De Niro Vs. Pacino I: The Early 1970s

April 17, 2014
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Above: Robert De Niro (image by Joe Seer / and Al Pacino (image by Serge Rocco /

Widely recognized as the greatest screen actors working today, perhaps in the history of celluloid; I propose over the next several weeks to look at the evidence, compare the bodies of work and see if we conclude who really is the best.

Although they did share billing in The Godfather Part II, the two behemoths did not share screen time until Heat in 1995.

Both may have started in the movies is the 1960s, but both really found form beginning in the early 70s. So let us begin here.

Cinema in the 1970s was going through a revolution, old studios were in financial ruin and conglomerations were taking them over. This made the movie industry about profit and loss and risks taken were few and far between. Huge cinematic failures and the “Golden Age” of Hollywood had come crashing to an end (read Easy Riders and Raging Bulls to find out more). Safe and trusted directors and best selling books for their projects were usually chosen over the new wave of film makers arriving on the scene.

Change though, requires breaking away from routine and taking risks, and through one deal or another new directors like Coppola, Scorsese and Lucas were given their chance and they in turn gave opportunity to the revered “method” actors as film became about truth, grit and story telling as opposed to the rosy cheeked, Technicolor innocence of the past, thus our player took to the stage.

De Niro

The 70s gave Robert De Niro the chance to find his feet and show his class and he hit the ground running, but the world didn’t really begin to take proper notice until 1973’s Mean Streets. This, as stated, was part of the revolution in cinema. Real lives, or realistic lives, as shown as recognizable, dangerous, violent, uncompromising and brutal. This, as the years will go on to show would be De Niro’s forte. In Mean Streets he played Johnny Boy, an underworld character in New York (again his forte) and this performance in a very good film was to set the standard he would continue to go by and often raise.


Meanwhile by 1973 Al Pacino had set the world on fire with his steely cold fall and rise of the once morally centered Michael Corleone. The story of Pacino’s getting and remaining in the part have become lore. The restaurant shooting scene was his do or die moment, literally. He did and the rest is history. Difficult to play, perhaps, your most iconic role so early in your career. Not for Al. He followed this in 1973 with the absolutely amazing true story, Serpico. His portrayal of an honest cop in a corrupt world, interestingly mirrors Corleone in many ways, but is so filled with bitterness and frustration, edged with a real sense of danger, it is perhaps, actually even more impressive a performance.

Next for both, often cited as one of the greatest movies of all time; The Godfather Part II.

Playing father and son in two separate but linearly interwoven stories, we see Pacino grow and improve on the downward spiral of Michael while De Niro, taking the role of Marlon Brando (who won the Oscar playing Vito Corleone as an older man) tells the story of his rise from poverty in Sicily to New York gangland boss. He not only brilliantly found his own version of the character but also matched it into Brando’s version over the course of the movie so well, he was rewarded with the Academy Award himself for the film.

Result thus far – De Niro may have bagged the Oscar, but for consistency and diversity over Godfather, Panic in Needle Park, Serpico and Godfather II; Pacino wins.

Still to come – Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter, Scarface and Raging Bull.

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