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Robert De Niro’s Best Films (When He’s Not Working With Martin Scorsese)

This weekend’s ‘The War With Grandpa’ is a sad reminder that the two-time Oscar-winner has made some regrettable acting choices. But look beyond ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Raging Bull’ and other Marty classics, and there’s a whole other world of incredible performances worth rediscovering.

In his long career, Robert De Niro has made over 100 feature films, only nine of those with director Martin Scorsese. But such is the legacy of those nine that they tend to be the ones you hear about the most. Any list of the best De Niro films is understandably dominated by Scorsese collaborations, with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas and last year’s The Irishman part of the conversation. (Some of you are probably mad I didn’t mention New York, New York, Cape Fear and Casino, which is entirely the point: They’re all basically classics.) 

But De Niro has spent a lot of time not making movies with Scorsese, including this weekend’s The War With Grandpa, which looks pretty dreadful. Before The Irishman, it had been about 25 years since the two old friends had done a picture together, but even during their height of their partnership, De Niro was an in-demand talent, hooking up with auteurs like Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Sergio Leone. Those other collaborations have allowed him to show different sides of his personality, even dipping into comedy. Yes, in recent times, the two-time Oscar-winner has done some of his weakest work, seemingly chasing paychecks while appearing in dreck, but even so, there’s been some gems along the way, too. The Scorsese films remain among his peaks, but they’re not the only ones.

With that mind, here’s a chronological overview of some of De Niro’s finest non-Scorsese films, with a particular eye to the roles that most expanded the idea of what a good Robert De Niro movie looked like. You may be upset I left off, say, The Untouchables or Awakenings, but that only further speaks to the 77-year-old’s formidable body of work. (And in case you’re wondering, De Niro and Scorsese will soon be working on their 10th feature: Killers of the Flower Moon is tentatively set for release next year.) 

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) 

At the same time that Mean Streets was helping to establish his name (as well as Martin Scorsese’s), De Niro was also in this male weepie about a baseball catcher and a star pitcher (Michael Moriarty) who form a friendship after the catcher comes down with a terminal illness. Bang the Drum Slowly captures De Niro as a volatile, exciting young star who seems like he’s about to burst out of his clothes. (It’s a similar feeling when watching him as the livewire hood in Mean Streets.) And while there are certainly conventional tear-jerking elements to Bang the Drum Slowly, it’s acted with such commitment that you don’t feel overly manipulated. 

De Niro’s director, John Hancock, knew that stardom awaited his leading man, comparing him to Alec Guinness. “Guinness isn’t a personality actor,” Hancock once said. “He’s a character actor who’s also a star — and that’s Bobby.” (Hancock also thought De Niro “has an eroticism Guinness never had.”) Bang the Drum Slowly proved to Hollywood that De Niro could carry a traditional studio movie, while Mean Streets showed that he was part of the vanguard of a new kind of personal, rebellious filmmaking. All these years later, he still embodies the duality of the character actor and the movie star. 

The Godfather Part II (1974) 

De Niro earned his first of two Oscars by taking on a considerable challenge: recapturing the complexity and charisma of another actor’s performance, but as a younger man. In our modern age of reboots, sequels and prequels, we’ve gotten used to the idea of new actors putting their spin on a beloved fictional character — “It’s Darth Vader as a kid,” or “Hey, Josh Brolin is doing a Tommy Lee Jones impression” — but Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to 1972’s Best Picture-winning study of the Corleone family was an ambitious, practically unprecedented undertaking, moving both forward and backward in time, examining in part how Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone became the man we met in the first film.

To prepare, De Niro studied The Godfather in a New York screening room — “[I] had an old video camera and videotaped all of Brando’s scenes,” he said recently, a necessity before the age of VHS tapes or DVDs — and his take on Vito is that of a young man who will rise to power and discover the brutality that the mob life requires. De Niro doesn’t do a Brando impression, but he seems to have channeled the character’s calm assurance. It’s a great portrayal because it suggests how the seeds of the people we’ll be are there all along. The wonder of his Godfather Part II performance is letting us see Vito come alive in front of our eyes.

The Deer Hunter (1978) 

Michael Cimino’s mournful, epic portrait of a group of Pennsylvania steelworking friends heading off to the Vietnam War starred De Niro as Mike, the pals’ rugged, charismatic leader. Because the actor likes absorbing the worlds of his characters, he spent some time in local small towns to prepare. “I also tried to become as close to becoming a steelworker as possible without actually working a shift at the mill,” he later said. “I’d have done that too, except none of the steel mills would let me do it. They let me visit and watch but not actually get involved. What was great was that no one recognized me as being an actor during that time.”

