Monday, June 27, 2011

Robert De Niro vs. Al Pacino

Say Hello to my Little Friend, Robert De Pacino

       I reaffirm my faith in the beauty of cinema almost routinely. The most joyous moment in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (one of my favorite films) occurred when young Antoine and his family ventured to the cinemas; cinema, as both an escape from delinquency and birth of inspiration, is one of Truffaut's most poignant and recurring themes. Fast forward to today. My fondness for film is like a rose in full bloom. "A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." That's a quote from the memorable diner scene in Heat. It's one of those spectacular cinematic moments that deserves a "where were you when you watched Robert De Niro and Al Pacino square off before the camera, mano-a-mano" disclaimer. That scene represents the formative stages of my obsessive love for film. I was young, but I snuck into the R-rated showing of Heat. And I'm eternally grateful for my youthful mischief because cinema thrust upon me with an unrelenting intensity. Towards the latter part of their memorable on-screen exchange, Pacino warns De Niro: "You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell are going down." And De Niro responds: "There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down?...We've been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second." So, in keeping with their underlined spirit, I ask only one favor: briefly suspend your knowledge of the final act in Heat and imagine what would happen if De Niro and Pacino, in a purely artistic sense, faced off?
      I shall call this concept the "Robert De Pacino." What it connotes, quite simply, is the unanswerable. At certain points in your life, you'll be faced with a question that has no definable answer. Here are some quirky examples: Why do people never say "it's only a game" when they're winning? And, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, since my last name does not end with Coen, let's move to the serious stuff. Is there providence? Is there life after death? Am I awake or am I dreaming? Who is better, De Niro or Pacino? Now, before you become Mr. IQ and interject with "what word/question doesn't belong in this group," let's address that last one: De Niro vs. Pacino. Yes, it jumped at me too. It seems trivial. So, why am I, a professed lover of film, charged with the task of declaring a champ, beset with such trepidation? Because I AM a professed lover of film. I adore them both, equally and unequivocally. Choosing one is like picking between pizza and pasta (I'm Italian). It's like taking sides against the family (I'm staring squarely at you Fredo Corleone). Some questions are silly and some are profound. De Niro vs. Pacino is the real doozy. Such a momentous question (many moviegoers have waged the De Niro-Pacino War) requires careful deliberation. Unlike Capt. Ross in A Few Good Men, I'm deliberating with passion and prejudice. I have a case. And yes, I can also walk on water. 
      The Breakdown

