There are precise moments in time for which we must be grateful. And August 17, 1943, is such a moment, since it marks the birthday of an actor that reshaped the movie landscape and, in many ways, reinvented acting. Seriously, before Robert De Niro, who had even heard of gaining weight for a role? (Yes, we know, there was Marlon Brando. And Orson Welles. But they just became huge.) And before him, had there ever been an actor that could realistically portray a gangster that was ruthless yet relatable? The problem, of course, is that De Niro was so good at it, it became his trademark. And as we all know, when show business consecrates an actor, it also has a tendency to typecast him and expect more of the same from him. And so, he went on to play a multitude of miscreants over the years, from The Godfather Part 2 to Goodfellas, from Casino to Heat, all the way to The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in America and more recently, The Irishman. Even his early foray into comedy was — surprise — as a wise guy in Analyze This. So to remind ourselves of Mr. De Niro’s incredible range and talent, and to celebrate his birthday this week, here are three great films where he does not play a gangster.
Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by: Martin Scorcese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
It took some serious guts to make a movie about boxing in 1980, especially after Rocky won the Oscar in 1976. And yet, this film based on the life story of boxer Jake La Motta is so much more. It’s a tragic tale of an irreversible descent into fame, jealousy and madness. It's an inside look at an incredibly violent and vile world. It’s the warped relationship between two brothers that falls apart before our very eyes. And it’s also a cinematic masterpiece that showcases just 10 minutes of boxing but more importantly, that features a director and actors at the peak of their art; De Niro, who won the Oscar for his performance, followed the gruelling regimen of a boxer’s training before gaining an astounding 60 pounds for the role; Joe Pesci as the diminutive/demented brother and manager practically steals every scene he’s in; and Scorsese, convinced this would be the last movie of his career, took an eternity in post-production to polish the film — and it shows. Shot entirely in black and white, Raging Bull is a classic that transcends time and is the ringside equivalent of Citizen Kane.
King of Comedy (1982)
Directed by: Martin Scorcese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
It’s bizarre enough to find Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in the same sentence, let alone in the same film. Let’s face it: pairing a method actor like De Niro with a nutty comedian who once wrote, directed and then thankfully flushed a film about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp is, at best, a dubious venture. And yet, the film succeeds, largely because director Martin Scorcese (again) deals with the subjects of show business, obsession and fame with crystal-cold brutality. Jerry Lewis, with a steely and controlled performance, is absolutely brilliant in the role of a famous talk show host whose off-air personality is the exact opposite of his charming showbiz persona. De Niro is dead on as Rupert Pupkin, the aspiring and delusional comedian who is prepared to do anything to make it into show business. And psycho-woman Sandra Bernhard hovers between scary and hilarious as Pupkin’s partner in crime. One last word of caution: don’t be fooled by the title. This film is NOT a comedy, but rather a harsh and honest portrayal of show business, its mechanics, its back-stage cruelties and casualties.
Mad Dog and Glory (1993)
Directed by: John McNaughton
Starring: Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Uma Thurman
… Okay, now imagine Robert De Niro and Bill Murray in the same movie? Once again, in a unexpected casting shuffle, De Niro insisted on playing the role of Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie, a shy police photographer who secretly wishes he was an artist, while the smart-ass, wise-cracking mobster role of Frank Milo went to… Bill Murray. After De Niro’s character saves Milo during a hold-up one night, the kingpin decides to express his gratitude by “offering” the timid officer a woman named Glory for a week, played by Uma Thurman (way before the Me Too movement, suffice it to say). De Niro is great here for what he cannot do: his shyness, his overall uneasiness and clear discomfort with the opposite sex are remarkable. As for Murray, well, it was perhaps too early in his career to take him seriously as an actor but his performance is fabulous, for the laughter of course, but also for the credible cruelty he beams on screen.