If there’s been any actor of the last few decades who has had a larger impact than Robert De Niro, there can’t be many1. Since the man had a birthday last week (a Leo, imagine that), and will be a prominent guest at a certain celebration screening of a film highlighted last week by moi, decided to put together a movie list in his honor. Hadn’t done one in while, and thought to rank his onscreen pairings; and there have been a great number of them across film genres. These represent my favorites.
The ones where I just can’t wait for De Niro and collaborator to come together and interact on the big screen. You will no doubt note some big names missing, though. In some cases, where Mr. De Niro dominates the screen, like in Cape Fear, or if a film doesn’t have a commensurate pairing (like in Back Draft), or where the team-up plainly doesn’t work for me (cough…Showtime), it’s simply left off2. Here then are my preferred thirteen (my favorite number), with a few honorable mentions, that totally enthrall me:
- Ben Stiller, Meet the Parents
- Jason Statham, Killer Elite
- Edward Norton, The Score
- Chaz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale
- Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy
- Michael Moriarty, Bang the Drum Slowly
- Cuba Gooding, Jr., Men of Honor
Harvey Keitel (Charlie), Mean Streets – If I’m to start anywhere, might as well be at the beginning where De Niro and director Martin Scorsese first intersected, paired with another up-and-comer. “Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time criminal trying to work his way up the local mafia food chain.”, as Mark Walker described in his fine review. A superb Yin to who-know-who’s dangerously electrified Yang.
Billy Crystal (Dr. Ben Sobel), Analyze This – Pairing the comedian (and underrated actor) Crystal against the serious characterization work of De Niro was a brilliant one. A study of contrasts that works because they’re so different, and alike (being New Yorkers at heart, through and through). Many thought De Niro had hit a rut during this period, but a part like this, with Billy Crystal as foil3, surely dispelled that notion.
Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel), Angel Heart – Even in relatively minor roles, De Niro almost always stood out, especially if he happened to play a role like that of the Devil himself (if in various guises, though). His interactions with the ill-fated private eye, a tailor-made role for Mickey Rourke, if there ever was one, are wonderfully unsettling. Destined for the type of outcome well-known to the protagonists of film noir and horror this mixes.
Samuel L. Jackson (Ordell Robbie), Jackie Brown – While he had a lesser supporting role, De Niro’s Louis Garza handful of collaborative scenes with Jackson’s prime villain remains a highlight of the film. A pair of heavyweights bringing Elmore Leonard’s nefarious novel characters to life through dialogue and facial expressions just brings a smile whenever they’re onscreen. Neither had to showboat to make it work as well as it did.
Christopher Walken (Nick), The Deer Hunter – Although some aspects of the film are rightfully discredited, like the Russian Roulette scenes, De Niro’s and a young Christopher Walken’s (award winning) acting are not. If I rewatch this film, not my favorite of the late-Michael Cimino, it’s mainly for their scenes together. They’re a mesmerizing duo, painful and poignant to the point the audience physically aches for them.
Jean Reno (Vincent), Ronin – Having rewatched yet again, recently, the superb chemistry between the out-of-work espionage pros of De Niro’s Sam and France’s Jean Reno’s is simply a joy to behold. As J.D. highlighted in his excellent review, “He plays the reliable guy so well and exudes a quiet dignity that is fascinating to watch. Frankenheimer wisely plays up the mutual respect between De Niro and Reno’s characters.” Natch.
James Woods (Maximilian ‘Max’ Bercovicz), Once Upon a Time in America – It really is something when De Niro isn’t the scene-chewing actor in the scene, let alone the whole movie. That their pairing still works beautifully within the context of a lengthy tale of a group of Jewish gangsters in New York, from childhood and through their glory years during prohibition, culminating in their meeting again 35 years later says a lot.
Robin Williams (Dr. Malcolm Sayer), Awakenings – If De Niro worked so effortlessly with Billy Crystal, I’m damn sure he learned to do because of his earlier work with the late-Robin Williams in this. Says something when two giants in their fields play their roles with such conviction, and totally in sync. Only wished they’d stay right there onscreen, hoping filmmakers could have written more scenes, or another movie, with them in mind.
Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Goodfellas – Returning to a Martin Scorsese collaboration, Liotta’s starring role was an eye-opener in many ways. That he could hold his own against the likes of De Niro…in an epic crime drama, at that…spoke volumes. Their scenes together, and De Niro is not in this as much as you’d think, brought a remarkable realism to this depiction of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction tale in a definitive film.
Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro), Casino – While I’m fully aware he won best supporting for the previous film, Pesci greatest collaboration with De Niro occurred here, IMO. And man, oh man, did these two go at it in this still undervalued Scorsese production. Even with explosive residue and bloodstained hardware all about, what this pairing set off was cinematic combustion, and luckily for us, not buried out in the sticks somewhere.
Robert Duvall (Det. Tom Spellacy), True Confessions – Talk about a pair of acting titans onscreen, this film had its Godfather saga-veterans in their only face-to-face collaboration. Though more subued than others here, it’s still something to be behold. Their team-up as two brothers (cop and priest) drawn together after many years apart, in the aftermath of the brutal murder of a young prostitute, is often underestimated and just shouldn’t be.
Charles Grodin (Jonathan Mardukas), Midnight Run – This likely the most odd match-up of my entire list, but it does play to sheer perfection. The only “buddy film” here, yet it works as a moving character piece, too, within its action movie stylings, and with a rich cast. It’s my all-time favorite Martin Brest film for these reasons alone and would be my favorite Robert De Niro pairing, if not for the one film that tops the list and influences me, still.
Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Heat – The “other” pairing of Don Corleone veterans, the two actors who’ve provided some of the greatest performances of my movie-viewing experience. Likely sharing the least amount of onscreen time in this inventory, but we’re talking Neutron star density when those instances happen. Even their individual scenes still weigh as joint-efforts on the entirety of Heat. James Walcott of Vanity Fair on why they’re the best:
“So superbly matched are Pacino and De Niro that the movie seems dual-powered. They’re a study in positive and negative charisma… The movie’s protagonists gaze into the mirror and see, gazing back, a stranger living on borrowed time. Heat is Mann’s ode to mortality… midlife crisis as last chance. Each character carries an abyss inside. In Mann’s twilight vision, Los Angeles isn’t a lush playground but a sprawling necropolis.”
- Yes, Meryl Streep fans, the talented, multiple award winning actress is arguably on par with De Niro, and who’ve been in a couple of the same movies together. Just wish her character would have interacted more with his in Deer Hunter, or were a in a better movie than Falling in Love. I’d add Denzel Washington, too; just wished he and De Niro could have joined forces. ↩
- Goes without saying, those few films and collaborations I’ve yet to see, like Flawless with the late-Philip Seymour Hoffman, are naturally not listed and weren’t considered. ↩
- Unfortunately, as is the case too often, their re-pairing in the sequel (Analyze That) falls a tad flat. ↩