Despite some flaws, The Deer Hunter is a moving look at how that war destroyed American communities, and De Niro is especially affecting as a carefree lone wolf who is changed by the experience of combat. The movie also allowed audiences to see his ability as a romantic leading man: Mike always pined for pretty Linda (Meryl Streep), but backed off because his buddy Nick (Christopher Walken) was engaged to her. With Nick gone AWOL and Mike back home, maybe he can finally acknowledge the feelings he has for her? The Deer Hunter is De Niro at his tenderest, a far cry from the volcanic men he’d portray in movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull from around the same time.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) 

The Irishman was rightly praised as the work of an aging master who was critiquing the allure of the gangster lifestyle. But De Niro did something similar 35 years earlier with the final film from Sergio Leone, which was also a grim look at power and violence in America. Initially released in a condensed version that lacked the scope and resonance of the intended longer cut, Once Upon a Time in America — all three hours and 49 minutes of it — is now viewed as one of the great crime dramas.

De Niro played Noodles, a New York Jew who in the early 20th century (alongside his buddy Max, played by James Woods) starts to work his way up the mob food chain, running afoul of the law while courting the aspiring starlet Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). The film moves back and forth across decades, and De Niro gives a towering, mournful performance. 

The actor knew that the film was close to Leone’s heart. “He had it in his head,” De Niro once said. “He knew what he wanted. I’d say to him sometimes, ‘Just show me what you want to do.’” In some ways, Once Upon a Time’s study of regret is a fitting dry-run for what De Niro would bring to The Irishman’s equally funereal tone. 

Midnight Run (1988)

For the first two decades of De Niro’s career, you would be foolish to piss off his hair-trigger characters. That’s why Midnight Run was so funny: Its comedy is almost entirely based around a guy who constantly drives De Niro crazy — and De Niro can’t do anything about it.

This terrific road picture stars De Niro as Jack, a bounty hunter who picks up Jonathan (Charles Grodin), an accountant who stole a bunch of money from the mob. They have to get from the East Coast to L.A. in only a few days, leading to a cross-country chase in which both the Feds and the mafia are after these two bickering, very different men. Midnight Run nicely balances action sequences and one-liners — it’s one of the 1980s’ best comedies — and De Niro smartly lets Grodin have the best quips. 

This film was audiences’ first realization that the Oscar-winner could be a deft comedian — as opposed to the tortured, would-be stand-up in The King of Comedy — and De Niro proves to be an excellent straight man, his character’s hardass demeanor working superbly opposite Grodin’s nerdy, fussy smartass. Watching Jack fume at this pencil-pusher who won’t be intimidated by him is an endless delight. 

At the time, De Niro resisted the idea that Jack was more of a “normal” guy than he usually plays — “I don’t think he’s normal,” he said. “I mean, normal is normal. Who’s normal once you really get to really know them?” — but Midnight Run helped humanize this actor’s actor. He’s rarely been so appealing. 

Heat (1995) 

Don’t tell anybody, but although this Michael Mann crime thriller is advertised as a mano-a-mano battle between high-octane acting royalty, I always preferred De Niro in this particular showdown. Al Pacino’s brash, tormented cop Hanna is flashier, but De Niro’s McCauley is the more magnetic and fascinating: a career crook who’s lived by his credo that you can’t survive in this racket being weighed down by emotional baggage. McCauley’s steeliness forced the actor to strip everything down, giving us a guy who loves his unconventional job and the freedom it provides him from the trappings of the conventional world.

Of course, one of Heat’s classic scenes involves just the two men talking in a restaurant, sizing one another up. It was De Niro’s idea that they don’t rehearse the scene in advance, instead allowing whatever might happen to be captured while they were filming. 

Heat has two bravura action sequences — the bank heist and the final chase — but it’s the electricity of their dialogue in this scene that’s the most riveting. Neither actor hams it up — something they’d both be guilty of a lot during this time in their career (and since). But you sense that they respected each other, and the material, too much to let that happen here.

Jackie Brown (1997) 

Because Quentin Tarantino so reveres Scorsese, it was hardly a surprise that he’d eventually team up with De Niro. But for Jackie Brown, the filmmaker cast him against type, wonderfully. De Niro plays Louis Gara, who served time alongside Samuel L. Jackson’s frightening Ordell. Thing is, Louis isn’t very bright. Actually, he’s an idiot, and it’s very fun to see De Niro, a stickler for methodical research into his characters, essentially playing a dummy.

