What Is Robert De Niro's Best Role? Here's What /Film Readers Had To Say

BY LEE ADAMS/JULY 15, 2023 6:45 PM EST

Back when the first trailer for "Killers of the Flower Moon" dropped in May, we posed our readers a challenging question on Facebook: What is Robert De Niro's best role? Well, the results are now in with 39 of the actor's movies receiving a vote.

That's a lot of films and it's a tricky task narrowing it down to just a single De Niro performance. Several voters picked more than one, but I allowed it. Who can blame them with so many great roles in a career spanning over 50 years, eight Oscar nominations, two Oscar wins, plus dozens more nods on the awards circuit? At his formidable best, De Niro's craft is about as seamless as any other American actor, and he has displayed a fearless commitment to immersing himself in characters that are dislikable at best, repellent at worst, and still making them utterly captivating. While perhaps he will be best remembered for his darker side, it is far from the limit of his abilities, displaying an unexpected aptitude for comedy in more light-hearted roles.

No one is perfect, however, and there have been a quite few duds along the way: De Niro received a Golden Raspberry nod for his gross-out turn in "Dirty Grandpa," and I'm sure that even the most avid fan will admit that the past 20 years haven't exactly been studded with classic performances.

De Niro is still very active as he approaches his 80th birthday, and his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Irishman" showed there was still plenty of quality left in him yet. Working with Scorsese again in "Flower Moon," who would bet against him picking up another award or two? So, with all that said, let's get into the reader's poll of the best Robert De Niro performances.

Robert De Niro's big-hitting performances

It won't take a movie genius to guess which Robert De Niro performance came out on top, but suffice enough to say at this point that the character isn't a very nice guy. The role that came second isn't the most pleasant chap either; his unflinchingly ferocious study of Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull." It isn't an easy watch, but it is a dynamite performance that earned him his only Best Actor Oscar to date.

De Niro has played many career criminals over the years, but the reader's pick that topped all others was his fastidious bank robber Neil McCauley in "Heat." This may come as a surprise given the competition, but it makes sense. De Niro's understated turn was one of his last truly great performances before his career began its gradual decline.

Back to the irredeemable characters, a firm favorite among the voters was De Niro going big as the monstrous Max Cady in Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear," another Oscar-nominated performance that tied with his focused portrayal of a young Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," the role that won De Niro his first Academy Award.

Another surprise was that readers preferred De Niro's performance as casino boss Sam Rothstein in "Casino" over his paranoid turn as Jimmy Conway in "Goodfellas." Perhaps this is because Jimmy was somewhat overshadowed by Ray Liotta's charismatic lead and Joe Pesci's fireworks in Martin Scorsese's mob masterpiece.

Rounding out the big hitters in the poll was De Niro's first sympathetic character in contention for the prize, his quiet essay of a Vietnam veteran in Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter." Apart from one other exception that I'll come to shortly, the results show that viewers tend towards De Niro's villainous roles, whereas something like his sensitive performance in "Awakenings" received far fewer votes.

Robert De Niro's comic roles received plenty of votes

While Robert De Niro is probably best regarded as a powerhouse dramatic actor, he has made plenty of forays into the world of comedy, and affection for these roles was clearly apparent in the reader's picks. His highest-ranking comic performance was playing bounty hunter Jack Walsh in "Midnight Run," the '80s box office hit where he formed a winning buddy duo with Charles Grodin. It was a savvy career choice for De Niro at a time when he wanted to do more comedy, taking the part after missing out on "Big." 

Farther down the list, De Niro picked up nods for sending up his well-established screen persona with "Meet the Parents," its sequel "Meet the Fockers," and his mobster in need of therapy in "Analyze This." While not strictly a comic role, he has also gained a lot of love out there for blending his trademark menace with camp as Captain Shakespeare in "Stardust."

A surprising amount of people threw "Dirty Grandpa" into the hat. While it is easy to suspect those votes might be tongue-in-cheek, we can't discount the possibility that some people out there genuinely love him in the role. The same can be said for those who chipped in with his over-the-top performance as Fearless Leader in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."

