With rapturous reviews and a growing drumbeat of Oscar buzz, The Irishman is probably the best film Robert De Niro has been in since Goodfellas in 1990. What happened to the venerable American actor’s career in the intervening years, however, was not so spectacular.
From the mid-1990s until very recently, the quality of the films in which De Niro appeared took a nosedive. The actor accepted a multitude of roles (many of them purportedly comedic) in films that either critically or commercially bombed. In several cases, they did both.
The nadir in this decline was Dirty Grandpa, a 2016 comedy in which De Niro played, yes, a dirty grandpa. The movie was widely mocked, while some critics argued it was racist and homophobic. An immeasurably far cry from films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Dirty Grandpa sparked several stories about how De Niro’s career had deteriorated over the course of the previous two decades. Some wondered if the Oscar winner had done permanent damage to his legacy.
Quartz charted De Niro’s decline using data from Metacritic. Unlike Rotten Tomatoes, which uses a binary system to mark reviews as simply either positive or negative, Metacritic assigns each review a score from 0 to 100 based on how much the critic actually liked the film. It then calculates a “weighted average” of all the reviews, giving more importance to some publications over others. (A review in the New York Times, for instance, will carry more weight than one in a blog of lesser stature.)
Metacritic does not have data for every De Niro movie. Of the 99 feature De Niro films, Metacritic has a score for 79 of them. Many of the ones missing are from the first half of his career before the decline, pre-Goodfellas, including significant—and often well-reviewed—movies like 1900 and Once Upon a Time in America. It’s likely that if all his movies were included, the drop off would appear even steeper.
Some of the decline may have been out of De Niro’s control. Good roles tend to dry up for actors the older they get. Around the time De Niro’s career plummeted, there was arguably a deterioration in the quality of Hollywood movies in general, as studios began to prioritize blockbusters at the expense of the quieter character studies with which De Niro earned his reputation.
And, by all accounts, De Niro doesn’t care. The 76-year-old very easily could have rode off into sunset a long time ago, but he clearly still likes working. Friends of the actor have speculated that he’s much more concerned with his real estate ventures and the Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded in 2002. Acting in movies like Dirty Grandpa could be nothing more than a way to secure the futures of his grandchildren, and their grandchildren after them.
In any case, the quality of De Niro’s career, at least critically speaking, is already trending upward again. The Irishman is his third film in the last seven years with a Metacritic score above 80—the first time he’s had such a stretch of films since the 1970s. Perhaps De Niro will decide to end it on a high note. It’d be fitting, given how the Martin Scorsese mob drama tackles topics like memory and mortality. More likely, though, he’ll just keep working.