Frank's Faves: Robert De Niro movies

Frank's Faves: Robert De Niro movies

"Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man." — Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver" (1976)

I got some reader feedback to last week's column about my favorite leading actors and actresses' villainous roles — including an email from Dennis Vidoni of Urbana, who nominated Robert De Niro's "most deeply evil human being ever portrayed" in the 1991 remake of "Cape Fear" with Nick Nolte. "Should have won Academy Award," Dennis opined, and I can't say I disagree.

In fact, his suggestion is so inspired, it immediately inspired another faves list: My favorite Robert De Niro performances.

And believe you me, there is plenty to choose from. Google says there are at least 112. The bigger problem is narrowing the field down to just a favorite five. After all, the guy has played everyone from Bullwinkle's Fearless Leader to Frankenstein's monster to Al Capone to Lucifer himself. And those aren't even his worst roles.

What's more, when you limit yourself to five, especially with an actor as talented and prolific as De Niro has been over the past nearly half a century, you're bound to slight more than a few other people's faves. So right here, up front, here's my blanket apology to all fans of "Casino" and "Goodfellas" — no argument, both outstanding movies. But faves? Sorry. Not mine.

Fact is, I've liked Bob — Can I call him that? We've never met, but it still seems like we go way back — in a lot of movies that weren't otherwise as good as those two epic crime classics, but if we're talking my favorite De Niro performances, these are films that stand out in my memory because of the characters he played ... and the way he played them.

I don't expect the movie fans of the world to overwhelmingly agree with my faves. But they'll definitely give us something to talk about ("You talking to me? You talking to me?")

Yeah, I'm talking to you. I'm talking faves here. I'm talking:


— Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" (1976). De Niro's reportedly improvised scene in front of the mirror as he rehearses how he would respond if accosted while carrying a retractable handgun is a cultural icon. He is literally threatening others while talking only to himself: "You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here." DeNiro's in-depth portrayal of an unhinged veteran and an American psychopath in the making is riveting. And scary good.

— Vito Corelone in "The Godfather, Part II" (1974). Given the daunting task of essentially playing Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone — or rather, the man who will become Marlon Brando's Don Corleone — reportedly De Niro learned three dialects of Sicilian for the role, because — well, De Niro is De Niro, and he can't get too deep into a character (hey, when the guy earns a best actor Oscar, he really earns it!). When De Niro's Corleone eventually guns down the don who rules his neighborhood, his face, like the crime he is committing, is cool, calm, but most definitely calculated. He is the antithesis of both his sons and future heirs: hot-headed Sonny (James Caan) and ruthlessly paranoid Michael (Al Pacino), because he is as careful and considerate as he is deadly.

— Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" (1980). Probably De Niro's most intense performance combines some of his most contradictory dramatic impulses in one unapologetically self-destructive character. He's sad and angry and out of control, an abusive personality prone to abuse and loathe himself as well as anyone else who gets too close. Of course, his second best-actor Oscar for the role was justly deserved, but even more impressive is that while training for the part, De Niro uncovered a natural gift for boxing (winning two of three fights as a middleweight at a Brooklyn ring) and then famously packed on 60 pounds and overcame the accompanying health problems to play LaMotta in his later post-boxing years. Yeah, that's getting a bit too deep into character ...

— Jack Byrnes in "Meet the Parents" (2000). Yes, De Niro can do comedy, too, even if it's still playing the gruff and hostile heavy (witness his hilarious turn at the buddy/roadtrip genre alongside Charles Grodin in "Midnight Run"). Here, he's perfect as a retired CIA operative who happens to also be the prospective father-in-law-to-be of Ben Stiller. So, yeah, that means the youngster's going to spend a quality evening hooked up to the basement polygraph. And no, De Niro's Byrnes doesn't have the emotional impact of his Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy." But he's a lot funnier, and as we all know, dying is easy, comedy is hard.

— Louis Cyphre in "Angel Heart" (1987). OK, his identity is none too hard to de-Cyphre as the hard-boiled-egg-eating mystery man with the vampiric fingernails, but De Niro nevertheless oozes self-amused evil with underplayed ease as Mickey Rourke's devilish employer in the search for a missing singer.

— BONUS: Michael in "The Deer Hunter" (1978). His character is a down-to-earth, grounded blue-collar kind of guy whose loyalties and friendships are tested by the Vietnam War, and whose only idiosyncrasy, it appears, is the serious reverence with which he approaches hunting. It's not the most memorable character De Niro has ever played — although the Russian roulette scenes have my vote for the most intense of his career. Still, it's my favorite De Niro movie, best picture Oscar notwithstanding, because it's one of my favorite movies ever. And the scenes where he stalks deer up a misty mountainside (supposedly in the Appalachians, but actually the Cascades) are among my favorite movie moments, period.

— DOUBLE BONUS: Favorite De Niro movie I have yet to see: "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012). I'm told that De Niro's performance as Bradley Cooper's dad, Pat Sr., is among his best. I'm also told I'm long overdue for having see this movie. And I'm told that when life reaches out at a moment like this, it's a sin if you don't reach back. Maybe I should reach back and see it, huh?

Topics (2):Film, Television