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Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Marlon Brando died ten years ago this year. Back when all the Brando memorials came out, the acting legend was lauded for a handful of movies he made. That’s all it was, though; just a handful, and there’s a reason for that: Brando’s choices of film roles left a lot to be desired. Many people rightfully single out the handful of truly iconic movies he was in, because he did manage to get his name atop the marquee of some great ones: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. That there is a Criterion Collection of filmmaking excellence. But does anyone remember The Nightcomers? How about Burn, in which Brando wrote in his autobiography he believed he gave his best-ever performance? A Countess from Hong Kong? Sayonara, which fell out of remembrance in pure spite of receiving an incredible ten Oscar nominations – including Best Actor for Brando – winning five? Yeah, looking at Brando’s total film list, he comes off as less an actor who thought carefully about how good the scripts were and more like someone who just threw until something hit.

While Marlon Brando made a few good movies, he’s best known for his cultural influence, but even more so for what I’m debating now: His acting influence. Brando was the original poster boy of Method acting, which threw movie performances for a loop. For an enormous chunk of the 20th Century, it was common for filmmakers to nab their stars right from the stage, which is why performances from earlier movies are so much different. The Method relied on emotional memory, in which an actor focuses inward to basically bring out the character, in extreme cases turning the actor into a whole different person. Brando’s performances unleashed a beastly wave of actors who perfected what he started, and into this wave during the renegade period of filmmaking – late 60’s through the 70’s – entered maybe the two greatest movie stars of all time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The 70’s released any number of screen legends – Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman are arguably the most notable among them – but it’s Pacino and De Niro who are scratched into the stars as Brando’s immediate torch-carriers. Before them, there was never a pair of actors who combined such presence, versatility, iconoclasm, and charisma to such a high level of consistency and memorability. Both actors are in their 70’s now, and with the “After Them” period sadly approaching, I’m still not sure we’ve found anyone on Earth who could so much as meet them halfway. Yes, the candidates are out there, but they all lack in one area or another. 

That being the case, it’s still Pacino and De Niro who dominate all the film school best actor ever conversations. Now, it might be unfair to compare two different actors, but Pacino and De Niro have also had such incredible career parallels that Pacino vs. De Niro became a 90’s debate before anyone knew just what the hell a 90’s debate was. Both are native New Yorkers who were taught by Method legends; De Niro learned his craft under Stella Adler (who taught Brando himself) while Pacino makes the case for Adler’s fierce rival, Lee Strasberg. Both performed to acclaim onstage before being noticed by critics in indie movies – Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. Both rose to stardom in the 70’s in a series of iconic roles from classic movies. Both are popular for their parts in gangster movies. Both hit the skids during the 80’s before hitting their apexes in the 90’s. Both are in paycheck-cashing periods now. (Though De Niro seems to be undergoing a mini-resurrection.) Most importantly, both are among those people who force fans who favor one to bolster the other as much as possible while still defending their choice. So let’s do this! Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. One day, I’ll learn. 

Style
It’s tempting to say both actors use the same style, but when you take a real look at their performances, you start to notice just how different they are. De Niro tends to understate a lot of his roles, bringing the common idea of quiet strength. Pacino is a lot more explosive, and its given rise to the concept of “Shouty Al,” scenes in which Pacino starts hamming it up and goes over the top. This isn’t to say that Pacino breaks character. He just appears to have a knack for picking roles which give him good five-minute power speeches, and when the final delivery comes in his movies, you know exactly when he’s going to start spouting all the best lines – the ones you’re going to be remembering and quoting for the next decade. It’s fairly safe to say Pacino has the better presence of the two of them, but what De Niro doesn’t use in presence, he makes up with his sheer versatility. When De Niro steals a scene, you can’t help but get the impression sometimes that he’s doing it by accident, and that’s he’s trying to come off as more of a compliment to the movie’s other actors rather than as the marquee star in his own right. 
Winner
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….. De Niro by about a hair. Lord knows this isn’t a knock against Pacino, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that there seems to come times in many of Pacino’s flicks when Al starts to slightly crack under intensity and he needs to let everything out. The reason “Shouty Al” is such a popular idea is because he always seems to include that single scene in a movie which is wrapped up and sent right to the Oscar committee immediately after it gets shot. You know these scenes when you see them, and can easily hear Pacino tacking an “I’M AL FUCKING PACINO!” right onto the end of it. De Niro can be small. Pacino not so much, even when he tries.

