From his explosive performance as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) to his Oscar-winning tour-de-force as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II (1974), De Niro quickly emerged as the best actor of his generation in the early 1970s. I have made a list below ranking what I believe to be De Niro's ten finest performances.
1. Jake La Motta, Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
2. Michael Vronsky, The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
3. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
4. Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
5. Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy (1983, Martin Scorsese)
6. Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
7. Johnny Boy, Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)
8. Neil McCauley, Heat (1995, Michael Mann)
9. Max Cady, Cape Fear (1991, Martin Scorsese)
10. Sam "Ace" Rothstein, Casino (1995, Martin Scorsese)
This list excludes, of course, his extraordinary work in films as diverse as Awakenings (1990, Penny Marshall) and Once Upon A Time in America (1984, Sergio Leone). It is hard to believe that De Niro's last Oscar nomination came in 1992, for his incredible work in Cape Fear. Granted, De Niro hasn't taken as many dramatic turns this decade, aside from directing and acting in the fascinating The Good Shepherd (2006), but there is hope - later this year, he is starring in Everybody's Fine, a comedy-drama from director Kirk Jones about a widower (De Niro) who takes a road trip to visit his estranged children. Early word has hinted that De Niro gives his best performance in years.
Oddly enough, today is also the birthday of actor Sean Penn, who is turning forty-nine years old. Penn is often considered the De Niro of his generation, and deservedly so. He is a truly remarkable actor who has consistently given brave and intense performances for twenty-five years. I have made a list below ranking what I believe to be Penn's ten finest performances.
1. Jimmy Markum, Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood)
2. Matthew Poncelet, Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins)
3. Harvey Milk, Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)
4. Paul Rivers, 21 Grams (2003, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
5. Daulton Lee, The Falcon and the Snowman (1985, John Schlesinger)
6. Samuel Bicke, The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, Niels Mueller)
7. Emmet Ray, Sweet and Lowdown (1999, Woody Allen)
8. Terry Noonan, State of Grace (1990, Phil Joanou)
9. David Kleinfeld, Carlito's Way (1993, Brian De Palma)
10. Sam Dawson, I Am Sam (2001, Jessie Nelson)