      Robert De Niro's breakthrough: Few, if any, can deny the greatness of De Niro's portrayal of the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. The only sensory experience that I can equate it to is witnessing Michael Jordan, in breathtaking fashion, commanding the Bulls to six NBA titles. It's as if a prescient De Niro transcribed these Jordanesque moments to film, in a way, so beautiful, that I'm reminded of the exquisite dance-like direction of Federico Fellini (I implore you to watch any of his films and you'll know what I'm talking about). Here's a little golden trivia nugget: ask your friend's which fictional movie character (Vito Corleone) is responsible for two actors winning Oscars (Mr. De Niro and Marlon Brando). 
      Even prior to the Coppola influence, De Niro had established himself as an up-and-coming talent. Mean Streets ushered in his career-stretching collaboration with Martin Scorsese. And before the incomparable Marty employed his talents, De Niro had given a tremendous performance, as a dying Major League Baseball player, in Bang the Drum Slowly. My point is simple: De Niro's acting brilliance was visible in his earliest roles.
      Al Pacino's breakthrough: The Godfather. What elevates his electric performance to prodigious heights is his intricately plotted character arc. He evolves from the innocent, mild-mannered college graduate to the ruthless mob boss. To this day, it is still my favorite performance from any actor. Pacino earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor despite the shear enormity and dominance of his screen time (he should have been nominated in the Best Actor category). Again, much like De Niro, Pacino's genius was evident prior to his career-defining turn in The Godfather. Before he landed the prized role of Michael Corleone, Pacino gave a memorable performance in The Panic in Needle Park, which caught Coppola's eye. And before that fateful encounter, Pacino was a successful stage actor; he won an Obie for his performance in The Indian Wants the Bronx and a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in Does a Tiger wear a Necktie? It strikes me as no coincidence that both De Niro and Pacino honed their craft under the illustrious tutelage of the legendary acting coach, Lee Strasberg. 
      De Niro's best performance: Raging Bull. For all these reasons :)
      Pacino's best performance: The Godfather Part II. Remember how I said De Niro's performance reminded me of Michael Jordan (even though he wasn't even in the public consciousness at the time)? Well, Pacino's performance was a level higher; in fact, he soared to the apex of greatness. Imagine combining the talents of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That's exactly what Alfredo James did. Yeah, holy shit. His only shortcoming: he didn't take over the world, but he almost did some years later with the help of some Cuban named Tony Montana. I guess performance-enhancing drugs weren't like they are today (too much coke, Tony).
      De Niro's consistency: De Niro enjoyed a longer prime than Pacino. He attained immediate popularity from Bang the Drum Slowly, reached meteoric heights in The Godfather Part II, mesmerized everyone in Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, and gained eminence, in the eyes of the critical community, for his stunning performance in Raging Bull (I'll add The King of Comedy to that magnificent stretch). De Niro's legacy in the annals of Hollywood's greatest method actors had been cemented. A few middling parts soon followed. De Niro experienced his first resurgence in the late-80's (The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, This Boy's Life, Bronx Tale, Casino, the aforementioned Heat), and then another resurgence in the late-90's, when he took his talents (yes, Lebron) to comedy  (Analyze This and Meet the Parents). And, sadly, he hammed it in. Does he have a third resurgence in him? Perhaps, De Niro loyalists, like me, are spoiled enough, but it would be amazing to see him channel his earlier brilliance one last time (a Swan Song, so to speak) as he rides off into the sunset.  
      Pacino's consistency: Pacino's prime lasted from The Godfather to Scarface. In that period of time, he experienced an almost-utopian measure of success. During this Hall of Fame stretch, he smashed championship home runs with masterful performances in Scarecrow, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Bobby Deerfield, and, (similar to The Godfather Part II) opposite his acting coach, Lee Strasberg, in the courtroom drama And Justice for All. Similar to De Niro, Pacino was guilty of commercializing his talent by appearing in some jarring films (I don't blame either one of them because making movies is about art...and money). His first and only resurgence came in the 90's (Scent of a Woman, Carlito's Way, the aforementioned Heat, The Insider). Then, like De Niro, he hammed it in. As with Mr. De Niro, I'm tantalized by the prospect of one final, classic Pacino performance. Not a rebirth, merely a glimmer. Can the man famous for playing mobsters, cops, detectives and lawyers dazzle us once more at the twilight of his career? I strenuously (again with A Few Good Men reference) hope so.
      My favorite De Niro roles: The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Heat and Analyze This. And I could easily add another five movies to this list. It's ever-changing. For a more elaborate and detailed impression of De Niro's brilliance, read my thoughts on The King of Comedy.   
      My favorite Pacino roles: The Godfather (I & II), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, Carlito's Way, Heat and Any Given Sunday. During my intensive-partying, college years, my friends and I, prior to hitting the town (barhopping, clubbing, etc.), would pop Scarface into the DVD player, start it up, and then leave it on in the background as we pre-gamed. And when we got back from the bar, after quoting the movie endlessly ("Me, that's who!"), we'd start it again from the beginning. There was a cool comfort, however irrational, in knowing that Scarface was being played in the background, almost as if Tony Montana was partying with us. Pacino, during his heyday, was, well, let's take it from the horse's mouth: "This is paradise, I'm tellin' ya."
      The aforementioned (Bring on Heat) head-to-head matchup: It's a tie. Let me paint a quick picture. If any of you guys/girls are tennis fans, I encourage you to look up Isner vs. Mahut. Their marathon match is the stuff of legend, but it's also a metaphor for the great De Niro/Pacino debate. If the two titans of cinema squared off on the court, their match would exceed the record breaking length of Isner/Mahut. But here's the kicker: it wouldn't end. They are equals.  De Niro is synonymous with versatility. Pacino is synonymous with intensity. Together, they're synonymous with greatness, an awe-inspiring achievement that inspires comparisons, more apt in terms of legacy, to Michael Jordan. When a person classifies your achievements as Jordan-like, you've reached the zenith of your profession. Unfortunately, like MJ, they've decided to join the acting world's equivalent of the Washington Wizards (remember Jordan's return to the NBA?): movies like Gigli and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The only difference between Jordan and the two actors: De Niro and Pacino's tenure with mediocrity has lasted much longer than two seasons. 

