Lots of long, earnest sentences have been written over the years on Robert De Niro’s contribution to cinema, American culture and what it is to be a man.
But for the reticent De Niro, talk has always been cheap. As he once told Esquire: "Those who say don't know. Those who know don't say. That holds up over time."
What definitely hold up are the moments. It’s clips, not words that tell the story of De Niro’s contribution.
These 10 choices were nominated by Esquire contributors with that in mind. There’s no Casino, Deer Hunter, King of Comedy, Once Upon A Time in America or Jackie Brown, no "Are you Talking To Me?" or "You never got me down, Ray". Ten isn’t really enough.
But as a list, together, they go some way to showing the pull, the range, the emotion, the intensity that only De Niro at his best can deliver.
As Martin Scorcese puts it: "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."
Such has been the reappraisal of this 80s sleeper road movie, it can no longer be called underrated. De Niro’s portrayal of the perennially pissed off, tough but fair bounty hunter is impressive as much for its understatement as De Niro in his prime plays second fiddle to the brilliant Charles Grodin. It’s evidence that this is no one-trick pony or scene-stealer as some have called him. De Niro can steal scenes just by choosing not to.
– Will Hersey
De Niro is a stingy actor. Parsimonious. Stories are told in a twinge of jaw, a snarl of lip. He paints in infinitesimal strokes.
Watching De Niro makes a man want to paint in infinitesimal strokes, too. It’s that emotional transference cinema gives you.
As Vito Corleone, De Niro underplayed a murderous and ambitious Sicilian as much as a murderous and ambitious Sicilian could be. What’s more, he laced up the shoes of a character that won Brando an Oscar, and rightly earned one for himself.
Sure, De Niro would be denoted the King of New York cinema over and over again. This, though, was his first true occupation of the throne.
Re-watch Part II. Re-watch it today, where cinema is fast and easy and quick to reward. De Niro towers: subdued but colossal, economical but immense. Stingy.
Vito’s murder of Don Fannuci is graceful. Maybe the quietest loud murder in film.
It’s Corleone’s first kill, and it’s all finesse: gun wrapped in towel, face wrapped in shadows.
Watch De Niro creep the staircase, head bowed. The lightbulb dimmed, he’s stood there, stoic and patient – and watching him, so are we.
– Adam Baidawi
In a film that also boasts Owen Wilson’s terrific turn as matey alpha jock and God-botherer Kevin Rawley (he refers to Jesus as ‘JC’), and Ben Stiller doing his lovable regular-guy-on-the-backfoot routine years before it had exhausted all of our goodwill, it’s still De Niro who steals the show.
As the cat-crazy, retired CIA officer Jack Byrnes, who has a problem with male nurses, Jews and believes his daughter is well out of Stiller’s league, he deploys the actor’s full arsenal of death stares and you-talkin’-to-me? clenched jaws to glowering, properly unsettling, very funny effect.
"It was a little bit intimidating working with De Niro," Stiller later admitted. It looked it.
– Johnny Davis
Forget the much fabled coffee shop ‘summit’ between Pacino and De Niro which borders on a parody about "mutual respect" and other tough guy stuff.
Instead, this early scene illustrates an important wider part of De Niro’s repertoire of violence. Yes, he often plays men capable of extreme brutality but across his career even here there is subtlety. Where Bickle was psychopathic, De Niro’s thief in Heat acts out of professional disappointment and necessity. As he bangs his target’s head on the diner table, there’s no pleasure. Just a look that says he’d rather be at home reading a book.
– Will Hersey
After years of coasting – wheeled in to play essentially a caricature of Robert De Niro – De Niro redeemed himself overnight with his turn in this out-of-nowhere bipolar romcom drama. Unemployed and with designs on setting up his own restaurant, the neurotic Pat Snr resorts to illegally working as a bookmaker and is convinced the release of his son (Bradley Cooper) from a mental health facility is kismet. When De Niro starts to blub – unrehearsed – as a viewer, it’s hard not to well up yourself. (Ahem, not that we actually did cry, mind.)
– Jim Merrett
While Analyze This/That/The Other, not to mention his cartoon-character method turn in Rocky and Bullwinkle, might suggest otherwise, De Niro can do funny. His cameo as paperwork-loathing guerilla plumber Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam’s deranged Kafka meets Orwell dystopian farce came when the actor was at the peak of his serious acting prowess, sandwiched between Once Upon a Time in America and Goodfellas (and feels like something of a coup for Gilliam). Here, De Niro taps into what a legion of impersonators had long known — that his tics and gurns could be twisted for comic effect, with spot-on timing.
