Mean Streets (1973)
The early De Niro walks the tightrope between gritty and seductive. In Mean Streets, he has a kind of shaggy, bruised matinee idol look, but he's blowing up mailboxes and ruining Harvey Keitel's plans. Is this how a heart-throb behaves? So, cute or crazy?
Photo by <i>Mean Streets</i>, Robert De Niro, 1973. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
Here's the face that launched a thousand dorm room walls. Shirtless menace became the new cool, and a generation of guys tried to scare girls into loving them. (Some guy claiming to identify with De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, even shot President Reagan to impress co-star Jodie Foster.) Here De Niro perfects the quiet, regular-seeming guy with murder and obsession just behind his eyes.
Photo by <i>Taxi Driver</i>, Robert De Niro, 1976. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
So the shirt stayed off, but the guns became gloves, and the crazy went away. Or did it? Rocky he ain't. This was the movie that started folks talking about De Niro's methods. Did he really gain sixty pounds to play this role? Did he really study the dinner jackets the real Jake LaMotta wore? Did he win the Oscar for this role? Yes. Did someone say dinner jackets?
Photo by <i>Raging Bull</i>, Robert De Niro, 1980. © United Artists. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
The clothes and sets and situations in King of Comedy (1983) are as wild on the outside as we're beginning to expect De Niro to be on the inside. Marvel as Jerry Lewis is tied to a chair! Thrill as Sandra Bernhard pulls the ropes tighter! You dare not look away as De Niro makes friends with a cardboard audience!
Photo by <i>King of Comedy</i>, Robert De Niro, 1983. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
What we've been used to from De Niro are intellectually damaged characters or desperate characters trying to overcome their circumstances, but in Angel Heart (1987) he's cool and controlled the whole time. He embodies dangerous confidence that doesn't need to swing guns or fists around, and what a suit! Everything seems fine on the surface, but as we look closer the nails are suspiciously pointed, the hair is strangely long. He's peeling eggs, and bringing Mickey Rourke to tears. He's Louis Cyphre.
Photo by <i>Angel Heart</i>, Robert De Niro, 1987. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
Capone's vault may have been empty, but De Niro's tuxedo is full. In The Untouchables (1987) we're roughly twenty years away from Mean Streets, and we have a kind of career summary. Most of what we've come to expect is here: Gaining weight to play a portly historical figure? Check. Calm and professional on the outside but baseball-bat-at-a-board-meeting crazy just under the surface? Check. Repeating lines of dialog several times in a row? Check check check. He's starting to settle into a routine, but it's a routine we like. That's two well-dressed roles in a row, are the shirtless days gone forever?
Photo by <i>The Untouchables</i>, Robert De Niro, 1987. © Paramount Pictures. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
A return to glory! He doesn't put on the charm in this one (or much else). We've been used to misunderstood De Niro or driven-to-it De Niro, but no guess-work is required in this one, he's nasty from the get-go. Nick Nolte can only watch as his wife and daughter get tossed and bossed around (and seem to like it).
Photo by <i>Cape Fear</i>, Robert De Niro, 1991. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
Here, Scorsese, I'm almost done with you, but I got you this young guy as my replacement. Though based on a true story, the bullying stepfather character here is kind of like the grown-up version of the young crazies in the early movies. If they hadn't gotten themselves shot up or punched out, they'd end up like the Scoutmaster. I think that spells career progression.
Photo by <i>This Boy's Life</i>, Leonardo Di Caprio, Robert De Niro, 1993. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
You can't hide behind the mustache, we know it's you. Disguised in the late 90's behind goatees (Heat), scars (Frankenstein) and 'staches (Copland and Jackie Brown - pictured), it seems like a last attempt to escape before accepting it's time to take on a lifetime of mafia and CIA roles. These are all cold, tight, real characters, but De Niro is now a recognized and respected actor, so it's harder to surprise us.
Photo by <i>Jackie Brown</i>, Robert De Niro, 1997. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.
And so, unable to escape his fate, De Niro starts to get cast in movies as himself. Is he the retired government agent in this one or the misunderstood gangster? Judging from the pic, he can't tell either. We can, though, (it's Analyze This - 1999). Maybe that's because we recognize Billy Crystal. But it brings up something we haven't discussed too much. De Niro can be funny. He knows what we expect, so he gives it to us. Silly or scary, we want to see him, and maybe if, after thirty years, crazy trumps cute, we don't care.
Photo by <i>Analyze This</i>, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, 1999. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.