about three steel workers, turned soldiers brought De Niro his second nomination for Best Actor. He would later say that this film was among the most exhausting and emotional of his career.
Raging Bull – 1980
This artsy sports biopic brought De Niro his first Acadamy Award for Best Actor. He plays the aggressive boxer Jake LaMotta who famously defeated the unbeatable Sugar Ray Robinson. De Niro learned how to box and put on an astonishing 60 pounds for this role! This was also the first film that featured Joe Pesci alongside De Niro, who would later costar with him in some of the best mob films of all time. Here’s the clip which coined the phrase “He ain’t pretty no more.
The King of Comedy – 1983
Scorsese and De Niro wanted to dabble with some comedic elements which brought about this film. His character Rupert Pupkin kidnaps a popular television host, played by Jerry Lewis, in order to get his break. It was a flop at he box office, but critical reviews remain high.
The Untouchables – 1987
Who better to play Al Capone than Robert De Niro? Point of Order – probably best to not have your back turned while Capone/De Niro is wielding a baseball bat.
Midnight Run – 1988
Critics loved seeing the lighter side of De Niro in this action comedy film, which was a big box office success.
Goodfellas – 1990
One of my all time favorite films, and universally hailed as one of the best organized crime films of all time. Written and directed by Scorsese, the movie is an adaptation of the non fiction book Wiseguy, about Henry Hill, who in real life was a mobster for the Lucchese crime family, and later became an FBI informant.
De Niro plays Jimmy Conway, a character based on mobster James Burke – aka Jimmy the Gent. The clip below is my favorite scene (from any movie), which shows Jimmy calmly smoking a cigarette while envisioning how he’s going to whack an annoying blowhard. I think the use of Sunshine of Your Love by Cream is the most memorable & effective soundtrack song ever in a film. I love the slow smirk that arises on De Niro’s face as he hashes the plot… perfection.
Cape Fear – 1991
Scorsese and De Niro came up with another big success with this suspenseful thriller. De Niro plays a psychopathic criminal who will stop at nothing to destroy Sam Bowden (played by Nick Nolte) and his family. Here’s a clip of him stewing in his quest for revenge as he is just being released from prison… another awesome soundtrack.
A Bronx Tale – 1993
This is a lesser known mob film, but is still one of my favorites. Marking De Niro’s very first take at directing, A Bronx Tale stars Francis Capra as De Niro’s son, and Chazz Palminteri as the local mob boss, Sonny. My favorite scene is when Sonny and his cronies kick the shit out of a group of rowdy bikers… “Now yous can’t leave.”
Casino – 1995
Sadly this is the last collaboration that Scorsese and De Niro have worked on together (although there have been talks for a few years on a new film called The Irishman). Casino is another classic mob flick, set in 1970’s & 80’s Las Vegas. It’s an adaptation of the real lives of Frank “Lefty Rosenthal (Ace) played by De Niro, and his tough guy mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (Nicky) played by Pesci. Sharon Stone plays De Niro’s wife, a role that earned her a nomination for the Best Actress Academy Award.
The Mid-Western mob bosses used their powerful influence and intimidation tactics to line their pockets with untold millions from gambling profits. As you can see from this clip, Scorsese was fond of heavy f-word use in the dialog. In fact Casino ranks 4th all time in use of the f-word, clocking in at an average of 2.37 uses per minute!
Analyze This – 1999
In this flick De Niro again plays a gangster, but this time in a comedic setting. His character, Paul Vitti, is a gangster who is stressed out from his life of crime and seeks out the help of psychiatrist Billy Crystal. The film was a box office success which was followed up a few years later with the sequel Analyze That, which wasn’t as good. Here’s the trailer:
Meet The Parents – 2000
This rom-com was a monster success at the box office. De Niro plays the intimidating, Ex-CIA operative father of Ben Stiller‘s girlfriend (Teri Polo). The film would spawn two sequels, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers.
Men of Honor – 2000
In this film De Niro plays a Naval officer who loses his career for defending and supporting Cuba Gooding Jr., an ambitious diver who challenges the systemic racism within the U.S. military at the time.
Shark Tale – 2004
In this animated smash hit De Niro plays a gangster shark of sorts who tries to persuade his pacifist, vegetarian son (voiced by Jack Black) to get with the program.
The Good Shepherd – 2006
De Niro begrudgingly turned down a role in Scorsese’s epic The Departed because he was too wrapped up in directing this film. Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, this spy flick is loosely based on real people and events involved in forming the powerful counter intelligence service of the United States CIA.
Here’s wishing Bobby D a very happy birthday from Team MissMalini, and we hope to see that reunion with Scorsese soon!!