De Niro‘s first major role of the decade was to team up again with Martin Scorsese on the epic boxing biography, Raging Bull. De Niro played troubled pugilist Jake la Motta, from promising professional through to post retirement entertainer.
La Motta’s story would see not only his rise and fall professionally but also take us through the much flawed world of la Motta’s life – the fame and fortune, as well as his own personal demons – to great effect.
It is well known how production shut down for many months as De Niro went on a weight gaining tour of Europe, adding 60lb to put on the beef required to play la Motta in later life. In preparation De Niro also trained thousands of rounds in the ring – trained by la Motta, in fact, in order to convince us all he had the boxing skills. La Motta has gone on record to say that such was the high level of De Niro’s training, not only could he have easily turned pro, but he more than likely could have been ranked in the top 10 in the world for his weight.
Raging Bull is an epic masterpiece of film and De Niro’s performance of the maligned la Motta is incredible. Not only is this is a master class in acting from a physical perspective but also the ability De Niro has to understand the emotional range of the man is truly mesmerizing.
Following Raging Bull, in 1982, again teaming with Scorsese, De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in the quite brilliant The King of Comedy. What can be seen as a reflection of a person’s desire to be famous and in many ways a reflection of current society, we see Pupkin, an everyman whose ‘nothing special’ quality is his downfall, as he dreams of emulating his favorite talk show host, getting a stand up spot and breaking out of the mediocrity of his life for his shot at fame and bright lights.
In 1985, De Niro featured in the cult favorite and quite excellent Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, and although he does not carry the film, his character Harry Tutte is certainly memorable and well performed. The Mission, Angel Heart and We’re No Angel’s were further acclaimed, standout roles of note in the decade, and covered several genres showing the range of De Niro’s talent. Special mention also for 1987’s The Untouchables. Again the total immersion in character and commitment to fully preparing and taking on of all Al Capone’s characteristics deserve special recognition.
Pacino, meanwhile in 1983 played Tony Montana in the modern day gritty remake of Scarface. Now blasphemous as it may seem, I am not a huge fan of this movie, but I do appreciate why it is successful and hugely popular and do recognize why Pacino’s role of Montana and his rise through the ranks of the Cuban/Miami underworld and his utter losing himself in it with the help of cocaine is not only a brilliant story but acted out in such an impressive and sickening manner that it is considered (yet again) a trademark Pacino performance
There were other roles in the 80s for Pacino, but nothing of real standout note in films that fared equally, Sea of Love in 1989 being a brief mild highlight but nothing to get over excited about.
The result – through sheer consistency and body of work, De Niro easily takes this round.
Score 2-1 to De Niro
Still to come: the 90s and beyond. Carlito’s Way, Godfather III, Goodfellas, and Casino, and our protagonists finally share the screen in Heat and Righteous Kill.