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The 8 Movies That Defined Robert De Niro’s Career


  • From Mean Streets to Killers of the Flower Moon, Robert De Niro’s career has been defined by powerful performances and iconic roles.
  • De Niro’s collaborations with directors like Martin Scorsese and his ability to embody complex characters solidify his status as a cinematic legend.
  • Despite highs like The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull, not every project has been a hit for De Niro, with films like Dirty Grandpa standing out as lows.

As a performer widely considered among the greatest actors of all time, Robert De Niro has had an extraordinary career across action, comedy, drama, and, of course, the gangster genre. From his acclaimed creative partnership with director Martin Scorsese to his memorable roles in some of the best movies ever made, De Niro has carved out a name for himself as an unmatched talent over more than 60 years in show business. A true titan of cinema, De Niro has maintained his reputation as one of the all-time greats from the beginning of the New Hollywood era right up to today.

While it’s almost impossible to condense a career as vast and varied as De Niro’s into a few defining moments, certain films stood as touchstone performances in his acclaimed filmography. From De Niro’s roles with Scorsese to him branching out into different genres and even getting behind the camera, De Niro has had an extraordinary career where he consistently showcased his stern commitment to his portrayals through a method acting style. Although there were also some low points throughout the years, nobody can deny De Niro’s place among the greatest actors of his generation.

8 Mean Streets (1973)

Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy

Although Robert De Niro had major roles before this, like Brian DePalma’s Greetings from 1968, the true defining moment of his early career was Mean Streets in 1973. As De Niro’s first collaboration with his longtime friend Martin Scorsese, this would mark the beginning of one of the greatest actor-director partnerships cinema has ever seen. While characters like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas ranked among De Niro’s best roles, none of these would have been possible if he hadn’t laid the groundwork for their longstanding relationship with his excellent performance in Mean Streets.

While De Niro had already explored the gangster genre in 1970’s Bloody Momma, Mean Streets truly highlighted his potential as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. De Niro played Johnny Boy, a reckless young man with mob ties who got everyone around him in trouble due to his mental instability. De Niro’s skill at playing loose canon characters like Johnny Boy would be utilized by Scorsese time and again as they worked together in the future. As Scorsese’s first major success, Mean Streets was not just a defining moment for De Niro but for Hollywood as a whole.

7 The Godfather Part II (1974)

Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone

Vito on the street in 1910s New York in The Godfather Part II

The success of The Godfather Part II showcased Robert De Niro’s rising star power apart from his work with Martin Scorsese and was a definitive moment in turning him into one of the most important actors of the 1970s. De Niro played a young Vito Corleone and had truly massive shoes to fill, as the part had been previously portrayed by screen legend Marlon Brando in an Oscar-winning performance just two years before. Magnificently, lightning struck twice as De Niro captured the essence of the character and also took home his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role.

As a film that ranked among the greatest sequels ever made, director Francis Ford Coppola worked at the top of his game when he made The Godfather Part II. Although the two actors never shared the screen, the inclusion of De Niro and Al Pacino was impressive, as the two actors would carve out reputations as true cinematic titans. While viewers would still have to wait to see De Niro and Pacino share scenes together, The Godfather Part II was a watershed moment in both of their careers.

6 Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta fighting in the ring in Raging Bull

Robert De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his incredible portrayal of the real boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. While De Niro was known for his outrageous method acting stories (via CBR), he pushed himself to the limit playing LaMotta as he trained extensively as a boxer, even winning several professional boxing matches, before gaining 60 pounds to play the character later in life. De Niro’s portrayal of LaMotta’s volatile and violent nature, inside and outside the ring, was extraordinarily powerful.

As a story of deep psychological depth categorized by sharp dialogue from screenwriter Paul Schrader, Raging Bull truly got the best out of De Niro as he captured LaMotta’s rise and fall in the boxing scene. With a turbulent life beset by rage and jealousy, LaMotta was a complex character who took his frustration out in the ring. Raging Bull’s rich black-and-white cinematography resulted in some of the greatest boxing scenes ever filmed. Raging Bull represented the peak of De Niro and Scorsese’s incredible working relationship and cemented the duo as a cinematic tour de force.

5 The King Of Comedy (1984)

Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) holding his arms up in The King of Comedy.

Throughout his career, Robert De Niro has honed a reputation for himself as a tough guy, but this ignored his incredible comedic skill that was on full display in the satirical black comedy The King of Comedy. With De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring standup comedian turned deranged stalker, The King of Comedy was a powerful look at celebrity culture and the pitfalls of hero worship. Although the film bombed at the box office at the time of its release, The King of Comedy has since built up a reputation as one of the greatest releases in De Niro’s vast filmography.

