Screen Duos: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro
The year was 1995: Batman Forever dominated the box office and cinema changed forever with the release of Pixar’s first fully CGI feature, Toy Story. The James Bond franchise entered a new era as Pierce Brosnan became 007 in Goldeneye, and Brad Pitt received a nasty delivery at the end of David Fincher’s Seven. Despite all this, one of the year’s biggest talking points was two middle-aged guys having a chat in a diner in Michael Mann’s Heat. It was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared a scene together since they made their screen debuts in the late ‘60s, and it wouldn’t be the last…
Both Pacino and De Niro were born in New York, the city that would often provide a backdrop for their films as they established themselves as two of the most gifted actors of their generation.
Although Robert De Niro is four years Pacino’s junior, he got his start in movies earlier. While he also attended Lee Strasbourg’s school to study acting, he skipped the stage route and went straight to the screen. After a few uncredited bit parts, his major break came in Brian De Palma’s Greetings (1968), a satire following a group of young draft dodgers.
Pacino, another method actor who studied under Strasbourg, started out with a stage career before making his screen debut with a supporting role in Me, Natalie in 1969. His big breakthrough came two years later with The Panic in Needle Park, a compelling drama about the growing romantic relationship between two New York junkies. Neither film poster makes the actors a major selling point - De Niro isn’t even mentioned despite playing the lead, and the focus for Needle Park is more on Pacino as part of a young couple.
Pacino didn’t have to wait long for stardom. His performance in Needle Park caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who pushed to cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather over more well-established actors like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, or Robert Redford. He wanted an unknown Italian-American for the important role and held out for Pacino, who nailed the part and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The casting could have worked out very differently. De Niro was originally given a small role as treacherous foot soldier Paulie (the guy who gets whacked by Clemenza, prompting the famous line: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”) He jumped ship for The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight after a part was vacated by Pacino, moving in the opposite direction on his way to great acclaim.
The Godfather was a huge success, taking home the Academy Award for Best Picture and becoming one of the cultural touchstones of American cinema. The big story at the time was Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his Oscar for Best Actor. As great as he is in the film, it is Pacino who really stands out as the good kid whose soul is eroded by contact with his dad’s world.
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight hardly lit up the box office and De Niro, who had also appeared in seven other movies after Greetings, would have to wait another year for the role that really put him on the map. That role was Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s mission statement, Mean Streets, swaggering into a bar with a girl on each arm to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in slow-motion.
Neither actor featured on the original poster for The Godfather or Mean Streets, but their rise is stature is evident from the cast listing. Pacino came second only after Brando, while De Niro was listed ahead of Harvey Keitel, the lead actor in Scorsese’s film.
Both actors were up and running, quickly establishing themselves part of the American New Wave that edged out the Old Hollywood studio system in the mid ‘60s and opened up the more gritty auteur-led style of directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, and many others. It also gave some older directors a chance to express themselves to their fullest. Robert Altman produced some of his best work during the period while Sidney Lumet, who received an Oscar nomination for his debut 12 Angry Men in the late ‘50s, caught Pacino at exactly the right time.
First up was Serpico, the true story of a courageous NYPD whistleblower. By now, Pacino was a big enough star to carry the movie on his own, as reflected by the poster…
Then came the movie that almost brought the two together onscreen. After the massive commercial and critical success of The Godfather, a sequel was considered inevitable. Mario Puzo had begun developing a script for a second film before the first was even released.
The Godfather Part II has an epic dual structure, charting Michael Corleone’s attempts to flush out a mole in the family while also flashing back to his father’s rise to power. Pacino reprised his role while De Niro played the young Vito Corleone, both excelling in different timelines that never converged.
Coppola’s sequel didn’t make as much money at the box office but it received even more acclaim than its predecessor. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and took home six, becoming the first sequel to win Best Picture. It was also Pacino’s third Oscar nomination in a row while De Niro won Best Supporting Actor. Pacino would have to wait almost 20 years to get his hands on one of the little gold fellas.
