Robert De Niro turns 80: See his most iconic roles from Taxi Driver to The Godfather
A brief wave of tabloid attention centred on Robert De Niro a few months ago, following rumours that he had fathered his seventh child at the age of 79. I had no particular interest in the narrative; what struck me was the reminder that De Niro, still one of the most dynamic and captivating working performers, was approaching the age of 80 – a birthday he will celebrate next week. At that age, many actors are relegated to dully avuncular supporting roles, if not completely retired. De Niro, who will soon be seen in slyly scary form as the lead in Martin Scorsese’s crime epic Killers of the Flower Moon, has a lot more fight in him.
Mubi has scheduled a quartet of De Niro flicks on its platform this month to commemorate the occasion. Sergio Leone’s sprawling, glorious, bullet-holed underworld tapestry Once Upon a Time in America and Terry Gilliam’s loopy surrealist dystopia Brazil are now available to stream, with De Niro’s unnerving high-wire performance in Martin Scorsese’s tangy media satire The King of Comedy and his terse, tough-guy showdown with Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat still to come. It’s a glittering selection that, aside from Scorsese’s picture, lacks the actor’s most obvious or brilliant feats de force. De Niro’s best hits extend deep more than 100 films into his career.
Of course, you could devote an entire season to De Niro and Scorsese’s lasting relationship, some of the highlights of which, such as their breakout Mean Streets and their misunderstood musical New York, New York, aren’t accessible to stream in the UK. The pair’s collaboration looked to have peaked in the mid-90s, until their weighty and surprisingly sad reunion on The Irishman (Netflix) four years ago: a film tinged by the pair’s mutual sense of ageing and patriarchal rot. It’s a work with a heavy, sighing tread – a far cry from the angry, edgy characterisation of ruined veteran Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or the pummelling character study of their Jake LaMotta biopic Raging Bull, in which De Niro’s daunting, all-in commitment to the boxer’s personal toxicity and physical deterioration landed him an Oscar and a reputation as his generation’s premier method man.
But I also enjoy their lesser-known collaborations, particularly his Max Cady’s full-throttle villainy, bordering on comedy, among the grand guignol excesses of 1991’s Cape Fear. Scorsese captures both De Niro’s ability for sleek, slightly troubled restraint – which Francis Ford Coppola tapped upon by casting him as the youthful Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II – and his occasional penchant for huge, juicy gammon. Not all directors use the latter quality as deftly as he does, though I have fond memories of his brash, blustering Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, his ripely mugging Magwitch in Alfonso Cuarón’s very Gen-X Great Expectations, and his rather soulful Creature in Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise bombastic Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
With such a penchant for the intimidating and terrifying – even playing the devil in Alan Parker’s brilliantly lurid gothic film Angel Heart – among of De Niro’s most underappreciated performances are those that situate him in a softer, atypically ordinary mood. In the appealingly commonplace New York romance Falling in Love, I like his soft pas de deux with a similarly unadorned Meryl Streep. In the little saccharine but pure-hearted Stanley & Iris, he portrays an illiterate blue-collar worker opposite Jane Fonda with remarkable charm.
Perhaps De Niro feels the same way, having taken on unusually low-key characters in his two films so far: as an honest, put-upon parent against the corruptive influence of the mob in the solid, emotional coming-of-age drama A Bronx Tale. It’s curious that he hasn’t made more films since 2006’s strangely buried (and currently unstreamable) spy drama The Good Shepherd. Perhaps De Niro, now in his ninth decade, will continue to amaze us.