In the comedy stakes, I was pleased to see that two of my favorite De Niro comic roles received some votes: His small part as the valiant heating engineer Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," and his masterful performance as the hopelessly deluded Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy," a character so ridiculously cringey that you'll forget to laugh.

Some great De Niro performances didn't get much love

While I was happy to see Robert De Niro's brilliant turn in "The King of Comedy" pick up some votes, I was hoping to see the performance ranking up there with the top contenders. Sadly, the low ranking maybe still reflects the fact that Martin Scorsese's box office bomb was widely misunderstood at the time and has only received its due as an overlooked classic in more recent years.

Other notable performances that fared badly in the poll included his cigar-chomping take on Al Capone in "The Untouchables" and his live wire turn as Johnny Boy in "Mean Streets." The latter only received one mention, which is surprising given De Niro's memorable entrance in the film and its importance in kickstarting the actor's long and successful relationship with Scorsese. Similarly, his thoughtful turn as Noodles in "Once Upon a Time in America" and his role as a blue-collar dad standing up to Chazz Palminteri's gangster in his directorial debut "A Bronx Tale" only got one vote a piece.

Of his more worthwhile recent movies, his Oscar-nominated performances in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Irishman" only managed three mentions between them. This is somewhat surprising given the popularity of David O. Russell's feel-good romantic comedy and the stature of Martin Scorsese's massive crime epic, which marked a considerable return to form for De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for the film. 

One excellent supporting turn from De Niro that has evidently fallen off everyone's radar is his taciturn ex-con Louis in "Jackie Brown." I can understand it because it's a role that initially seems so unassuming that I often forget that he's even in the movie. But when Louis flips into a cold-blooded killer, you can see why Quentin Tarantino wanted him for the part.

Some voters went for more left field picks

Overall, pretty much all of the usual suspects in Robert De Niro's extensive filmography received at least one vote in our readers' poll. But several voters plumped for more obscure or left-field picks, which just goes to show the range and diversity of the actor's roles over the decades.

One voter went all the way back to before De Niro's big breakthrough in "Mean Streets," choosing his role as aspiring filmmaker John Rubin in Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" It was a reprisal of his character from their earlier collaboration "Greetings," which marked the actor's screen debut.

Other readers enjoyed De Niro in some of his lesser-celebrated villain roles, such as his sinister part as the devil in "Angel Heart;" that isn't a spoiler, because his character is cunningly called Louis Cyphre. Some also rated his interesting re-imagining of the Monster in Kenneth Branagh's otherwise overwrought "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," while one lone voter opted for his unnerving turn as knife salesman and baseball nut Gil Renard in the otherwise patchy "The Fan."

Some fans opted for his no-nonsense action roles from the turn of the century like "Ronin" and "The Score," while a few voters went for his neat and economical parts in "Backdraft" and "Cop Land." Some even liked his chat show host Murray Franklin in "Joker," a casting choice that only seems to exist as a callback to "The King of Comedy." The poll also unearthed the one person who still remembers De Niro in the psycho-thriller "Hide and Seek" from 2005.

And the winner is...

When it came to our readers picking their favorite Robert De Niro role of all time, there was one clear winner: Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." The alienated cabbie and Vietnam veteran gained the most votes by a decent margin, beating Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" to the punch to claim the title.

We don't like to bandy the word "iconic" around too lightly here at /Film, but De Niro's portrayal of the disturbed loner prowling the streets of '70s Manhattan is arguably the most iconic character in the actor's filmography. After all, how many movie characters have a quote that has entered popular culture as much as "You talkin' to me?" It's one of those lines you can hear people who have never even seen "Taxi Driver" quoting, which is even more impressive when you consider that De Niro ad-libbed the dialogue in the famous scene.

The greatness of De Niro in the role is without a doubt, a performance that earned him his first Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. But why does Bickle still resonate with film buffs almost half a century later? Perhaps it is because he is one of cinema's loneliest people, and many of us fear loneliness and what we might become if we were stripped of the social connections that make up part of our personalities. Maybe it is because Bickle represents the random violence lurking behind the noise and chatter of our everyday lives. Or perhaps it is just because De Niro inhabits the character so thoroughly that we come to understand him, even as we are appalled by his actions. Either way, Travis Bickle is a worthy winner of our poll.

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