Since the birth of their careers, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have had the distinct misfortune of being compared to one another. When you think about it, on the most basic level, it’s completely unfair to compare the work of two different actors, simply because they come from the same place and have a penchant for playing similar characters.
Or is it?
Both actors were born in New York City in the early 1940s (Pacino in 1940, De Niro in ‘43) with Italian in their blood. Both were stage actors who studied and trained at the Actors Studio. Both had a few minor film roles before catching their break in the early ‘70s, eventually leading to one flawless, iconic performance after another.
Since the 1970s, both have had numerous hits, flops, and comebacks before landing where they are now: in relative career embarrassment.
|Pacino playing "himself" in Jack and Jill|
This is no joke, what I’m about to tell you is horrifyingly real. Right around the time Titanic was rereleased, and very ill-informed kids were figuring out that, yes, Titanic was an actual ship that actually sank, I was standing in a grocery store checkout line when I heard two kids (estimated ages 14 or 15), both males, who were discussing the film Jack and Jill. The kids were, thankfully, bashing the movie, but toward the end of their discussion, one of the guys noted how “shitty” of an actor Al Pacino is. He then said something to the effect of, “Isn’t that guy supposed to be one of the best actors ever? He’s awful in everything.”
I was stunned to the point of silence. But then it hit me. To our youths, Pacino is a bad actor, and Robert De Niro is a horrible one. Think about it, if those kids have only seen Jack and Jill, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, New Year’s Eve, Killer Elite and/or Everybody’s Fine, then what else do they have to go on? Are they uncultured? Sure. But, hell, they’re 14.
The fact that the work of two of the best actors that ever lived is being forgotten, overlooked, or not even considered, depresses me to no end. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. What I want to do here, in this post, is definitively decide who is the better actor. Pacino vs. De Niro. In doing this, I will take into account everything the two actors have done: the good, the bad, and the god awful ugly. I hope to have an answer by the time I’m done writing this, but, as it often the case when this conversation comes into play, by the end of this post, I may end up being more confounded then when I began.
|Pacino/The Godfather - De Niro/Mean Streets|
Pacino’s immediate transition from stage to screen went exactly as well as De Niro’s. Both starred in a string of films no one saw, then found very moderate success (Panic in Needle Park for Pacino, Bang the Drum Slowly for De Niro) before being instantly shot to fame. De Niro’s luck hit when he teamed with Martin Scorsese for the first time to play Johnny Boy in the masterfully raw Mean Streets. Similarly, once people saw Pacino as Michael Corleone, the man’s career path was all but set.
Johnny Boy remains one of the most viciously memorable, furiously unhinged performances of De Niro’s career, and Michael Corleone is, well, Michael Corleone. After those respective roles, the sky was limit.
Much has been (justly) made about the importance of ‘70s American film over the cinematic medium as a whole. And, when discussing this decade in filmic terms, it is virtually impossible to get through three whole sentences without mentioning the influence of Pacino and De Niro. You don’t even need to explain the movies, the impact of their titles say enough. After The Godfather, Pacino had Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice For All, while De Niro was busy winning an Oscar for playing the character Marlon Brando made famous, and appearing in movies like Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.
|Playing father and son at the same age in different eras in The Godfather: Part II|
Between them, Pacino and De Niro were nominated for eight Oscars in the ‘70s, all for characters that were, and are, essential to the importance and cultural influence of cinema today.
During the ‘80s, their careers spilt. De Niro reached a peak in the form of his flawless incarnation of Jake La Motta in 1980’s Raging Bull, then delivered subsequent, notable performances in The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Mission, and The Untouchables. Pacino’s ‘80s weren’t as memorable. While I respect his remarkably audacious role in 1980’s Cruising, it’s basically Serpico: In the Gay Zone. The surprising, random impact Scarface has had on contemporary pop culture (specifically in the rap game), doesn’t make me appreciate the film any more. It’s long and boring and mildly entertaining. I’ve always found it just okay.
|De Niro/Raging Bull - Pacino/Cruising|
In short, De Niro’s ‘80s were better than Pacino’s. (De Niro, for the record, had more chances to fail, or succeed, as he appeared in 13 movies between 1980-1989, far more than Pacino’s five roles.)
In the ‘90s, their careers became more parallel. Both we’re nominated for Oscars in 1990 (Pacino for Dick Tracy, De Niro for Awakenings), and reached newfound critical acclaim in flicks like Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman and Carlito’s Way (Pacino), and GoodFellas, Cape Fear, Backdraft and Casino (De Niro). But it was in 1995 that their two careers finally, miraculously, literally merged together, when they starred in a film that can be labeled as one of the most significant films of their respective careers.
Michael Mann wrote his epic crime saga, Heat, specifically for Pacino and De Niro. The effort to get these to screen icons (and off-screen friends) in a movie together was a long time comin’, and Mann’s modern day cops-vs.-robbers tale of morality has proved to be the perfect outlet.
Heat is a masterpiece, and both Pacino, as obsessive police Lt. Vincent Hanna, and De Niro, as calculating thief Neil McCauley, are masterful in it. Not since Dog Day Afternoon and Raging Bull, respectively, had we seen such an all-encompassing command of their individually talents. The fact that Pacino and De Niro didn’t occupy two spots of the Oscar race for Best Actor in 1995 is something I’ll never quite understand. Hanna and McCauley are two of the most thoroughly conceived, brilliantly executed characters of modern cinema, and, despite the lack of awards attention, the two roles remain some of the best work Pacino and De Niro have ever done.
