Robert De Niro has been in some spectacular movies, and Martin Scorsese has directed some phenomenal films. But for my money, the best flicks are the Martin Scorsese movies that feature Robert De Niro. The two have been good friends for decades, and Scorsese has directed De Niro in a total of nine films. Dating all the way back to 1973’s Mean Streets, the two have worked together in the ‘80s and ‘90s (Goodfellas came out in 1990), took a break for most of the 2000’s, and then worked together again with 2019’s The Irishman.
The thing is, out of those 9 films, I would say that at least 8 of them are masterpieces. And if I was going to judge the films alone, I’d probably put Goodfellas at number 1. But I don’t want to do that list. Instead, I’d rather focus on De Niro’s performances in those 9 films. In some of these movies, De Niro is the protagonist, and in others, he’s more of a side character. But in all of them, De Niro acted his heart out, making every last one of them memorable. Are you talking to me?
Oh, and minor spoilers up ahead.
9. New York, New York (1977)
Starring Liza Minnelli as a pop singer, and Robert De Niro as a saxophonist back in the 1940s, De Niro plays one of his typically charming, albeit, volatile characters, but this time in a love story with Minnelli’s character. De Niro actually learned to play the sax for this role, but he still had to be overdubbed since it looked the part, but apparently didn’t sound the part. Overall, it’s an okay performance.
I suppose my biggest complaint is that the movie isn’t doing anybody any favors. De Niro can be scary at times when he’s raging at Minnelli’s character, and he can be fun-loving when he’s up on the stage. But I feel like he’s done the same performance in other movies, but better. An overall forgettable movie, and a mostly forgettable performance, unfortunately.
8. Mean Streets (1973)
There is a great album by The Minutemen titled, What Makes a Man Start Fires?, which reminds me of De Niro’s performance in the movie, Mean Streets, as what kind of man blows up a mailbox? Robert De Niro plays a hood up to no good. Meanwhile, his friend played by Harvey Keitel, feels conflicted since he wants to look out for De Niro’s character, but also wants to move on, too, and get away from the mob.
I love De Niro’s performance in this, but it may be a bit too over the top since it kind of overshadows the rest of the cast. That’s not to say that it’s bad, as it’s not. It’s brilliant! But it reminds me of Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in that it’s so great that it kind of lessens the rest of the already excellent movie, if that makes any sense. Harvey Keitel’s performance just kind of gets lost beside De Niro’s is what I’m saying.
7. The Irishman (2019)
Scorsese’s and De Niro’s most recent collaboration, The Irishman, features De Niro as supposed hitman, Frank Sheeran. The film also stars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, amongst many others. De Niro is mostly the protagonist of the story as he befriends Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa character, while also watching him in case he gets out of line in his duties. What follows is a story that goes back and forth in Sheeran’s life, where he reminisces on his past while living in a hospital.
I like De Niro’s performance in The Irishman, but it’s actually the inverse of Mean Streets in that his performance gets overshadowed by Pacino’s Hoffa portrayal. Let’s just say this. If this was De Niro’s last performance with Scorsese (It thankfully won’t be since he’ll be in Killers of the Flower Moon), it would likely be considered more of a footnote in an otherwise fantastic career than anything else.
6. Goodfellas (1990)
You ever watch The Animaniacs? There was this great skit called The Goodfeathers, where it parodied The Godfather and Goodfellas using pigeons. Well, of the three pigeons, which were supposed to represent Ray Liotta’s, Joe Pesci’s, and Robert De Niro’s characters in Goodfellas, De Niro’s pigeon, Bobby, was the least interesting. He was kind of like the mediator between Liotta’s (Squit) and Pesci’s (Pesto)’s pigeons.
And that’s kind of how I see De Niro’s performance in Goodfellas. Sure, De Niro’s performance as the Irish-American, Jimmy Conway, is both inviting to Liotta’s character and intimidating. But the film, which is about a young man who rises up the ranks in the mafia, is kind of great outside of De Niro’s performance. When I think of Goodfellas, De Niro’s character is always the third character I think of. Not bad, but definitely not his best, either.
5. Casino (1995)
There’s an argument to be made about whether Casino is better than Goodfellas, and it all goes to Robert De Niro’s performance in this mid-‘90s gangster film. De Niro plays a Jewish-American sports handicapper who’s tasked by the Chicago mafia to oversee a Casino in Vegas. Things go well at first, but the film also chronicles how things go south over the course of time.
I prefer De Niro’s performance in Casino to Goodfella’s because he’s the star this time, and I love to see him sweat. He’s not the confident killer he is in many other films, but rather, somebody who’s really struggling. You don’t see that often with De Niro, but when you do, it’s appreciated.
4. Cape Fear (1991)
De Niro plays intimidating characters well, but in Cape Fear, he got creepy. Playing a rapist who studies the law and goes after the public defender who put him away, De Niro got super shredded for this role. But the best part is just how gross he is as Max Cady, especially when he’s kicking it with the prosecutor’s teenage daughter, played by Julliette Lewis.
This is a really dark performance, and it’s uncomfortable to watch. You get totally absorbed with De Niro’s performance and it gets to the point that you legitimately hate him. It’s a visceral role and one of his best with Scorsese.
3. The King of Comedy (1982)
The King of Comedy is sometimes called a satirical black comedy drama film, but I don’t see anything funny about it. De Niro plays a man who’s obsessed with fame and is seeking out any means to break in as possible. It feels like he thinks that comedy just seems like the best route for him. But De Niro’s performance in this makes me even more uncomfortable than Cape Fear did, which is insane.
It’s all because Max Cady in Cape Fear feels like a character, while Rupert Pupkin, who even kidnaps a celebrity to get what he wants, feels very real. He sinks into his own head and has delusions of grandeur, and it’s an extremely dark and nuanced performance that gives me the creeps.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
Possibly Scorsese’s darkest film, De Niro plays a taxi driver who is becoming more and more disenchanted with the world. It gets to the point that he believes he’s going to clean up the streets himself, just like some public service vigilante.
Travis Bickle was an incel before the term even existed. In my mind, this is De Niro’s most nuanced performance as he plays the kind of man that you can both sympathize with, but also not want to step foot near. His deteriorating mind is gradual at first, but then sharp. It’s my favorite De Niro/Scorsese performance, but I know everybody’s else favorite…
1. Raging Bull (1980)
The film that won Robert de Niro his Best Actor trophy, Raging Bull is about the kind of man who would openly tell somebody to punch him in the face. Playing real life boxer, Jake LaMotta, De Niro is both in tremendous shape, and also in not so tremendous shape, as the film chronicles his boxing career as well as what happened afterward.
Though I find Travis Bickle’s story much more compelling, one can’t help but love all the facets and nuances of De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull. He’s likable at times, but also so terrifying to everybody around him that it’s sometimes hard to even stomach. Raging Bull is not only De Niro’s best performance with Scorsese. It’s probably his greatest performance of all time.
And that’s the list. But which of these is your favorite De Niro performance in a Scorsese film? Sound off in the poll below. And if you want to know things like what we think are the best Martin Scorsese movies, then make sure to stop by often.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.