       Before I befriend someone, I have to know where they stand on the De Niro/Pacino conundrum. If they invoke Mr. Straw Man (the fallacy that claims such a question is trivial), then I invoke Mr. Nicky Santoro (Casino). I dispose of them quicker than they could say "funny how?" (Goodfellas). If they answer De Niro or Pacino, but provide little-to-no justification, then I refresh their knowledge of Friday. Craig drops Deebo. I drop you. And Smokey drops: "you got knocked tha fuggg out!!!" Basically, my job is to weed out wannabes, or as Mike Myers and Dana Carvey taught us in Wayne's World, "not worthy" types. But, if one can reasonably defend their choice (one friend argued De Niro is better understated whereas Pacino is better over-the-top), then I spare them the misfortune of any cruel fate. Even better, if I'm looking to achieve that Step Brothers "Did we just become best friends?" moment, then they're answering with neither. 
      Frankly, I do give a damn. De Niro vs. Pacino cannot end with a decisive winner. Deciding which one is better is not only futile, but it's damn near impossible. Compartmentalizing their roles or comparing their careers to competitive sports is tenuous because neither De Niro nor Pacino will lose. Instead, we're talking about legacy. De Niro and Pacino are collectively, to a large degree, Ruthian masters of cinema. Remember the scene from Sandlot, when the boys, completely awe-struck in their tone, describe Babe Ruth. Well, the careers of De Niro and Pacino, Rushmore's of Method Acting, warrant such inspired adulation, even from the youngsters. To steal Ruth's thunder, they are: the great Barnstormers, sultans of slap, titans of thesp, colossuses of clout (colossuses of clout!), kings of flash, man. When you're being compared to the Great Bambino, no one loses. Hoo-hah, Mr. Lamotta!

*The video that inspired this post!


  1. Okay, gauntlet thrown, and the slugfest was warring in the back of my mind as I read your excellent post. I would take either man at their best on any day as they are obviously both masters of their craft. So many great performances. And while I agree with your friend that I prefer De Niro understated and Pacino over the top - I will not try to ride those coattails. In the end I was leaning toward Pacino for giving us a deeper look at himself with the documentary Looking for Richard - thus edging out the notoriously shy De Niro, but I can't do it - the performances end up winning out over discovering more about the two men. Deadlock. Well played my friend. Well played.

  2. I cannot really give an answer to this as I adore both of them for many different reasons. However, if I am seated with a 44 to my head, then I have to say DeNiro and for a purely low-brow reason. He's appeared in more movies that I consider favorites than Pacino has. It's a slight edge, but an edge nonetheless.

    Should I expect to be unfollowed and unfriended?

  3. If we call the 70s a draw, and their more recent mediocre choices also about even, then overall I'd say I'd have to give it to De Niro, mainly because of Midnight Run, because that kind of non-hammy comedy role is something Pacino never even attempted (although admittedy neither since has De Niro), the Raging Bull metamorphosis for the same reason, and minus points for Cruising where Pacino's cop pretending to be a homosexual literally skips to show his gayness.

    Although of all their combined performances I'd say my singular favourite is still Scarface.

    Of course neither has made a decent ham-free movie for years and I don't believe either will. Nice run from both though. I just got hold of The Scarecrow, Pacino and Hackman, which I've never see. Hope it lives up to its reputation.

    Moody Writing

  4. This one is easy for me.... neither of them! I think both actors are walking cliches, as here in my country, if you ask someone on the street 'who's your favorite actor', the answer will be either Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. B-O-R-I-N-G! I'd say.... Daniel Day Lewis ;)

  5. Well, I never liked nor respected Pacino, since he has that neurotic approach to acting (similar to Sean Penn's) playing himself all the time, which I really don't like. They are not refined and expressive but pompous and tacky, and often very egocentric while acting.
    And I like De Niro only in comedies :) but I know you don't like him in comedies, Matty :)But he does play dangerous dads ready to give some hell to their son in laws very good :)

  6. @ Craig

    Thank you, Sir!

    I am happy that you share my sentiment. This is one of those decisions that is better left with a 50/50 split. De Niro and Pacino's influence on my love of cinema, acting and pursuing my dreams cannot be overstated. And as an Italian, choosing one or the other is grounds for getting whacked, at least if someone in my family were to find out.

    I'll have to watch Looking for Richard. That sounds like documentary gold.

  7. @ Melissa

    "unfollow or unfriend" you? Of course not, Melissa. You are too much of a badass. You could've given me tawdry reasons for your choice (I don't think your reasoning is at all "low-brow") and I would still respect your opinion. You are bullet proof safe in my blogging world.

    I was being sarcastic and merely just poking fun at people, in general, who broadcast their opinions using silly information (you know, politicians).

    Thanks for stepping into the debate!

  8. @ mooderino

    Wow! Now that is what I'm talking about when I say "defending your choice." Well-said, Sir.

    I admire your choice and respect your analysis. I agree with your take on Midnight Run (Pacino couldn't have pulled it off, at least on De Niro's level). Cruising was a debacle. And Scarface deserves no defense!

    Watch The Scarecrow immediately. Early Pacino and Hackman is cinema gold. It's like they're teaching a clinic to moviegoers on how to act.

  9. @ Nebular

    To this point, nothing you've said has ever annoyed me to this degree. But claiming Pacino and De Niro are "boring" and "walking cliches" is ludicrous. Granted, their work over the past 10 years has been grossly underwhelming (now it seems, they only care about the paycheck). But their first 30 years in the business is the stuff of legend. I cannot watch any of their performances from the 70's and 80's (with a few exceptions) without being genuinely awe-struck. Some of the greatest examples of modern cinema came from movies they have starred in, and is owed, to an extent, from their riveting performances.

    But I guess your experiences in your country are much different, and they have clearly colored your judgment askew. In that case, I sympathize because De Niro and Pacino are two behemoths of acting and they should never be reduced to redundant punch lines.

    Day Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood is the most impressive, absorbing performance I've seen in the last 20 years, easily. He's one of my favorites. And he is an incredible force on screen. But he doesn't even belong in this debate. This is about two PAST titans of cinema.

    I still respect your opinion. I just disagree, wholeheartedly, with you on this one.

  10. @ Dezmond

    That's shocking to me: The fact that you cannot like any of Pacino's performances is mind-boggling and strikes me as an unfair bias against certain actors of the past. I don't consider any of his 70's performances as "pompous or tacky," but to each his own.

    I DO like De Niro in comedies (In my analysis, I referenced Midnight Run and Analyze This as two of my favorite De Niro roles). His range is infinite and that is what makes him such a profoundly talented actor (plus his complete immersion into character).

    Like Nebular, I still respect your opinion. We clearly disagree mightily on this one though.

  11. Matty, don't take it personal, dude, it's just an opinion. :) I didn't say that they're boring, but that people's favorite actor choices are boring, those two are just walking cliches :) Kidding!

    I actually agree with Dezmond, I think they both play themselves, and playing yourself doesn't make you a good actor by any means. Yes, I'm a bit 'affected' by these two's popularity in my country, but cliche choices aside, I still don't like any of them. Sorry, Matt.

  12. @ Nebular

    I'm not taking it personally, buddy. I just get fired up about these two guys because I really admire them greatly. Like I said, I respect your opinion. But we disagree. That's quite normal. I guess I was just shocked by the realization that someone could not be awed by their superior body of work. I mean their legacies and performances speak for themselves. It's good that we found something polarizing because we routinely agree on many things :)

    And yes. Anointing one of them as one's "favorite" actor is quite cliche. I feel you on that one.

    Thanks for the follow up, homie!

  13. Matty, I respect your opinion as well, of course. I was just honest, and I didn't mean to annoy you. Sorry about that. Yes, it's quite normal I guess :) Different people - different opinions :) I dislike these two since I can remember, and nobody's opinion could change mine :) You have great cinematic taste, despite our disagreement :)

  14. I seriously can't pick between these two. Though I'm not a huge fan of them but one thing that I'm sure that they're Living Legends of Hollywood.

  15. It's good to know I'm badass and bullet proof safe in your blogging world. When I read the title of your post I had to think about my answer for a while. It was just that hard. In the end I went with movies that are my favorites, that I watch over and over like Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time In America, Casino,(are you sensing a theme here?) Deer Hunter and Cape Fear. This is by no means the complete DeNiro list, but a few of my tops. Pacino, on the other hand, has The Godfather 1 and 2, Donnie Brasco, Carlito's Way and Serpico. And I could go on with Al as well. It came down to DeNiro's list being slightly longer.

    This was a wildly interesting post and sparked a few debates amongst my friends here. I think we had as many draws as we did DeNiros and Pacinos.

  16. @ Nebular

    Thanks, buddy! Glad we squelched that disagreement without slinging any arrows.

    @ Jaccstev

    Exactly my point: It's too difficult to pick between them. And well-said, "Living Legends of Hollywood" is precisely what they are.

  17. @ Melissa

    Absolutely! I value your opinion a great deal.

    As a long time admirer of Pacino and De Niro, I wrestled with this question. And ultimately, I couldn't justify choosing, definitively, one over the other. That being side, I respect the fact that you, and other readers, did (and I'm impressed that you gave it such deep consideration). I agree with you that De Niro has more "great" roles. And that is a perfect reason to elect him.

    Thanks for passing the debate on to your circle of friends. I'm flattered. It appears some of your friends agree with me :)

  18. fuck de niro , al pacino is the boss fuck yeah