In essence, the two peaked in Heat in a way they haven’t since. Don’t get me wrong, Pacino’s performance in Donnie Brasco is pure bliss and I love (fucking LOVE) De Niro’s role as a sympathetic priest in Barry Levinson’s criminally underseen Sleepers, but after Heat, things just weren’t the same.
|De Niro delivering a career low in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle|
For De Niro, it was the lethal one-two punch of Ronin and Analyze That that marked the worst acting decisions of his career. Ronin, while disliked by me, has its fair share of die hard fans. It’s an out-and-out action film, the first of De Niro’s since Heat. The difference is, in Heat, De Niro was exercising badass De Niro. His Neil McCauley was lean and mean and ruthless and charming. It was De Niro, personified. His Sam in Ronin was a grizzle schlub, which has paved way for the numerous grizzled schlubs De Niro has played in bad action films since. I’m talking Men of Honor, 15 Minutes, City by the Sea, Righteous Kill, Killer Elite, and the like.
Similarly, Analyze This proved that De Niro could be a bankable comedy star, and for good reason. Harold Ramis’ mob comedy remains lacerating and funny in all the best ways. In fact, I don’t have a bad thing to say about it – it’s an action comedy that achieves what it wants to. But, let’s be honest, Analyze That ruined De Niro’s career. It led to De Niro’s monumentally successful role in 2000’s Meet the Parents, another comedy I have no problem with, and from there, it was straight to hell. Rocky & Bullwinkle, Meet the Fockers, New Year’s Eve, Little Fockers, and on.
Are there waves of redemption post-Meet the Parents? Maybe. The Score is a breezy, decent action flick, and What Just Happened is a worthy insider comedy. Is De Niro good in them? Sure. Is he Robert De Niro-good? Of course not.
|As a man way out of his depth in Jackie Brown|
For my money the last great performance De Niro gave was as Louis Gara in Quentin Tarantino’s underrated Jackie Brown. Louis is an underwritten character who does nothing more than get stoned on a couch and watch in-home peep shows. That is until Louis and Melanie (Bridget Fonda) are forced to team up for the film’s grand con. Just watch De Niro in those scenes. The slicked-back hair, the foreboding walk, the fatal attitude; that’s the De Niro I love. (For the record, while Louis is De Niro’s last great performance, his last De Niro-good performance is, again, as McCauley in Heat.)
It’s a little more difficult to trace exactly when Pacino’s career began to nosedive, simply because Pacino is far more choosier with his roles than De Niro. Point in fact, I was amazed to discover that, according to IMDb, Pacino has been in about half as many films as De Niro. Because of this, we must acknowledge a truth in Pacino’s later career: while largely littered with crap, there are subtle hints of greatness mixed in.
|Pacino's Gigli performance is as bad as that hair and suit|
Let’s start with the bad. While Pacino didn’t set out to completely reinvent his career by becoming an action/comedy punchline like De Niro, he has, in recent years, pushed his… Pacinoness to the point of exhaustion. Take The Devil’s Advocate, The Recruit, 88 Minutes, Ocean’s Thirteen, and Righteous Kill, for examples. Some of those are good, some are shit, all contain Pacino performances in which he is capitalizing on nothing more than the fact that he is Al Pacino. Mix those in with uncontestable garbage like Gigli, S1m0ne, and Jack and Jill, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Those are some seriously bad films, but are there as many as De Niro? Nope. Furthermore, Pacino’s post-Heat career has been sprinkled with far more dashes of wonderment than De Niro’s. Donnie Brasco, Insomnia, Angels in America, and You Don’t Know Jack are all evidence of the greatness that made Michael Corleone so iconic. De Niro hasn’t been great since ‘97’s Jackie Brown, whereas Pacino was lastly great in 2010’s You Don’t Know Jack, and Pacino-good in 1999’s The Insider and Any Given Sunday.
So, to summarize the respective downfalls of these two actors, De Niro has made his career much more of a running joke than Pacino’s. I’ve essentially come to accept the fact that Pacino will continue to make shit films for large paychecks, while winning Emmy’s for HBO movies, while De Niro will simply continue to just make shit films for large paychecks.
|De Niro/Taxi Driver - Pacino/Dog Day Afternoon|
So what does it all come down to? Who is better: Pacino or De Niro?
Here’s what I know: De Niro’s pre-Heat career marks some of the finest acting ever put on screen (as does Pacino’s, but stay with me here). Raging Bull is, in no uncertain terms, the very finest acting performance I have ever seen, second only to Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire. Travis Bickle is, in no uncertain terms, my favorite film character of all time. Johnny Boy is delightfully menacing, Vito Corleone is haunting and imposing, Michael from The Deer Hunter is angry yet remorseful, Rupert Pupkin, Al Capone, Jimmy Conway, Max Cady, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein – these are all characters that allow the film medium to be as essential as it is.
Likewise, Pacino’s Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, Sonny Wortzik, Big Boy Caprice, Ricky Roma, and Col. Frank Slade, who all help make the decision of choosing which actor is better nearly impossible. De Niro’s pre-Heat career trumps Pacino’s, while Pacino’s post-Heat career far surpasses De Niro’s, so who wins?
Put a gun to my head and I’ll tell you Robert De Niro is a better actor than Al Pacino. But I’ll also tell you that he’s made far more poor career decisions, too. To (finally) reach an all-encompassing point: we can all agree that the career nosedives of both De Niro and Pacino are heartbreaking. And, I think, we can all also agree that no matter what shit these two manage to dish out, their previous work has left them with more career passes than any 10 actors combined. Let’s crudely consider that for every bad performance these give, a pass granted to them for a prior flawless performance is either chipped at or taken away. If we go about this based solely on that criterion, then De Niro still has more passes leftover.
I may never again witness another great Robert De Niro performance, but his prior work will live with me forever, slightly more than Pacino’s. Because, at the end of the day, what is more infamous: Pacino telling us how his father makes offers people can’t refuse, or De Niro reminding us that he is the boss. He is the boss. He is the boss. You tell me.