Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
It’s not that we’d ever refer to many of Robert De Niro’s best roles as “vulnerable” in and of themselves. The legendary actor is one of the all-time great performers of tough guys, in their many forms, and there’s a ferocity to many of his early turns that’s gone nearly unparalleled in the years since. Yet one of the significant aspects of De Niro’s genius as an actor is the way in which he’s been able to build a long career out of playing on the earlier performances he’s delivered, whether it’s in adding new shades to the plethora of gangsters and fallen icons he’s portrayed for Martin Scorsese, or in the later years of his career, when he began to mine his gruff, unflappable persona for comedy.
This week, De Niro returns to theaters with The Comedian, a character study of an aging stand-up comic struggling to find his new, latter-day voice when faced with an endless gauntlet of audiences who only want the old jokes and the old material. It’s not hard to draw threads from the film’s premise (a film that’s been a passion project of the actor’s, no less) to De Niro’s own eclectic career, one full of unforgettable characters and some highly suspect calls alike. (America forgives, but never forgets … Rocky & Bullwinkle.) Like any actor who’s been around long enough to measure his career in distinct phases, De Niro has left behind a fascinating filmography and has been the unforgettable center of more films than most actors would ever imagine possible. However, he’s also done what many never even try to, finding new wrinkles in audience expectations even as they clamor for just one more inimitable tough guy. (With Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman in play, we might see one yet.)
De Niro might be as well-known to audiences today for his comic riffs on his star persona as for some of his most formidable work, but in our latest Top Performances ranking, we’ve tried our best to distill the actor’s 100+ credited performances into the cream of the crop. Let us know if we missed something, and do try to keep it down in the theater…