Joy stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro are very different actors from very different Hollywood decades, says Adam Smith

Joy, David O Russell’s inspiring tale of the once-penniless entrepreneur Joy Mangano who made a fortune, reunites Hollywood heavyweights from two acting generations in Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

For movie fans it’s a thrill to see the pair on screen together, but watching these two A-listers it’s hard not to be struck just how much Hollywood has changed for its leading men. It’s nearly 40 years since De Niro blazed his way across the filmic firmament as unhinged Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver in 1976.

His committed performance as an anguished Vietnam vet created the mould for a decade’s worth of ferocious turns for a generation of contemporaries. The leading men that audiences wanted to see then echoed the edgy, anxious nature of the times. De Niro himself would exemplify this, with works such as Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and The Deer Hunter.

Cooper and De Niro continue to plough their respective furrows: Cooper as a slightly oily but handsomely likeable TV executive and De Niro as a grumpy paterfamilias

But the cost to De Niro’s subsequent career of these defining roles would become apparent in the Nineties and beyond, as he found it difficult to escape their gravity. Even the comedies that he started to appear in, with some regularity, played on the idea of his previous roles. In Meet The Parents and its sequel Meet The Fockers, his part might have been comedic but it played on the notion of him as an enraged alpha male.

By the mid-Nineties, Hollywood’s tastes had changed radically and in the same decade that De Niro struggled, Bradley Cooper emerged as a new kind of leading man. Out were alienated soul-searchers, and in were raucous jackasses and sensitive love interests. Tom Cruise, one of the few stars to bridge the decades successfully, epitomised this New Hollywood Man in his career-rejuvenating hit Jerry Maguire in 1996.

Cooper, with his matinee-idol looks and soulful eyes, was the ideal actor for this new cinematic age. Having made his screen debut in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the ultimate Nineties TV series Sex And The City, he exploited his lighthearted, sexy appeal as irresponsible stag party organiser Phil in The Hangover and its two sequels before turning up in The A-Team as mercenary wiseguy “Face” and as Sandra Bullock’s love interest in All About Steve (2009).

Perfect partnership: Cooper and De Niro star together in Silver Linings Playbook Credit: Rex

But audiences are seemingly more willing than they are with De Niro to see Cooper branch out and shed the baggage of these lighter roles to take on weightier fare. He impressed critics as a sensitive rookie cop in indie hit The Place Beyond The Pines in 2012, and the same year his role as bipolar Pat in Silver Linings Playbook won him an Oscar nomination.

He followed this with another serious part, playing troubled war hero Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) for which he received his second best actor Oscar nomination. Hollywood seems to have been willing to grant Cooper a range it did not for his legendary colleague.

In Joy, the pair continue to plough their respective furrows: Cooper as a slightly oily but handsomely likeable TV executive and De Niro as a grumpy paterfamilias. But it would be fascinating to know, having retired to their respective trailers after hard day’s thesping, who envies whose career the most?

Joy is released in cinemas nationwide on 1 January 2016, book tickets here