Rupert Pupkin was a deeply troubled character with a much darker edge than De Niro’s later, more outright comedy roles, such as Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents and its sequels. In a way, the themes and ideas seen in The King of Comedy were an extension of Travis Bickle’s lonely and embittered characterization in Taxi Driver. Years later, both films had a major influence on the screenplay for Joker, which also featured De Niro.

4 A Bronx Tale (1993)

Robert De Niro as Lorenzo

Robert De Niro looking serious in A Bronx Tale

Throughout his career, Robert De Niro gained a reputation as an actor who masterful directors consistently got extraordinary performances out of. However, with his director debut, A Bronx Tale, De Niro proved he was just as talented behind the camera with a coming-of-age crime drama that addressed family and racial tensions. A Bronx Tale was funny and touching and an incredibly accomplished piece straight out of the gate for De Niro’s first directional effort, which he sadly only followed up on once with the release of The Good Shepherd in 2006.

A Bronx Tale tells the story of a boy named Calogero who was torn between the temptations of organized crime and the honest, hard-working values of his father, Lorenzo, played by De Niro. De Niro was drawn to the project after he saw the original play by Chazz Palminteri, and the two worked on the film together (via AV Club.) After having already cemented his legacy as one of cinema’s most important performers, it was impressive that De Niro unveiled hidden levels of his talent several decades into his career in Hollywood.

3 Heat (1995)

Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley

Robert De Niro on the phone as Neil McCauley in Heat

Since Robert De Niro and Al Pacino first appeared in The Godfather Part II, audiences had been clamoring to see them actually sharing scenes, and this moment finally came in Michael Mann’s Heat. Due to their esteemed reputations as titans of cinema, this long-overdue collaboration felt like a definitive moment in the careers of both men. On top of its symbolic power, Heat stood out in De Niro’s career as a fantastic action movie full of rich psychological depth relating to the symbiotic relationship between the police and criminals.

De Niro played the career criminal Neil McCauley, who started to feel the heat as LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino) began to hone in on him and his crew following a major heist. As a stunning piece of filmmaking, Heat ranked among the greatest movies of the 1990s and proved that, even as De Niro entered his 50s, he and Pacino still stood as among the most charismatic and watchable actors in Hollywood. Heat’s legacy has not diminished in the years since, and plans were announced in 2022 for an upcoming sequel, Heat 2.


Heat 2: Confirmation, Story & Everything We Know

Heat 2 is the sequel to Michael Mann’s intense 1995 heist thriller, and there’s already much to discuss before the release date arrives.

2 Dirty Grandpa (2015)

Robert De Niro as Dick Kelly

Jason and Dick and the beach in Dirty Grandpa.

The latter part of Robert De Niro’s career has truly been a mixed bag that featured some comedic high points like The Intern but also strange choices for an actor of his stature, such as Dirty Grandpa. Perhaps more so than any other movie, Dirty Grandpa disappointed De Niro enthusiasts who admired his practically unmatched commitment to acting as an art form throughout his heyday in the 1970s. On the other hand, Dirty Grandpa was a broad comedy categorized by gross-out and shock humor that left viewers dumbfounded, wondering why De Niro would even accept such a role.

Dirty Grandpa told of an elderly man embracing his wild side at Spring Break, and although it had some laughs, it became a baffling choice compared to previous De Niro projects like The Deer Hunter or Once Upon a Time in America. It was disappointing, especially since De Niro had recently fostered an acclaimed creative partnership with director David O. Russell on films like Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. Whether De Niro accepted his role on Dirty Grandpa for a big payday or just for fun, it still stood as a defining low point in a career of extraordinary highs.

1 Killers Of The Flower Moon (2023)

Robert De Niro as William King Hale

Robert De Niro Killers of the Flower Moon

Throughout all the ups and downs of Robert De Niro’s career, one thing that has remained consistently high quality was his creative endeavors with director Martin Scorsese. Although Scorsese appeared to have found a new muse in Leonardo DiCaprio, De Niro reunited with him for later films like The Irishman and their most recent tenth feature collaboration, Killers of the Flower Moon. For his role as William King Hale, De Niro gained his ninth Academy Award nomination, signifying that even after all these years, he’s delivering performances worthy of significant praise and accolades.

As an epic historical crime story of murder, race, and oil found on tribal land, Killers of the Flower Moon was an impressive feat that effectively used its mammoth, almost three-and-a-half-hour runtime. De Niro’s performance was a real highlight, as he captured his character’s dark and exploitative intentions and the ruthless way he carried out his crimes with seemingly no remorse. Killers of the Flower Moon was a testament to Robert De Niro’s longstanding appeal as an actor and showcased that even as he enters his 80s, there could still be plenty more extraordinary performances on the horizon.

Sources: CBR, AV Club

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