Since turning the simple question “Are you talking to me?” into an iconic quote, Robert De Niro has given us many memorable performances. Starring in a wealth of classics, such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Heat and The Godfather Part II, it’s easy to forget some of the others that came in between.
Before he was intimidating us as the cunning mobster Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, he was getting sentimental with Meryl Streep in Falling in Love. And just the year after Heat’s release, he was taking us to church as Father Bobby in Sleepers. So, while a set few of his performances will always stand out in the actor’s filmography, it’s time to shine a light on those lesser-known ones that offer up equally special De Niro moments.
Walter Koontz in ‘Flawless’ (1999)
This Joel Schumacher-directed film is a bit of a curveball as far as the iconic actor goes. When the movie first starts, you’re sure that Flawless is just another De Niro tough guy role, but at about the 20-minute mark, you realize that this is going to be something entirely different. De Niro plays Walter Koontz, a homophobic ex-New York cop who is forced to deal with his bigotry after a stroke leaves him in the care of his cross-dressing gay neighbor Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a criminally underrated performance of his own). Over the course of the movie, the two form an unlikely friendship in a touching portrayal by both De Niro and Hoffman that reminds us to never judge a book by its cover. Flawless is a must-see not only for De Niro’s under-the-radar performance but also for the resonating message.
Joseph ‘Megs’ Megessy in ‘Jacknife’ (1989)
Another DeNiro performance that seemed to come and go without enough fanfare is in the emotional 1989 movie Jacknife. Co-star Ed Harris got most of the attention and a Golden Globe nomination, but it’s De Niro as Joe “Megs” Megessy, a crass and abrasive Vietnam vet with PTSD who reunites with an old alcoholic friend, Dave (Harris). “Megs” finds himself attracted to Dave’s caretaker of a sister, Martha (Kathy Baker), and despite the protestations of his veteran buddy, pursues a relationship with her. A long-haired and bearded De Niro looks unlike anything we’ve seen him in and brings a nuanced blend of raw energy and common sense wisdom to the role. And the three together bring some palpable unspoken tension to a strange triangle of a relationship.
Leonard Lowe in ‘Awakenings’ (1990)
When an actor can outshine others without even saying a word, that’s true talent. This was De Niro’s challenging task in Awakenings. Based on a true story, it is about a young doctor, played by Robin Williams, who administers a new drug to catatonic patients, with miraculous results. De Niro plays one such patient, Leonard Lowe.
Taking the character from one who relies on boards to communicate to one full of unique ticks and finally to one that finds his true voice, De Niro nails every part of Leonard’s journey. This movie shows that he is definitely not an actor to be typecast and just because he has a knack for playing the hardcore gangster, doesn’t mean he won’t turn his hand to vulnerable characters, worthy of making the audience shed a tear or two.
Frank Goode in Everybody’s Fine (2009)
With a quality ensemble cast, including De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell, Everybody’s Fine should probably have been a bit more successful than it was. While many critics dismissed it as being overly mushy, De Niro puts in an impressive performance as the quiet, thoughtful patriarch of a family.
Realizing that much of the connection to his grown-up kids came from his recently deceased wife, Frank (De Niro) is determined to change that. He sets out on a road trip to visit each of them but soon realizes that their lives are not as perfect as they led him to believe. With this performance, De Niro perfectly translates the heartbreak of loss, in both real-life and imagination.
Father Bobby Carillo in Sleepers (1996)
Although he doesn’t have a starring role in this one, his performance goes to show that even just a little De Niro screen time is better than none at all. Based on Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book of the same name, Sleepers is a grim and disturbing story of four young boys who experience a world of abuse at the hands of guards in a detention center, after a prank goes horribly wrong. What follows is a story of revenge. Although Carcaterra claims this is a true story, there have since been questions as to just how real it is. True story or not, this movie grips the viewer and doesn’t let go. While shoutouts are definitely deserved for the young actors, De Niro’s small but important role equally deserves to be highlighted.
He plays Father Bobby Carillo, the local priest who has a close relationship with the boys. De Niro excels in exerting the depth of emotions needed to portray a man of God, wrestling between his moral values and his heart when called upon to provide an alibi in court. Plus, who else could carry off an extreme close-up that seems to linger on and on? Without uttering a word, De Niro allows the audience to feel exactly what Father Bobby is going through. Now those are some strong acting chops.
Frank Raftis in Falling in Love (1984)
A forbidden affair and the breakdown of a marriage may not seem the most festive premise, but Falling in Love definitely deserves a spot on the Christmas watch list. It tells the story of two married strangers who accidentally mix up their presents while on a last minute Christmas shopping trip. And, as it says on the tin, they end up “falling in love.” But when the two strangers are the young Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, it’s hard not to root for this affair. Quite the departure from the gun-wielding roles he has become most associated with, this character allows De Niro to show his softer, more romantic side and that is every bit worth the watch.
Dwight Hansen in This Boy’s Life (1993)
De Niro and DiCaprio playing stepfather and stepson, could there be anything better? This early ‘90s drama, adapted from the autobiography of Tobias Wolff, tells the story of a family in turmoil after a recent marriage turns abusive. De Niro plays Dwight, a man who, on the outside, appears to be Mr. Right, but soon shows his true colors. In one of his most standout performances, he brilliantly portrays a character with such low self-esteem that he has to bring everyone else around him down — even his own stepchildren. The scenes between Dwight and his rebellious stepson, Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) are extremely powerful, and This Boy’s Life proved to be an important addition to both actors’ filmographies. Luckily, we were treated once again to this powerhouse pairing just a few years later with the 1996 drama, Marvin’s Room.