Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Which one of your children do you love the most? Yeah, that is a question no one should ever ask a parent. The only answer should be, “I love all my children equally.” That’s how I feel when asked to choose between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. They are both legends and are always in the top 5 of any Top 10 Greatest Actors list. However, De Niro is consistently ranked one notch above Pacino. Since a tie is apparently forbidden on Top 10 Greatest Actor lists, let me tell you why I believe Al Pacino is a slight notch above Robert De Niro.
They both had breakout roles in the Godfather franchise. Pacino was in all three films and nominated for a Best Supporting Actor and a Best Actor Oscar for the first two movies. De Niro was in Godfather Part II and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. If this were a poker game, I’d call that a draw. To date, Al Pacino has eight Oscar nominations and one Best Actor win in 1993. By the way, he was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor that same year. De Niro has only seven Oscar nominations, but two wins…Best Supporting Actor 1975 and Best Actor 1981. De Niro has 12 Golden Globe nominations and two wins if you count the Cecil B. DeMille Award. Pacino has 18 Golden Globe nominations and has five wins including the Cecil B. DeMille Award. Both men have been give the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honors. So, once again I’m calling it a draw in the accolades arena although I think Pacino has a slight edge here.
Is there a rivalry between Pacino and De Niro? Many people think so because they are both Actors Studio guys, just like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who actually had a serious rivalry. When Newman and McQueen finally did a movie together (The Towering Inferno-1974) both their names appeared side-by-side in the opening credits, although Newman negotiated to have his name ever so slightly higher than McQueen’s name.
When Pacino and De Niro appeared on-screen together for the first time, it was in the movie Heat (1995). Their names appeared side-by-side and at equal levels in the opening credits. That may not be conclusive evidence of no rivalry, but here’s what they said during a 2017 interview on The Today Show.
“Early on we were up for the same parts, but that’s what it is, but not a rivalry. Al has taught me things that I still do today.”
“He told me if I didn’t do Scarface he was going to do it. That might have motivated me. I don’t know.”
Pacino and De Niro first became aware of each other in the late 1960s. Pacino was garnering rave reviews on Broadway in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? Pacino learned about De Niro on the streets of New York City.
“It was on 14thStreet, between Avenues B & C. I was with my girlfriend at the time who was Jill Clayburgh and she did a movie with him and said, “That is a really good actor.” He had a very interesting look to me. He had a lot of presence. Even on 14thStreet. He had a lot of energy. I could tell he had a certain kind of fire in him.”
After The Godfather part II (1974), Robert De Niro embarked on a string of diverse and iconic roles and performances…Taxi Driver (1975), The Deer Hunter (1978),The King of Comedy (1982), The Untouchables (1987), Awakenings (1991), and Cape Fear (1992). In 1980 he gave the most unforgettable, uncompromising, totally committed acting performance by any actor in history, including Al Pacino. Raging Bull was that film and De Niro won his second Oscar.
Jake LaMotta was an explosive character. He was loud, powerful, and dangerously out of control, but the true genius of DeNiro is how much he can say without saying a word. No one can say more with just a look. There is so much going on in his face.
“It’s very hard for actors, and I get caught up in that myself thinking you have to do more, you have to do something, and you really don’t have to do anything…nothing and you’re better off. Instead of telling the audience what you feel with your face, just let them read into it.”
-Robert De Niro
However, being the best at something does have its downsides. There is a running joke these day that goes, “I saw a Robert De Niro movie last night. It was the one with the gangsters.” Because of his powerful performances in films such as Goodfellas (1990), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Casino (1995), and Heat (1995), De Niro’s versatility as an actor has become overlooked. Let us not forget he played the Frankenstein creature and in my option, he was the only believable and not laughable thing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).
Al Pacino has certainly played his fair share of gangsters, but his characters are so often radically different. Compare Carlito Brigante in Carlito’s Way (1993)to Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco (1997). Pacino’s filmography is a testament to his astounding versatility as an actor. After The Godfather made him famous, Serpico (1973) made Pacino a movie star. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) made him a legend. Scarface (1983) made him an icon, and Scent of a Woman (1992) made him a long-overdue Oscar winner. He has played Satan, Roy Cohn, Shylock, Phil Spector, Jack Kevorkian, Joe Paterno, and Jimmy Hoffa. That Hoffa role by the way re-teamed him with De Niro in The Irishman (2019).
Al Pacino’s genius as an actor is his total absorption of so many different characters and the direct connection between his gut and his mind. I think that makes him one small notch above Robert De Niro.
Now for a needed disclosure. When I was a student at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in the mid to late 1980s, one of my teachers was Al Pacino’s mentor and business partner. His name was Charlie Laughton, which was always followed by “Not the Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I also worked as Charlie’s secretary which gave me the opportunity to be around Pacino. He always seemed sincerely interested in not only how my acting career was going, but how a career was going for any struggling actor or actress. I think it kept him grounded.
“This is a craft that you have to keep doing whenever you can and you shouldn’t spend too much time dealing with the fact that there’s a world out there with a lot of competition. “He who persists in his folly will one day be wise.’ I am waiting for that day to come.”
I’ve never had the enviable opportunity to talk to Robert De Niro, but I think if you ask him and Al Pacino who is the better actor, they’d probably say Dustin Hoffman.
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