– Jim Merrett
So iconic is the mohawk-haired, gun-totting Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver’s denouement, it’s easy to forget the film also had a romantic plotline that showcased De Niro at his most charming and vulnerable.
Midway through the film, Bickle fulfills a classic male fantasy by striding up to "the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen" and telling her she’s precisely that.
De Niro performs the scene with a wonderfully fragile bravado, at one point telling Betsy, Cybill Shepherd’s election campaigner: “I think you’re a lonely person … that you’re not happy person, and I think you need something.” Of course, he’s really talking about himself.
The genius of De Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver is how he keeps the emotional maelstrom within Bickle always lurking just beneath the surface. Even as he tries to be sweet, there is something unsettling and intense about him, the slightly-too-long linger at the desk, the desperation in the repetition of the details of their date.
De Niro’s full-blown, mirror-bothering psychopath may loom largest in the memory, but his finest work occurs much earlier in the film, when the dim hope of a normal life is yet to be obliterated in a hail of bullets and blood.
– Sam Parker
Alone in a small, dark prison cell, Jake La Motta finally runs out of opponents. With no one left to hit, he turns violently on his biggest enemy of all.
The physical transformation De Niro underwent to play the bloated, battered La Motta of later years is the stuff of cinema legend, but as he pummels the stone walls, shattering the bones that both made his fortune and destroyed every meaningful relationship in his life, it’s his voice that makes this scene so unsettling to watch, even now.
It starts with an angry wail, then, when he can’t take the pain any longer, disintegrates into a childlike cry. "They called me animal, I’m not an animal. I’m not an animal," La Motta tells himself. By this point you can no longer even see his face for the shadows, yet you still feel every last drop of pain and regret twisting through his body.
The greatest moment from the greatest performance in the greatest movie of all time? It’s a claim worthy of serious consideration. No scene better exemplifies the emotional implosions that are the signature of a great De Niro performance.
– Sam Parker
This is Robert de Niro's first scene in his first film with Martin Scorsese, his first scene in any film that made it out of the arthouse/B Movie scene to wider recognition.
It is the moment his character is introduced to the audience, but also the moment the man who would go on to prove himself perhaps the greatest screen actor in America was first seen by the movie-going public. It's worth cherishing for that alone, but worth cherishing more than that for its extraordinary economy: in 25 seconds, with no dialogue or exposition, just an an explosive moment of mindless violence, De Niro and his director tell us almost as much as we will ever need to know about this stupid, unformed, self-defeating young man.
The bomb in the mailbox is truly pointless. He does it for laughs, for himself. He's not even showing off to anyone. He could have killed someone (two passers-by move through the frame as we're watching), or himself. Johnny Boy, we come to discover, is lost, lonely, a sad case who thinks he's a player. He's a delinquent, a dimestore gangster and the first unforgettable character to spring from the collaboration that will always define both star and director.
It's really a perfect scene, a genius piece of cinematic magic and it echoes through the film. The next time we see Johnny he's in a slick suit, cruising into a bar, a girl on each arm, in slow motion, Jumpin' Jack Flash on the jukebox. But we don't believe him. We already know the guy's small time, a punk, alienated, flailing, his anger and unhappiness misdirected and unfocussed, all thanks to that indelible mailbox scene.
– Alex Bilmes
Goodfellas has more stand-out scenes and quotable lines than any film has a right to. The Billy Batts killing, the "you calling me a clown" card game scene, the helicopter sequence. It's the stuff of both playground reenactments and chin-stroking critical awe.
In screen time, De Niro’s Jimmy Conway is very much a support player to Pesci's scene-stealing psycopath and Liotta's sympathy-drawing everyman, but as a teenager experiencing Scorcese for the first time it was De Niro who stood out, his presence on the edge of the action enough to keep your hackles up and your senses sharp in case you missed a look, a wink, a mumbled comment or just a drag on a cigarette, as if each mannerism might reveal some telling plot turn or character flaw.
This short scene though, when Jimmy learns about the killing of his friend Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci), is electrifying.
In barely more than a minute, he travels from assertive control to confusion, disbelief, rage, desolation and childlike vulnerability. The moment when Ray Liotta touches his shoulder in sympathy and De Niro pulls fractionally away, unable to accept, says more about this character than any dialogue ever could.
– Will Hersey