|Robert De Niro in Joy|
Today marks the 73rd birthday of actor Robert De Niro. While it may be easy to ignore among his later and lesser films, he is an actor that so deftly earned the honor of being one of the greatest actors of his generation. One can easily see it in his impressive work between the 70's and 90's where he constantly embodied the roles with rigorous attention to detail and enough crazy stories to make Jared Leto look tame. Still, can you name all seven of his Oscar-nominated performances? Better yet, can you name the two of his that won? The following is a ranking of his nominations that reflect an actor at various stages of his career doing his work so well that lesser actors can only hope to achieve half of the level of gravitas.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Among the pinnacle of amazing performances, it's hard to not include Raging Bull just by the strong regiment that De Niro developed during production. He got into shape and became a rather legitimate boxer before gaining weight to portray the latter day Jake La Motta. Thankfully, director Martin Scorsese's biopic is itself a fantastic work of art that does his performance justice. Together, this is what people mean when they talk about great director/actor pairings. Over the course of a few decades, they produced many masterpieces while trying very hard to get everything right. It's safe to say that after a few decades, they more than achieved their goals.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
For many, Travis Bickel is an icon of loneliness. He's a veteran who drives a taxi around for people who spit on his services. It's far from a pleasant life, and few actors portray the balance between grief and insanity quite like De Niro. Thanks in part to the actor's certification as an actual taxi driver, the film feels real and makes the story pop in ways that seem dated - New York is far from this scummy nowadays - but so wonderfully atmospheric. It could be that Scorsese was in the middle of a drug problem and writer Paul Schrader had suicidal tendencies that make the film feel so dour, but it's a picture of society that is unpleasant in every way. Still, it says something about the psyche of the era as well as our general treatment of veterans. It just happens to do it in very sleazy ways.
3. The Godfather Part II (1974)
You may ask yourself: How do you top Marlon Brando's performance in The Godfather? For the sequel, De Niro played a younger version of Vito Corleone and fleshed out the family's back story as they set up a business in America. While the film is more notoriously known for not getting Al Pacino his much deserved Oscar, it is the first nomination for a young De Niro, and the first of two wins. While he had been working steadily in the years leading up to the Mario Puzo-penned sequel, it's easy to see what made him more than just a good actor. He didn't try to top Brando, instead choosing to match him and flesh out a character who had a lot of interesting territory to work in. Also, it is one of the few times that De Niro and Pacino - the arguable two best actors of their generation - appeared in the same film together (it's also their best, even if they don't share any screen time for logical purposes).
4. The Deer Hunter (1978)
It makes sense why De Niro's main crop of acting nominations came over the course of the 70's. For starters, he had an enviable track record that saw him taking chances with provocative source material and turning in harrowing performances that set him up for acclaim. The Deer Hunter is no exception, if just because of its controversial take on the Vietnam War. While the film gets overshadowed with Christopher Walken's phenomenal performance, or Meryl Streep's first nomination ever; it's hard to ignore the power of De Niro's character who suffers from war travesties and lives to deal with the conflicts both internally and externally. If nothing else, it's one of his most insular of the Oscar-nominated performances, and it is also one of the most beautifully tragic.
5. Cape Fear (1991)
The further into his career that Scorsese gets, the more baffling Cape Fear seems as an Oscar-nominated film. It's at times pulpy and infuses a typical thriller with aspects of B-Movie cinematography that looks cheap. It's still a haunting and powerful film, even if it may serve as a lesser in Scorsese's canon. However, one cannot overlook De Niro, who may be at his cartooniest, but turns in a performance that is just as magnetic as his other work. True, the 80's saw him take on very interesting roles that should've been nominated, but there's something fine about Cape Fear being on the list. It may be the silliest of his nominations, but there's a reason that he's considered the best.
6. Awakenings (1990)
In the years following My Left Foot, it seemed like disabilities were a surefire way to get an Oscar nomination. It's for a good reason, as the best performances in this camp require physical restraint and accuracy that only the best actors embody. In a sense, the film's saccharine nature and Robin Williams' far more impressive performance overshadow De Niro, likely due to his minimalist style of acting here. Still, his role is packed with excellence as usual, and it's almost hard to believe that the catatonic man in this film was once a boxing champ and drove taxis around New York.
7. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
It is easy to overlook that anyone but Jennifer Lawrence got nominated for this David O. Russell film. She had the star making performance that most people remember and likely haven't due to her consistent pop culture presence. While many could even pin Bradley Cooper as having his first of three consecutive nominations, does anyone really remember De Niro getting a late career nomination for this film? He is good and the film is adequate, but there's not much worthy of giving him a nomination for in here. He does what he does best in an ensemble role, and that's about all that you can say.