The quality of the performances from both actors during that mid ‘70s period was simply astonishing. Pacino, working again with Sidney Lumet, notched up an amazing fourth Oscar nomination in a row for his impassioned performance as a bungling bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon.
Meanwhile, De Niro celebrated his Oscar win by essaying one of his most iconic roles as hellbent vigilante-turned-celebrity Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Scorsese’s dark and violent drama gave us one of the most annoyingly overused quotes ever (you know the one) and earned De Niro another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Looking at these posters side by side, it’s interesting to see how they mirrored each actor’s acting style. The Dog Day Afternoon artwork simply focuses on Pacino’s messy mop of hair and hunted eyes, which reflected his intense and expressive performances. On the other hand, De Niro as Bickle is shown as more distant and alienated, which also hints at the actor’s somewhat aloof and inscrutable quality.
It was impossible to maintain that kind of quality, and they both had a bit of a wobble at the end of the decade. The De Niro-Scorsese dreamteam made the strange musical misfire New York New York, while Pacino entered the ‘80s in ignominious style in William Friedkin’s widely detested serial killer thriller Cruising.
After the triumph of his portrayal of Travis Bickle, there was something off about De Niro looking happy playing second fiddle (and saxophone) to Liza Minnelli in a loud shirt here. As for Pacino, he has a spooked look on the poster that is consistent with his entire performance in Cruising, where he looks out of his comfort zone playing a cop going undercover in the Greenwich Village leather scene to catch a maniac preying on the gay community. He has never looked so timid in a role, and he somehow avoided a Worst Actor nomination at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards.
De Niro’s recovered quickly from his misstep, putting in a brilliantly controlled performance in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter before winning his second Oscar for his ferocious turn as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. He went full method for the role, training hard to believably play the ill-tempered boxer in his prime, even contesting three real bouts on the Brooklyn fight circuit. At the other end of the scale, he piled on 60 pounds to portray washed-up La Motta in the film’s bookends.
The posters for these movies focus on De Niro’s face and match the intensity of both films. The Deer Hunter artwork teases the harrowing Russian roulette scenes, and Raging Bull shows La Motta battered and bloodied.
The ‘80s were pretty quiet for Pacino, although he received one of his most iconic roles playing the crude Cuban gangster Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. The film made good money at the box office but the critics hated it, bemoaning its excessive violence. It would go on to become a cult favourite and Pacino as Montana is now a pin-up for a certain type of guy who buys into the villain’s avaricious take on the American Dream.
Scarface came out a few weeks before another Scorsese and De Niro collaboration that was a big flop at the time. Audiences and critics simply didn’t get The King of Comedy, which was ahead of its time in many ways. De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, a deluded wannabe stand-up comedian who kidnaps his idol to get his 15 minutes of fame. It is a fascinating companion piece to Taxi Driver, and both films anticipate the modern day obsession with reality stars and influencers. For me, it’s De Niro’s greatest performance, making Pupkin totally pathetic and loathsome but impossible to tear your eyes away from.
For an iconic performance in an iconic movie, there’s no denying that the Scarface poster is absolute class and similarly iconic. As for The King of Comedy, it’s tagline unfortunately anticipated the general reaction to it on release. Part of the problem may have been that the poster makes it look more broadly comic than it actually is.
Pacino did little else of real note during the ‘80s, although my mum adored Sea of Love. De Niro, meanwhile, kept broadening his range with a string of interesting roles in notable movies; he played another gangster in Sergio Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America; had a neat small role as a revolutionary plumber in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; essayed an 18th century mercenary in The Mission and the Devil (Louis Cipher, see what they did there?) in Angel Heart; gave a memorably beefy performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables and demonstrated his comic chops again in Midnight Run. The hot streak came to an end with Neil Jordan’s horribly unfunny box office bomb, We’re No Angels.
The ‘90s was a period where the stars of the ‘70s passed the torch to a younger generation staking their claim for Hollywood greatness, such Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Jim Carrey, and Brad Pitt. The likes of Warren Beatty and Ryan O’Neal largely fell off the radar, while Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Pacino and De Niro all offered a reassuring seal of quality to a movie.