Louis is merely a supporting role in Jackie Brown, and not having to carry the movie seemed to liberate De Niro. Indeed, you can see shades of the colorful, gritty character actor he could have been if he hadn’t become a star. He disappears into Louis, rocking that big mustache and slicked-back, greasy hair, just as happy to get stoned or laid as worry about pulling off a heist. But although Louis is mostly low-key comic relief, the guy can snap, which De Niro does exceptionally well near the end of the film. Poor Melanie shouldn’t have teased him so much.

Meet the Parents (2000) 

De Niro had been part of comedy hits before Meet the ParentsWag the Dog and Analyze This were late-1990s successes for him — but this movie really cemented the actor as a latter-day comedy icon. That was a mixed blessing, of course — the Fockers sequels are unwatchable, and garbage like The War With Grandpa may make you wish he’d retired rather than tarnish his reputation — but Meet the Parents remains a funny, smart studio comedy that goes a long way on De Niro’s rapport with Ben Stiller as the anxious boyfriend trying to win his favor.

Director Jay Roach knew the two stars would hit it off after they all had dinner together. “Ben is a very confident person, but around De Niro he was so eager to please,” Roach said in 2012. “He was uneasy and I thought, ‘How can I prolong this? That’s the movie!’” That’s certainly the dynamic that continued in Meet the Parents, where Stiller’s sensitive beta-male Greg realizes there’s no way to impress De Niro’s Jack, a former CIA operative who doesn’t think any guy is good enough for his little girl.

What made Meet the Parents work, as opposed to many woeful De Niro comedies, is that the Oscar-winner never overdoes the shtick. What’s universally scary about meeting your girlfriend’s dad is that he has all the power — he doesn’t have to do anything to make you sweat. And that’s exactly what De Niro does, underplaying terrifically while Jack quietly savors making this kid’s life miserable. In terms of sheer terror, it was like if Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle got old, moved to the suburbs and put on a cardigan. 

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) 

Here’s a very different dad role for De Niro. What’s touching about Pat Sr., the obsessive Eagles fan in Silver Linings Playbook, is that he’s like a lot of fathers who love their kids but can’t quite… say it. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Jr., who battles bipolar disorder and falls in love with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who also has mental-health struggles. But Pat Sr. is one of those old-school types — you don’t talk about your feelings while you yell at the TV because your team sucks — and De Niro does a great job of showing this man’s discomfort with emotional intimacy. That only makes the moment when he finally opens up to his son more affecting.

Unlike the character, though, De Niro had no problem accessing the story’s strong emotional undercurrent. Writer-director David O. Russell (who adapted Matthew Quick’s book) discovered this when De Niro first read the screenplay. “I thought he was having hay fever,” Russell said, “then I realized he was having an emotional reaction and I sat there and watched Robert De Niro cry for 10 minutes and I said, ‘Wow he’s really connecting with this material and this would be beautiful thing if it could work out, because I think his heart would be there’ and it is there.”

The Intern (2015)

In recent years, De Niro has seemed adrift creatively, only occasionally finding scripts worthy of his focus. (Last year’s The Irishman was a happy exception.) The Intern is far from perfect — it’s overly cutesy, and also way too long — but he’s very good in this workplace comedy that takes an honest look at a senior-citizen character, a rarity in studio movies, which more often like to make older actors be “adorable,” such as in the De Niro snoozer Last Vegas.

Here, he plays Ben, who’s reeling after the death of his longtime wife, hoping to find a purpose now that he feels like he has nothing. He gets involved in an unconventional golden-years internship program, which puts him in the orbit of Jules (Anne Hathaway), a young go-getter who runs a New York fashion startup. (She’s like Miranda from The Devil Wears Prada, except a lot nicer.) Initially, it seems like they don’t have much in common but, of course, they’ll start to bond.

This Nancy Meyers film may not be incredibly funny, but it’s exceptionally sweet, and De Niro is poignant playing a man who thinks he’s lost everything. Thank god Ben and Jules don’t develop a romantic rapport — the age difference would be incredibly cringe-y — and, instead, they earn each other’s respect, while he teaches her how to appreciate what matters most in life. Yup, that’s a sappy cliché, but De Niro finds just the right note to play, mixing melancholy and understatement to give us a man facing mortality with his eyes wide open. Even in his 70s, he’s still finding new gears, still capable of surprising us. 

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