Revered as the finest actor of his generation Robert De Niro is a method acting master capable of chameleon like transformation. The Deer Hunter follows friends through the horrors of conflict and the pain of its aftermath in Michael Cimino’s post-Vietnam drama. De Niro’s prisoner of war russian roulette scenes with Christopher Walken are incredibly powerful and moving.
De Niro began his long association with Martin Scorcese in the Wolf of Wall Street director’s 1973 film Mean Streets. Playing the hot headed wannabe wise guy Johnny Boy, the Italian actor rocks a mod barnet and channels a raw energy while buzzing round the streets of New York’s Little Italy with Harvey Keitel. Fans of The Sopranos and Good Fellas need to see this.
De Niro spent four months in Sicily learning the regional dialect to prepare for his role as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. Winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor the actor gained weight for the role and even wore a small dental appliance to echo the facial structures of Marlon Brando who played Don Corleone in the first film.
In preparation for the role of mentally unstable ex-Marine turned vigilante Travis Bickle, De Niro worked 12-hour shifts driving a cab in New York. By the time he stares into a mirror with guns raised and utters the immortal , and improvised, line “You talking to me?” the transformation via weight loss and mad mohican is complete.
De Niro doesn’t just play real life boxer Jake La Motta, he becomes him. On a journey towards winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1981 the method actor trained hard and fought in genuine boxing matches in Brooklyn. From street fighter, to world champ and then washed up night club comic De Niro gained over 60 pounds to play the older Jake.
Re-teaming with Scorcese in 1982, De Niro played wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin. After stalking his comedy hero (played by real life comic Jerry Lewis) the sociopathic loner kidnaps him and holds a TV network to ransom to get his own show. De Niro said he found inhabiting the headspace of Pupkin “unsettling” and didn’t work with Scorcese again until Good Fellas in 1990.
Roland Joffe’s 1985 film The Mission is set in the South American wilderness of the 18th century. Looking like he’d had a bad day in the mud at Glastonbury De Niro played a ruthless Spanish slave hunter who converts to christianity. In one emotional scene he follows Jeremy Irons’ priest on his quest for contrition and drags a rock up a cliff as a symbol of his penance.
Mickey Rourke played private detective Harry Angel on the trail of missing singer Johnny Favorite in 50s set thriller Angel Heart (1987). When he learns the crooner cut a deal with the devil he’s sceptical but then he meets De Niro’s Louis Cypher and things get very dark. Peeling and eating a boiled egg has never been this creepy.
In the 1991 Scorcese remake of the 60s thriller Bob is on scenery chewing top form as a convicted rapist released from prison on a mission to stalk and scare the family of his lawyer. De Niro transformed himself and worked out to achieve 3% body fat, got vegetable dye tattoos and had his teeth messed up to look like Max Cady really had spent 14 years in prison. Eat your heart out Christian Bale.
Following mobster comedy Analyse This, De Niro played Ben Stiller’s father in law to be Jack Byrne in 2000 Jay Roach comedy Meet the Parents. For many fans it marked the end of De Niro’s ability to play more physical roles but his comic timing is on point as the ex-CIA agent with a deep mistrust of Stiller’s Gaylord Focker.