Breakthrough Performances
Okay, everyone can pinpoint Pacino’s breakthrough performance: A bit part playing a character named Michael Corleone in a small indie flick called The Godfather. I know, blink and you’ll miss it completely, right? De Niro’s big breakthrough is a little bit harder to spot, but most people are willing to credit the movie which also put director Martin Scorsese on the map: Mean Streets. With Pacino, you have to take into consideration the fact that he was playing what turned out to be an ego-check role, acting against a cast that also included James Caan and Robert Duvall. Marlon Brando gave the movie a major coup, a real marquee name to attract viewers and a small piece of prestige to go with it. It was Pacino who played the main role as Michael, though, and when Mario Puzo – the author of the book The Godfather was based on – learned that, he was pissed off and went around denouncing the movie until it was released. He changed his mind about Pacino immediately after seeing it. Mean Streets didn’t have nearly so much going for it. The cast and director were all basically unknowns, and during that part of his career, Martin Scorsese had done his only major movie, Who’s that Knocking at My Door?, with his Mean Streets star, Harvey Keitel. When Mean Streets came out a year after The Godfather, Scorsese was absolutely convinced that Keitel was going to be his guy, the big name marquee actor who would soon be bringing name recognition to Scorsese’s pictures. He kept on believing it even after the National Society of Film Critics gave De Niro the award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Johnny Boy, and still believed it until he started making Taxi Driver.
Winner
This goes to Pacino. Great as De Niro played his role as Johnny Boy, all of the gravitas from Mean Streets was dropped onto Harvey Keitel’s head, and he did justice to the movie. Had Johnny Boy been removed, the movie would be different, but not by much, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Keitel moving on to take up the mantle that De Niro eventually picked up – it isn’t like Keitel is lacking for talent, after all. Pacino not only had to convincingly play the center of gravity in an epic drama, he had to play a very tricky role which required him to subtly shift from a sort of offhand, low-key family oddball into the cold, calculating, domineering head honcho crime boss while also getting an audience to think his character believes in his heart of hearts that he didn’t change at all. Pacino screws that up, one of the great, defining masterpieces of American cinema is totally ruined.

Popular, Acclaimed, and Iconic Roles
Oh god, where to begin? I guess the logical starting point would be The Godfather movies, because both Pacino and De Niro played parts which defined their characters. Pacino, of course, was Michael Corleone. Michael’s father, Vito, is the only movie character in history for whom two Oscars have been awarded to two different actors for playing him. Brando won Best Actor in 1972 for playing classic Vito, while it was De Niro who took home the 1974 Best Supporting Actor prize for playing a younger version of Vito in The Godfather Part II – a role for which De Niro barely spoke a single word in English! After The Godfather Part II, Pacino and De Niro spent the entire rest of the 70’s going head to head in an incredible iconoclast contest, playing meaty role after meaty role in a damn near flawless string of movies. Pacino went on to Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice for All, all of which he received numerous award nominations for. He even made a movie during the time called Bobby Deerfield which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, even though most people forgot the thing existed. De Niro ran through a highly successful stretch as well, which included Oscar nominations for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. After speedbumping through the 80’s, they both hit highs again during the 90’s, Pacino in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, and Any Given Sunday while also reprising his old role as Michael Corleone one more time. De Niro also returned to his gangster guns in the 90’s with Goodfellas and Casino, but also making Cape Fear, Awakenings, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown, and keep in mind I haven’t even scratched the surface with either of them. Smack in the center of the 90’s, they collaborated in the ultimate robbery movie, Heat, probably the greatest unheralded movie ever made when it was released, and now properly revered in hindsight. They also both portrayed brilliant parodies of the gangster characters that made them popular in the 90’s: In 1990, Pacino played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the main villain in Dick Tracy, while De Niro waited until the other end of the decade before playing Paul Vitti in Analyze This! And for all we know about their nadirs in the 80’s, both actors still managed to carve out niches. Pacino played Tony Montana, one of the decades true icons and a guy who summarized everything both right and wrong about the country’s mindset during the decade; and playing the lead in an understated but well-liked low-key comedy called Author! Author! De Niro’s 80’s started with a bang: He won his very deserved Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Although it wasn’t a sign for his 80’s, he still managed to do a few things very few other actors ever would have attempted: Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s supremely odd The King of Comedy; Sergio Leone’s massive four-hour fucker of a gangstar epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve seen, but never in its entirety); and Terry Gilliam’s surrealist and fantastical Brazil before his work in 1987’s Midnight Run and The Untouchables signaled a real return to form.
Winner
I’d be a complete moron to try to pick this one. Michael Corleone against Jimmy Conway? Frank Serpico vs. Travis Bickle? Max Cady vs. Frank Slade? I know what my personal preference is, but trying to choose one on empirical evidence is way too difficult to judge. You pick them. Then I’ll commend you for your excellent taste.

