Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence - Robert De Niro, 2011

by Philip Berk February 10, 2020
Actor Robet de Niro, Golden Globe winner and Cecil B. deMille award recipient

hfpa archives

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award,  per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years

A cursory glance at Robert De Niro’s screen performances makes a good case for his being the greatest actor of all time. No other actor before him, not even Marlon Brando, can boast the breadth and variety of unforgettable characters that he has portrayed. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association was the first to acknowledge this giving him the Cecil B. deMille life achievement award in 2011.

For t25 years he had an amazing run starring in innumerable movie classics, again unchallenged by any actor living or dead. Even though there is a handful he made for the paycheck, the record stands. His filmography is amazing. And yet during all those years, he received only three acting awards. A best supporting Oscar for Godfather II and both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Raging Bull.

Although he is usually linked with Martin Scorsese, his acting career actually began with Brian de Palma, for whom he starred in two early comedies. However, it was his role in Bang the Drum Slowly as a mentally impaired major league baseball player that brought him to the attention of Scorsese who cast him in Mean Streets. But it remained for Francis Ford Coppola to turn him into a star.

Playing the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II, he became the only actor ever to win an Oscar for playing the same role that had previously won an Oscar. He followed that with his signature role as Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for which he was both Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Actor, and from then on he was Hollywood’s most sought after actor.

Bernardo Bertolucci signed him for his ambitious five-hour epic 1900, Elia Kazan cast him as the fictional Irving Thalberg in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Scorsese used him again in New York, New York, for which he received his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture,  Comedy or Musical. After that, he played the lead in Michael Cimino’s award-winning The Deer Hunterhis first film with Meryl Streep, for which again he was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama by both the Hollywood Foreign Press and the  Academy.

And then the role that would make him immortal: Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, arguably the greatest screen performance of all time.

After that, he had the pick of every role offered. He chose True Confessions with Robert Duvall, then played Rupert Pupkin in Scorcese’s masterful The King of Comedy, followed by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. His second film with Meryl, Falling in Love, was a snoozer but then he appeared in Terry Gilliam’s irreverent Brazil which won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award as best picture and which forced its release when the studio was thinking of shelving it. Ultimately it made no difference. The film was a box office failure.

His next film was also a Best Motion Picture contender - Roland Joffé’s The Mission- and following that he did Alan Parker’s under-appreciated Angel Heart. He played Al Capone in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, a long-overdue reunion with his first director. He switched to comedy with Midnight Run which became a cult classic and for which he received his second Golden Globe nomination in the musical/comedy category. But his follow up We’re No Angels did him no favors.

Stanley & Iris, which gave him a chance to work with Jane Fonda, was not much better, but then again it was Scorsese to the rescue.

GoodFellas became an instant classic, an acknowledged masterpiece, wherein all those around him were Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated but he was left empty-handed. It won every critics' award that year but it was sidelined by Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, the popular choice. De Niro, however, won every critics' award the next year for Awakenings, for which he was both Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated, but no prize.

He was an eager participant, because of his liberal leanings, in support of first time director (and his favorite producer) Irwin Winkler on Guilty by Suspicion, but this recounting of the Hollywood Blacklist failed on every level. He was scary in Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear for which again he was both Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture- Drama. He victimized Leonardo Di Caprio in Leo’s first film This Boy’s Life and then satisfied his urge to direct by turning Chazz Palminteri’s play A Bronx Tale into a film which, though ignored at the time of its release, has spawned a hit Broadway musical that is still running.

He was reunited with Francis Coppola on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and instigated the movie event of the year when Michael Mann paired him with Al Pacino in Heat. It didn’t make much heat when released but is now considered — how many times can I use that term — a classic.

A couple of duds followed, but then he got a chance to work with Tarantino on Jackie Brown and Barry Levinson on Wag the Dog, one of the greatest satires ever made. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Wag the Dog is always referenced when government deception and coverup are mentioned. 

He was hilarious playing opposite Billy Crystal in Analyze This, for which he was nominated a third time for a Golden Globe Best Actor in a Comedy. He was equally funny as Ben Stiller’s foil in Meet the Parents and its three sequels.

He tried directing again, a much more ambitious project The Good Shepherd, which again failed to connect with audiences or critics at the time but which has grown in stature. Working with DeNiro on that was an all-star cast headed by Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie.

His follow-up films were forgettable except for David O. Russell’s, Silver Linings Playbook for which he received his final Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

He must have been sorely disappointed when he was overlooked by both the HFPA and the Academy for his career-defining performance in Scorsese’s epic The Irishman, again multi-nominated by both the HFPA and the Academy, but nothing for him.

How many classic movies can he claim? Too many to list. But iconic performances? Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy.