Robert DeNiro vs. Al Pacino ESPN
Q: My friends and I loved the “Cheers” vs. “Seinfeld” debate that you wrote a couple of months ago. But what about the ultimate Dr. Jack breakdown: Pacino vs. De Niro?
— Rob Adams, Boston
SG: I’ll be honest … this question sat in my “Potential Mailbag Questions” file for an entire summer. I was afraid to answer it. Wouldn’t you be afraid? Pacino vs. De Niro? The two most famous, influential actors of the past 30 years? I feel like I’m about to walk on Mars … I probably won’t return safely, but I can’t resist.
All right, let’s break this down, Dr. Jack-style:
Breakthrough performance — Pacino with Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”; De Niro with Young Vito Corleone in “Godfather II.” Yikes. Pacino’s part was more important, only because Michael evolved as a character from “good-hearted, wide-eyed pup” to “evil mob boss” in the span of three hours, and the scene where he kills Solazzo and McCloskey at Louis’ Ristorante has to rank among the most difficult scenes to pull off. If Pacino choked with that part, “Godfather I” would have failed miserably.
As for De Niro, his performance in “Godfather II” was incredible — he actually made you believe that he was the young Marlon Brando playing the young Vito Corleone. Read that sentence again. But it was a supporting part … the movie could have survived without a home run performance from him. And remember, Coppola auditioned both Pacino and De Niro for Michael’s part when he was casting “The Godfather,” with Pacino winning out. That’s just enough to give him the nod. EDGE: PACINO.
Defining performance — “Godfather II” for Pacino, “Raging Bull” for De Niro (the two most important performances by a male actor in the past 30 years). De Niro learned how to box, he gained 60 pounds … I mean, he became Jake LaMotta.
But I’m still going with Pacino here, only because that’s the one movie where I always think to myself, “Good God, he is absolutely amazing in this” every time I watch it. Just an electric performance from start to finish, like watching Pedro at his peak: Four pitches working, 98 mph fastball, everything for strikes. The scene where Diane Keaton tells him about her abortion, and Pacino’s face starts to shake … that’s an absolute acting clinic. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. SLIGHT EDGE: PACINO.
Consistency — Pacino’s prime lasted from 1972 (“The Godfather”) through 1983 (“Serpico,” “Godfather II,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “And Justice For All,” “Cruising,” “Scarface”), with a resurgence for most of the ’90s (“Godfather III,” “Scent of a Woman,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Any Given Sunday”). I always thought that “Scent of a Woman”‘s success was the worst thing that could have happened to him — after he won the Oscar, he basically played the “Scent of a Woman” guy in every movie after that. Hoo-hah!!!!!
De Niro’s prime lasted much longer — initially from 1974 (“Godfather II”) through 1980 (“Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull”), with a resurgence in the late-’80s (“The Untouchables,” “Midnight Run,” “Awakenings,” “Goodfellas,” “Cape Fear,” “This Boy’s Life,” “Bronx Tale,” “Casino,” “Heat”), and then another resurgence in the late-’90s when he started doing comedies (“Analyze This,” “Meet the Parents”). Just a more interesting, consistent, complete body of work, capped off by his improbable comedy success over these last few years (much like Barry Bonds improbably finishing his 30s by belting 73 homers one season and hitting .375 the next).
Put it this way: If you were trapped on a desert island and could import all of De Niro’s movies or all of Pacino’s movies, you’d probably pick De Niro (unless you couldn’t live without “Scarface” and “Godfather I”). Just more to choose from. EDGE: De NIRO.
Believability as a cop — Pacino was more believable as a detective; De Niro was more believable as a cop. So why didn’t somebody write a movie where Pacino (as a detective) and De Niro (as a cop) banded together to solve a crime? Frankly, I have no idea. EDGE: TIE.
Most admirable misfire — De Niro as a stalker comedian in “King of Comedy” (he just couldn’t pull it off); Pacino as a Cuban drug dealer in “Scarface” (you forget, that movie absolutely bombed when it came out). Which movie will you remember 20 years from now? BIG EDGE: PACINO.
Range — De Niro in a walk, mainly because he could throw anything at you — Funny De Niro, Deadpan De Niro, Scary Mobster De Niro, Quiet Cop De Niro, Intense De Niro, Crazy Cop De Niro, Just Plain Crazy De Niro, Athletic De Niro, Killer De Niro, Quirky De Niro, Kindhearted DeNiro and so on. Pacino could only offer Quiet Cop Pacino, Abrasive Cop Pacino, Brooding Pacino, Crazy Pacino, Intense Pacino, Scary Pacino and Over-the-Top Pacino. There was never really Funny Pacino, unless we’re talking in the Unintentional Comedy sense. Ironically enough, neither of them could pull off Romantic Pacino or Romantic De Niro (it always felt uncomfortable).
Four performances from the latter part of De Niro’s career really set him apart: 1) “Midnight Run” (genuinely funny, genuinely likable, carried the movie on sheer personality, his most underrated performance), 2) “This Boy’s Life” (as the meanspirited stepfather), 3) “Bronx Tale” (as the likable bus driver), and 4) “Heat” (without having much to work with — that bank robber was a blank slate). I’m not sure Pacino could have pulled off any of those roles. EDGE: De NIRO.
(And that reminds me …)
The Switch — If you switched their careers and had Pacino play all of De Niro’s parts, and vice-versa, who would have done a better job? De Niro wouldn’t have nailed any of Pacino’s over-the-top parts (“Scent of a Woman,” “Heat,” “And Justice For All”), and I can’t imagine him pulling off the quiet, conflicted-about-possibly-being-gay police officer infiltrating the Manhattan gay scene in “Cruising” (it would have played like an “SNL” skit). He definitely would have taken Tony Montana and Michael Corleone somewhere (maybe not the same heights, but somewhere). And I think he matches anything else.
But Pacino with De Niro’s parts? None of the comedy roles would have worked. “Cape Fear” and “Raging Bull” wouldn’t have worked. He couldn’t have played the young Vito Corleone. He probably could have handled the mob parts and most of the cop parts, and the only movie he would have improved was “King of Comedy.” It just wouldn’t have worked as well as De Niro with Pacino’s career. EDGE: De NIRO.
Ability to avoid unintentional comedy — Pacino takes the cake here. Ellen Barkin groping him in “Sea of Love,” the dancing scenes in “Cruising” and “Scarface,” the “She’s got a great ass!” scene in Heat … the list is endless. De Niro never made you laugh unless it was intentional. EDGE: De NIRO.
Most improbable character that somehow worked — “Cape Fear” was one of those movies that you only watched once (a little too disturbing, a little too disorienting), but De Niro transformed himself for the role of Max Cady — ripped body, long hair, Southern accent, tattoos, the works. Ten minutes into the movie, you didn’t even remember that it was him. I got you now!
As for Pacino, he was handed one of the most impossible parts ever — play a swaggering drug dealer with no redeeming qualities, adopt a Cuban accent, say everything from the side of your mouth, drop F-bombs every few minutes, have your character slowly become a coked-up maniac as the movie drags along, carry every single scene you’re in, do everything in the most over-the-top fashion possible, and somehow keep the audience rooting for you in the final 20 minutes — and somehow pulled it off, singlehandedly making “Scarface” one of the signature pop culture movies of the past 20 years.
And if you don’t like it … well, (bleep) you, how’s that? EDGE: PACINO.
Shamelessness about selling out — Hey, it’s not like Pacino hasn’t taken a few roles just for cash (“The Devil’s Advocate,” “Godfather III,” “Simone” and “Dick Tracy,” to name four). But he always picked his spots, at least until recently, and every Pacino movie always managed to feel like an event, even if it sucked.
Not De Niro. The way he sold out over the past 15 years has almost been jarring: “15 Minutes,” “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Showtime,” “The Fan,” “Frankenstein,” “Marvin’s Room,” “Great Expectations” and “Backdraft,” as well as a number of below-average films that he inexplicably accepted (“Stanley and Iris,” “Mad Dog and Glory,” “Guilty By Suspicion,” “Night and the City,” “We’re No Angels”). Bob, feel free to say no every once in a while. It’s okay. BIG EDGE: PACINO.
Most influential line on pop culture — De Niro has “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”; Pacino has “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Which one do you use more? I thought so. EDGE: PACINO.
Wild card — My buddy Gus (who’s legally changing his name to “My Buddy Gus” next month) pointed this one out: In Pacino’s movies, there’s always a definitive scene that you remember, one of those Pacino Scenes where he basically tells the director, “When I’m finished with this take, we’ll just send it right to the Oscar committee” (like the “I woulda taken a FLAME THROWER to this place!” from “Scent of a Woman,’ or the final locker room speech in “Any Given Sunday”). No matter how bad the movie, Pacino always has that one memorable scene (even in “Devil’s Advocate,” which may have been the worst two hours of my life).
De Niro just isn’t that type of actor; he’s always better in understated scenes (like the scene in “Midnight Run” when he goes to borrow money from his ex-wife). If they were pitchers, De Niro would be Greg Maddux (steady and brilliant) and Pacino would be Randy Johnson (you never know what he’s capable of next). Whatever the case, I think Pacino gets a small edge here, only because a collage of his best scenes would be more fun to watch than a collage of De Niro’s best scenes. EDGE: PACINO.
Head-to-head matchup — As we all know, Pacino and DeNiro shared one major scene together, the diner scene in “Heat,” one of the five or six most exciting moments of my life as a movie fan (I still remember seeing it for the first time, thinking to myself, “Good God, is this really happening?”). That’s also one of those rare scenes in a movie where you’re flicking channels, you know it’s coming up soon, and you’ll hang around for 15 minutes just until it comes on … and after watching that scene roughly 73,456 times on cable over the last seven years, I’m giving De Niro a slight edge.
Here’s why …
It was dead-even right until the end. Pacino did his “Brotha, you are going down” routine. De Niro did his “There’s a flip side to that coin … what if I have to take you down?” routine. And it was a dead heat. Both of them hit it out of the park. Except right at the end, Pacino broke into a slight smile, almost like he couldn’t handle the moment — either it was too intense, or he couldn’t believe the scene just happened. Either way, it’s always bothered me. His character never would have smiled in that scene at that particular moment. It didn’t add up. And it was just enough to give De Niro the win. SLIGHT EDGE: De NIRO.
My stepfather’s take — Three things you need to know about my stepdad: 1) He’s 100 percent Italian, 2) his favorite movies of all-time are “Godfather 1,” “Godfather 2,” “Scarface,” “Analyze This,” “Goodfellas,” “Bronx Tale,” and “And Justice For All,” and 3) his two favorite actors are Pacino and De Niro. Going to him for a Pacino-De Niro breakdown was like going to Bob Ryan for the definitive take on Bird vs. Magic.
Anyway, I couldn’t decide between the two of them, so I turned the decision over to him. Here’s what he said:
“DeNiro vs. Pacino? (silence) Oh, boy. I don’t think you want to do this. (More silence) Oh. Jeez. (More silence) You have to pick one? (Dead silence) Why would you want to do this? You can’t win either way.”
(After some prodding …)
“(Bleep) … I’d go with De Niro. Most of Pacino’s best stuff came out 20 and 30 years ago … De Niro keeps coming out with quality stuff. But that’s no knock on Pacino …”
(And he defended Pacino for the next five minutes.)
Final verdict: De Niro. Barely.