Every actor has worked on bad movies at some point in their career. For a long time, though, Robert De Niro’s bad films always felt like exceptions to the rule. The actor earned his place as one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed performers in the 1970s and ’80s for his turns in classics like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, and The Deer Hunter. His desire to work with world class filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma, and Sergio Leone, in turn, established him as an actor with uniquely great taste.
However, while no one could credibly question De Niro’s talent, the actor’s reputation has been seriously tarnished in recent years—and for good reason. Since the early 2000s, De Niro has adopted a yes-to-everything approach to picking projects, leaving the back half of filmography overflowing with duds. Indeed, for every The Irishman or Silver Linings Playbook, there have been multiple clunkers like The Comedian and Freelancers.
Now, in the same month that his latest collaboration with Scorsese, Killers Of The Flower Moon, premiered to rave reviews at Cannes, De Niro is appearing in the comedy About My Father. In the latter, the two-time Oscar winner stars as the stereotypical Italian father of the film’s lead (played by stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco). Unfortunately, reviews indicate that About My Father is just the latest lackluster addition to De Niro’s filmography, which suggests that the 79-year-old either hasn’t learned any lessons from his many recent missteps or he knows full well the quality of his late career output but simply doesn’t care. Whatever the reason, it begs the question; how many times can De Niro cash a paycheck before he’s known more for his failures than his successes?
From Oscar winner to journeyman
De Niro has never had a totally spotless track record. For the first 30 years of his career, though, the number of great and good movies he made vastly outnumbered the bad or mediocre projects he worked on. That all began to change around the turn of the 21st century. His first film of the 2000s was The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, which was initially viewed as an uncharacteristically bad entry in De Niro’s filmography. Twenty three years later, it doesn’t seem like nearly as much of an outlier.
Over the past two decades, De Niro has made more downright bad movies than he did throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. He’s starred in everything from atrocious comedies like The War With Grandpa and Little Fockers to forgettable, low-rent genre flicks like Heist, Killing Season, Righteous Kill, and Hide And Seek. What’s worse is that De Niro, who used to be known for the extreme lengths he’d go in order to play certain roles (see: the time he had his teeth filed down for Cape Fear), has seemingly become afflicted with the same problem that hampered late-career Brando; acting came so easy to them that it often felt to audiences like they were phoning it in.
Nowadays, it’s increasingly common for De Niro to only really show up for certain filmmakers—namely Scorsese and David O. Russell. With the exception of a handful of underrated comedies (ex. Stardust, The Intern), the only truly great performances De Niro has given this century have been in Scorsese- and Russell-directed efforts, including Silver Linings Playbook and The Irishman. While it makes sense for De Niro to show up with an extra level of dedication for auteur filmmakers like Scorsese, it’s frustrating to see him continue to oscillate solely between major award contenders and mediocre VOD trash.
Why not help up-and-coming directors?
Odds are, Robert De Niro will, like Brando and several other great performers before him, always be remembered best for his most acclaimed performances rather than his many questionable late-career decisions. That said, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to note that De Niro’s historical standing has been shaken, at least a little bit, by his own flippancy toward the projects he chooses. Beyond the poor quality of many of his recent films, what’s been disappointing to witness is De Niro’s apparent disinterest in collaborating with the kind of exciting, up-and-coming filmmakers that are destined to one day be celebrated the way Scorsese is now.
In 1997, De Niro famously gave one of his most unusual and out-of-character performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, back when Tarantino was an exciting if relatively new filmmaker with only two very good feature length movies under his belt. De Niro, nonetheless, agreed to work with him. Why hasn’t he done the same for Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Damien Chazelle, Barry Jenkins, Ari Aster, Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsey, or any of the other great filmmakers who have emerged since the 1990s? If Jeff Bridges, Bill Murray, Robert Redford, and several of his other contemporaries could all make time for such collaborations, there’s no reason why De Niro couldn’t have done the same.
In fact, if he wants to clean up his track record moving forward, he’ll have to do more than just one movie every four years with Martin Scorsese. It may require greater effort on his part, but working with more up-and-coming filmmakers and helping them get their movies made could do a lot to refurbish this final stage of De Niro’s career while still providing enough financial cushion to pay for his ever-expanding brood (in April, De Niro welcomed his seventh child). His current slate of upcoming projects doesn’t suggest that he’s going to start doing that anytime soon, but it’ll ultimately be up to the Raging Bull star to decide how he wants the final chapter of his career to look. Will he continue to coast by on the sound of checks cashing in the background, or will he go out swinging?