Role that Shouldn’t have Worked but did Anyway
You could probably think of a few candidates for both actors – Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for De Niro, Ivan Travalian in Author! Author! for Pacino, Max Cady in Cape Fear for De Niro, Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross for Pacino. But I’m just going to stick with the two that really stick out: De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. You would expect a movie called The King of Comedy in which Jerry Lewis is one of the stars to be a laff riot, but the movie is instead a very dark comedy coupled with a weird form of thriller with a little bit of drama mixed in. You would expect the lead of a movie like this to try to lighten the mood as much as possible, but trying to play a role directly for laughs means trying to emphasize some moments harder than others and sometimes dialing back the other nuances and intricacies of the character in order to do it right. De Niro, however, usually isn’t the kind of actor who half-asses a character to punctuate particular scenes, so he plays Pupkin straight, and it results in a performance of a character who comes off creepy and a little angry. Pacino’s usual suspect in this category is much better known because it sticks out like a sore thumb: Tony Montana from Scarface. Although Scarface looks like a regular old gangster flick from the outside with little nuances thrown in by screenwriter Oliver Stone clearly making this sucker the typical gangster morality tale, the movie’s entire point flew about three atmospheres over everyone’s head. Instead of seeing a theme about greed doing in a sick bastard of a human being – which was the theme, make no mistake – people saw a story of a man rising up and living the American Dream to an extreme excess, basically reinterpreting the movie. And Pacino’s dynamo of a performance was probably the defining factor. Although Pacino playing Montana should never, ever be mistaken for a good movie performance, it was booming, charismatic, and cutthroat in ways which made an otherwise high-powered cast look puny next to Pacino. 
Winner
Pacino. He’s the reason Scarface managed to transcend its medium and why its true meaning has been sapped away in favor of a strict Reaganist interpretation. De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy, while very effective, also didn’t have any real sign of De Niro trying to hoist the entire movie; in fact, De Niro appeared to be acting perfectly in synch with director Martin Scorsese, who appeared to be making the kind of movie The King of Comedy turned out to be. Scarface ended up crossing a thematic line by freak accident because of Pacino, and it didn’t look like Scarface’s director, Brian De Palma, had much of an interest in rectifying what was happening or directing it to any vision of his own. In fact, it looks like De Palma was barely involved at all, and that he directed mostly by mailing in his daily stage notes from whatever vacation spot he happened to be sipping mai thais from.

Down Periods
General wisdom regarding both actors: Even periods are lean, odd periods are awesome. The truth is somewhere in between. The early nadir for both actors is generally considered the 80’s, but that’s a little hard on them from a more revisionist point. Pacino didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the 80’s being a movie star. Pacino made only five movies during the decade: Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface, Revolution, and Sea of Love. Cruising was roundly bashed by critics and also by gay rights groups who believed it was homophobic. The reception warmed somewhat over the years, but never really thawed. Author! Author! and Scarface were also beat up, but years have been kind to both. Revolution was completely forgotten, and at that point, Pacino took the apparent hint and ducked out of movies for the next four years before finally returning to form with Sea of Love in 1989. De Niro made a lot more movies during the time. He started the decade with Raging Bull, which many consider the crowning performance of his career. While he did make forgettables like The Mission and Angel Heart during the time, he also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s strange movie about love and happiness in a clockwork world, Brazil; and in Sergio Leone’s ambitious epic Once Upon a Time in America; he also played one of his more popular roles, Al Capone in The Untouchables, before his big return in 1988’s Midnight Run. Came the millennium, both appeared to get a little less choosy about their roles as well, so their dreck started to trickle in: Simone, Showtime, The Recruit, Gigli, 88 Minutes, New Year’s Eve, Last Vegas, Jack and Jill…. It’s a list that might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, but it’s happening. 
Winner
Let’s see. Who’s down period movies would I rather watch? De Niro’s. Near the end of his career, Pacino can’t seem to help but keep being Al Pacino. While De Niro isn’t exactly testing his range either, he does seem to be having a lot more fun lately. We give De Niro a lot of shit for making more comedies now, but he’s been a sort of stealth comedy guy since Midnight Run in 1988, or 1983 if you count The King of Comedy (I don’t). I actually enjoyed The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and got a kick out of De Niro Yankovic-ing his role from Taxi Driver in that movie, and lampooning his own gangster roles in Analyze This! and Analyze That! He’s proven bankable as a screwball comedy star, and his career is lately rising again: He earned acclaim for Being Flynn, played an uncredited role in American Hustle, and was granted an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Pacino seems to be on an upward trajectory too, having won a lot of acclaim for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector in TV movies with the TV industry booming like never before. There are rumors of De Niro and Pacino teaming up for another movie which will be helmed by Martin Scorsese. I hope to god that’s true. 

