Robert De Niro is a commanding presence. So commanding that he tends to overshadow his co-stars. There are actors like Joe Pesci (Goodfellas) and Al Pacino (Heat) who have gone toe-to-toe with De Niro and come out strong, but most co-stars who turn in great performances go relatively unnoticed. They say that great actors make everyone around them look better. Here are a few whom De Niro should thank for that.
Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull
Often overlooked in Martin Scorsese’s boxing classic is Cathy Moriarty, who plays Jake La Motta’s long-suffering wife. First seen as a young beauty who catches Jake’s eye, Moriarty turns into a hardened survivor following years of abuse. Post-Raging Bull, Moriarty did a series of sexpot roles that underutilized her skills before reuniting with De Niro in Analyze That. But in the beginning it was Moriarty holding her own against De Niro. No small feat.
Cybill Shepherd, Taxi Driver
Jodie Foster is usually the woman who comes to mind when thinking of Taxi Driver, but don’t forget Cybill Shepherd as the sweet campaign worker who is the focus of Travis Bickle’s romantic obsession. Shepherd conveys a mix of curiosity and revulsion at Travis’s attempts at courtship. (The porn-theater scene is the most awkward onscreen date ever.) In scenes with Albert Brooks, she hints at the comedic timing that would later make her famous on the hit TV sitcom Moonlighting.
Charles Grodin, Midnight Run
Charles Grodin’s neurotic mob accountant made for an excellent comedic foil to one of De Niro’s signature wiseguys in Martin Brest’s cultishly revered comedy. Perfectly matching De Niro with a deadpan delivery, Grodin helped make Midnight Run a comedy classic. The movie doesn’t just belong in the pantheon of great De Niro movies; it’s a great Charles Grodin flick as well. It was his work opposite Grodin that proved De Niro could take the lead in mainstream action comedies.
John Cazale, The Deer Hunter
Sadly, John Cazale (best known for playing The Godfather‘s Fredo) died of cancer in 1978, so he never lived to see his performance in The Deer Hunter. De Niro championed Cazale — and Cazale’s then-lover, Meryl Streep — for a spot in the movie. When producers balked at casting the ailing actor, De Niro even paid for his insurance. Despite his ill health, Cazale’s performance is solid; he subtly provides comic relief as the downtrodden, handgun-waving Stan.
Lisa Bonet, Angel Heart
Poor Lisa Bonet. De Niro comes out of the controversial thriller Angel Heart relatively unscathed, even garnering critical praise. Meanwhile, Bonet has to simulate sex with Mickey Rourke while covered in blood. And what does she get for her hard work? She’s booted off The Cosby Show for starring in a racy adult-oriented movie. She deserves better. Yes, De Niro’s creepiness induces chills, but Bonet’s eerie performance as Epiphany Proudfoot is just as spine tingling.
Lisa Kudrow, Analyze This
De Niro’s career in broad comedy got a big boost when he teamed up with Billy Crystal for this “gangster in therapy” spoof. Crystal and De Niro proved to be a popular comedic team, but Lisa Kudrow (then at the height of her career starring in Friends) was also hilarious. Sure, De Niro was funny, but he could play a gangster in his sleep. As Crystal’s beleaguered fiancée, Kudrow turns in a nuanced supporting performance that rounds out a strong ensemble. In fact, she might be the best thing in this flick.
Peter Boyle, Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is filled with great performances — Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Shepherd (above), and (of course) De Niro. Yet what about veteran character actor Peter Boyle? He shares a particularly memorable scene with De Niro as a fellow cabbie who tries to give Travis advice. Boyle’s role is small and often forgotten thanks to flashier supporting performances (one by director Martin Scorsese himself), but Boyle’s genuine and lived-in realism make an impression.
Sandra Bernhard, The King of Comedy
Scorsese’s dramedy proved that De Niro could give dark loners a comedic edge. Nearly topping De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in terms of sheer lunacy is Sandra Bernhard as an unhinged woman obsessed with talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Bernhard scored a National Society of Film Critics Award for her role, but the movie is better remembered as a De Niro vehicle. Time to change that impression with a second look. This gem is a team effort.