74 Years of Bobby D - Mickey C's Top 10
My love affair with cinema started early, but it escalated into full-blown obsession by the time I was a teenager. It was during those years that I began immersing myself in the legendary films of the 1970s, Hollywood's last true Golden Age of Film. It was easy to get lost in the decade's output because once I'd seen a few of the films, I was hooked. My education in film spanned many decades but the 1970s (whose influence was still felt strongly in early 1980s films) were the primary source for me. Films like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The French Connection, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, All the President's Men, A Clockwork Orange, Alien, Halloween, The Shining, The Deer Hunter, and so many more were crucial to my development as a cinephile.
Robert De Niro starred in several of the films on that list. He and Al Pacino were like twin acting gods to me then. Their performances were not only great, but in a naturalistic, 'method' style. There were few signs that they were even performances at all; instead their acting always seemed completely organic. They so inhabited their characters that the line between actor and character was blurred to the point that it barely existed at all anymore. Over the years, Pacino rose slightly above De Niro in my personal pantheon, based mostly on his added layer of sensitivity, expressed, most beautifully, through his big, soulful eyes. But it cannot be denied that for a stretch of my life, I related all too well to both De Niro's and Pacino's portrayals of conflicted misfits, residing just outside the margins, from De Niro's electrifying Johnny Boy in Mean Streets to Pacino's deeply moving lead performance in Serpico.
Most critics and fans believe both actors have lost a certain edge over the last several decades. Age and complacency may of course play a part. Of the two, De Niro especially has slid into a series of performances that are little more than tired caricatures of his screen persona. That's fine, everyone ages, everyone loses a step or two or ten. Pacino's avoided it to a degree because his sensitive artiste vibe ages well. Instead of discussing what De Niro's lost though, I prefer to remember that for the entirety of the 1970s, much of the 1980s, and for a period in the 1990s, he was one of the world's best actors. He commanded the screen as a young Vito Corleone in Godfather II; he offered one of the most searing portrayals on film of how loneliness and despair can lead to horrific violence, as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; as Rupert Pupkin in the criminally underrated masterpiece The King of Comedy he masterfully toed the line between disturbing and heartbreaking; and in Midnight Run he showed one of the first signs that his particular gifts could be deployed in service of comedy. In fact, he's never made a comedy as thoughtful and as smart as Midnight Run again, and it still stands as one of his best performances, in a career overflowing with excellence. It's also worth noting De Niro's return to form in this year's The Wizard of Lies, costarring the equally magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer. As Bernie Madoff, a man so closed off and emotionally stunted that it's almost painful to watch, De Niro crafts an exquisitely nuanced performance, proving that in the right film and the right role, he's still got it.
So today, on Robert De Niro's birthday, let's celebrate the abundance of moments and performances he's left behind on celluloid for us and for future generations to discover and cherish. Listing my personal top ten De Niro performances is an enormous, anxiety producing task, but one I'll attempt here in honor of the man on his birthday. There are plenty of picks here you would expect, plus a few dark horse roles for which I've always had a particular fondness.
Happy Birthday, Bobby D.
- Taxi Driver
- Mean Streets
- The King of Comedy
- The Deer Hunter
- Midnight Run
- Raging Bull
- Godfather II
- Cop Land