Underrated Movies
Wow…. For Pacino, it takes work to think of a particular movie I think is completely underrated. Do I go with his screen-winking redefinition of the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate? His disgustingly overlooked …And Justice for All? The Insider? One of my very favorite Pacino movies is Carlito’s Way, a Brian De Palma thriller about a reformed drug dealer trying to go straight. It’s a gangster movie that holds up against anything else either Pacino or De Niro has ever done. De Palma is in top form, there’s a fantastic supporting performance from Sean Penn – who plays the lawyer responsible for leading Pacino’s character, Carlito Brigante, back onto the path he tried so hard to escape – and while Pacino is never small, he nicely understates himself and gives a true heart to his character. In a fashion, Carlito’s Way is a sort of reverse gangster movie. Instead of the head gangster starting with ambiguous morality being taken further across the moral event horizon, Carlito’s Way introduces a gangster who saw the light and is dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Many of the more sympathetic gangster characters want redemption. Carlito already found redemption; what he wants is his ticket out. I’m sure Midnight Run is a popular candidate for De Niro, but that movie has the benefit of hindsight now, and most seem to believe it’s a solid comedy that holds up well, with De Niro playing perfectly into character. The one that really stands out to me, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown. Tarantino, at the time, was looking like the direct successor to Martin Scorsese while also being a wholly original screenwriter. Jackie Brown is an adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and one of the few Leonard adaptations that worked the way it’s supposed to. Instead of merely giving us an ordinary story stylistically directed and written (which, let’s face it, was what Pulp Fiction and the grossly overrated Reservoir Dogs both were), Jackie Brown focuses a lot more on creating rounded characters and relationships – so much so that the movie was attacked by some for its slow pace. De Niro plays Louis Gara, a dimwit pothead fresh off a prison stint, who simply goes along with his old cellmate’s idea just because he seems to be bored. It’s one of his last truly great performances in one of the most underrated movies ever released.
Winner
Pacino. Great as Jackie Brown is, and great as De Niro is in it, there’s not a single reason to hand this one to De Niro. He’s a supporting character in a movie defined by Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster, and it’s entirely possible a more casual moviegoer or less knowledgeable in the nuances of good film acting would write him off. Pacino, just as he did in his earlier collaboration with De Palma (which happened to be Scarface), carried Carlito’s Way and gave it its beating soul. 

