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Robert De Niro’s Best, Worst and Craziest Performances

From ‘Raging Bull’ to ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’

Resolved: Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time.

Also resolved: For the past decade or so, Robert De Niro has been appearing in a lot of movies that don’t necessarily make the best use of his talents. Indeed, when one looks at the broad arc of his career, it’s hard not to notice the high concentration of masterpieces in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties — and the sheer drop-off that occurs once his career hits the aughts. That said, who can blame a guy for wanting to mix things up once in a while? If he tried to pull a Raging Bull every other movie, he’d probably die — literally.

Case in point: The Intern, a comedy in which the actor plays a 70-year-old retiree who becomes an intern for a hot new fashion e-commerce company run by Anne Hathaway? While we’re not in Vito Corleone territory, let’s not forget that De Niro has been known to triumph in mainstream comedies from time to time. In the meantime, we decided to look at De Niro’s filmography – that’s more than 95 movies, by the way – and suss out truly Good (the great performances that will forever define his career and stand as testaments to the power of acting), the genuinely Bad (the paycheck gigs, the flops, and the just plain awful decisions), and, well, the Ugly — those De Niro performances that are too strange, too out there to classify as either across-the-board Good or Bad.

And for the last time: Yes, we are, in fact, talkin’ to you.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published in September 2015]

From Rolling Stone US

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Good: ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ (1973)

In what is widely acknowledged as his breakthrough performance, De Niro plays a not-too-bright baseball catcher with a terminal disease, and Michael Moriarty the pitcher who befriends him in his final season. This is the kind of drama that will leave you an utter emotional wreck – and that it does so with such restraint and dignity feels like a magic act. De Niro is the key: He would soon build a career for himself playing deadly loners, but here, he uses his natural reserve to build a character whose loneliness evokes sympathy and reflection, not fear. It’s an almost unbearably moving performance, in an almost unbearably moving film. BE

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Bad: ‘New Year’s Eve’ (2011)

In this legendarily wretched multi-character romcom, De Niro plays a dying man spending New Year’s Eve with nurse Halle Berry. That doesn’t actually give him much to do, except look terrible and weak and close to death – which could, frankly, be a metaphor for the entire movie. One wants to entertain the notion that his casting is ironic – that there’s a reason that one of the most intense actors of his generation is playing a bedridden, terminal patient. But that would require some evidence that the film has any idea what irony is. BE

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Ugly: ‘Backdraft’ (1991)

De Niro has a small but crucial role in Ron Howard’s drama about crime and firefighting, playing Donald “Shadow” Rimgale — a veteran arson inspector who takes his job seriously. By which, of course, we mean very, very seriously. He deftly underplays the part, as when he quietly shuts down a loony arsonist’s parole hearing with a few simple questions. But Shadow’s calmness belies the life he’s led, as confirmed by one shot of his grotesquely burned torso. De Niro plays the reveal as no big deal, wordlessly establishing Shadow as the sort of tough guy who doesn’t have to make that big a deal about it. Still, we wished he would have played the arsonist’s role, which went to Donald Sutherland; he’d have had a field day with it. KP