Playing Against Type
Despite the prominence of their movies, this is actually a little harder to think of than you would expect because they’ve both created brands on playing gritty tough guy characters. For Pacino, certainly Scent of a Woman makes an argument, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is a disremembered 1991 romance called Frankie and Johnny. Pacino plays the titular Johnny, trying to woo a woman named Frankie, and that line sums up the whole movie. It’s an odd movie in large part due to its very existence – it’s not a snarky romantic comedy where the characters are either teenagers or twentysomethings with wealth, professional accomplishments, and reputations well beyond their years. Both characters are rutted, in the middle of their lives in which they’re merely existing and searching for some sort of purpose. It might be the sweetest role Pacino ever played, and the movie doesn’t try to spice itself up with any tricks – it’s earnest and straightforward. There’s more playing against type in De Niro’s body of work, since he was the busier and more experimental of the two. Do I go with Flawless? Awakenings? The biting political comedy Wag the Dog? Off-kilter as those were for De Niro, what I’m really going to go with is Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s vicious satire against bureaucracy and high-level incompetence has De Niro in one of his more comedic forms playing Harry Tuttle, a rebel leader and renegade air conditioning specialist who helps Jonathan Pryce’s main character, Sam Lowry, escape a pair of Central Services workers who are actually there to serve a much nastier purpose than their humble service titles imply. For all the actual comedies De Niro made, he was probably used most effectively as Tuttle, who is more or less a caricature of a fast-talking salesman but is able to do the job, along with showing Pryce that his feelings toward the oppressive Central Services are spot-on.
Winner
De Niro. Both Pacino and De Niro do drama all the time, and they both excel at it. So while Pacino’s role in Frankie and Johnny is notable in its tenderness, Johnny does tend to come off sometimes as the post-prison Sonny Wortzik (Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon). Although not necessarily a comic role, De Niro’s Harry Tuttle was played rather comedically, and we got a sense of what De Niro could do when he wasn’t losing his temper or brooding. Although De Niro’s appearance in Brazil was little more than a cameo, it certainly left an impression on filmgoers. As for my own personal biases, I’m ever a romantic at heart, but romance isn’t something I enjoy as an entertainment genre. Brazil, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite movies, a funny but brutal shot at the idea of bureaucratic control of society. There was never a movie like Brazil before, and we may never find one like it again; this is the kind of movie studios live in abject fear of, because it goes against every ethos Hollywood movies push, and it’s way too elaborate to be made independently. It takes place in a strange fantasy world with little semblance of sanity to start with, and it gradually loses what little ground it was standing on in the first place, culminating in an ending which spirals away from any control or sense, taking you on a path which makes you wonder whether you should be cheering, laughing, or just gaping in amazement…. Before ultimately swiping the rug and absolutely crushing your heart.

Oscar Roles
This one is simple: De Niro won his first Oscar in 1974, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. He won his second in 1980 – Best Actor for playing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Pacino won his only Oscar in 1992 for Best Actor, playing Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Winner
Honestly, it’s sad that this popularity contest gets so much attention at all, and looking over this category, it’s easy to see why. De Niro got an award for which he not only performed almost entirely in a language that wasn’t his, but which was already portrayed two years earlier by Marlon fucking Brando, who also won an Oscar playing it! His second Oscar was the result of an all-time great performance, for which he had to quickly put on a dangerous amount of weight for two scenes which didn’t last a collective total of ten minutes. Pacino was awesome in Scent of a Woman, yes; he even managed to trick many people into thinking Chris O’Donnell was a good actor for awhile. But Frank Slade had none of the manic intensity of Pacino’s early Oscar-nom roles, and it’s generally accepted fact that the Academy was throwing the lifetime achievement Oscar at him. This category belongs to De Niro.

Gangsters
Although gangster and crime roles actually make up very little of the filmographies of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of them are indelibly weaved into the image, defining and redefining the common gangster in much the ways of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney before them. Both actors broke through playing gangsters; Pacino played Michael Corleone, a straight man who eventually became the personification of evil. De Niro played Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a nutty trench gangster with grand delusions of hitting the organized crime bigtime. When Pacino returned as the Corleone patriarch two years later, he brought De Niro with him to play a younger version of his pop, and ever since I first saw The Godfather Part II, I always thought young Vito’s story was the more engaging of the two. Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana was like a steroid-addled cartoon, while De Niro’s supporting role as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas tricked a lot of people into thinking Jimmy was the center of the movie; a hell of a trick, considering how great Ray Liotta was as main character Henry Hill. De Niro was the reigning overlord of Tangiers in Casino, a cold, calculating, strategy-oriented businessman whose control just didn’t extend quite as far as he thought it did. Pacino was the world’s only gangster with a heart in the sorely underrated Carlito’s Way, and later played Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco – the character De Niro’s Johnny Boy might have become had he lived longer. De Niro was the very face of all-time gangster-dom in The Untouchables as Al Capone, a wisecracking and dominating villain who, in all honesty, is the only reason to watch the movie. Pacino parodied his gangster characters in Dick Tracy, while De Niro made fun of his image in Analyze This! and Analyze That!
Winner
I know there are people who are automatically going to throw this at Pacino just because he was The Godfather, but that’s a huge disservice to De Niro which requires forgetting that De Niro also played The Godfather. Fuck this. You choose, and I’ll commend you on having excellent taste.

Wow. Close. So close. If you want to state your defense for Al Pacino, I totally understand, but Robert De Niro wins this sucker.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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