After a fairly fallow ‘80s, Pacino fought his way back with some attention-grabbing parts, upstaging Beatty as a comic book gangster in Dick Tracy and reprising his role as Michael Corleone in the disappointing conclusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy. In 1992, he showed he was still a force to be reckoned with, giving a charismatic turn as part of a stellar ensemble in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and playing a blind former military man in Scent of A Woman.
It was one of those occasions that felt like the Academy were making up for previous oversights, giving him the gong over more substantial work from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. It was an entertaining performance but nowhere near his best, and also marked the point when Pacino started crossing over from laser-focused intensity to “Hoo-ah!” showboating. He hadn’t quite fully turned into a cartoon version of himself yet, though, as demonstrated by his soulful turn in Brian De Palma’s underappreciated Carlito’s Way.
Meanwhile, De Niro and Scorsese put the disappointment of their previous two collaborations behind them with another cherished mob classic, Goodfellas. Forming part of a central triumvirate with an eye-catching Ray Liotta and an incandescent Joe Pesci, it was another statement performance from De Niro, full of quietly controlled violence and paranoia. Unfathomably, he didn’t receive another Oscar nomination for his role, perhaps overshadowed by Pesci’s dynamite turn as the volatile Tommy DeVito. Pesci won Best Supporting Actor and gave us one of the best scenes in any gangster movie… “Funny how?”
Some more impressively understated performances followed in Awakenings and Backdraft before De Niro went big in Scorsese’s hothouse remake of Cape Fear, playing sleazy psycho Max Cady. The suspenseful thriller provided inspiration from one of the greatest episodes in The Simpsons, with Sideshow Bob stepping in for De Niro’s vengeful madman.
The early ‘90s also provided two more landmarks in De Niro’s career. First, he starred alongside an up-and-comer named Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life, who would later replace him as Scorsese’s muse. The following year he made his directorial debut with the solid A Bronx Tale, where he also played against type as a blue-collar worker holding his own against Chazz Palminteri’s menacing mobster.
With both actors humming along nicely at the mid-stage of their careers, we finally got the moment that movie buffs wanted for over two decades: Pacino and De Niro onscreen together for the first time.
Michael Mann remade his own TV movie LA Takedown as Heat, an elevated cops-and-robbers epic. Between teeth-rattling shootout setpieces, their big scene together was a low-key affair that showcased the contrasting styles of the two actors. It is a gripping study in understated drama as Pacino’s driven detective and De Niro’s meticulous career criminal size each other up, setting the stage for a final confrontation between two equally matched opponents.
That scene felt like a summit meeting between two cinematic greats before their careers gradually started winding down in the latter half of the decade. They still had some memorable roles to come, notably Pacino’s sensitive turn as a small-time hood in Donnie Brasco and De Niro’s unassuming but dangerous ex-con in Jackie Brown. Pacino also made his directorial debut with Looking for Richard, a documentary that tapped into his passion for Shakespeare - he played Richard III twice during the ‘70s in theatre productions and later played Shylock in stage and screen versions of The Merchant of Venice.
Overall, however, that tête-à-tête over coffee in Heat felt like the end of an era. You can never write off actors of the magnitude of Pacino and De Niro, but it marked the point when they eased into lesser roles and outright self-parody. Pacino gave it the full “Hoo-ah!” treatment as Satan in The Devil’s Advocate, De Niro shamelessly sent up his screen persona in Analyze This and Meet the Parents, and the less said about his decision to play Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the better.
Now approaching old age, Al Pacino and De Niro both took their foot off the gas in the 21st century. They were still rarely off our screens, but mediocre or outright terrible movies have far outweighed the good ones. Still, their reputation is so great that even a Gigli (Pacino) or Dirty Grandpa (De Niro) can’t come close to tarnishing it.
You always hope your cinematic idols will stay on top of their game, and there were false signs that Pacino was about to enter an elder statesman phase as he starred in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia alongside Robin Williams, who was exploring darker roles at the time.
Meanwhile, De Niro was busy turning down high-profile roles in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and The Departed, content with cashing the cheques for humdrum crime movies such as 15 Minutes and City by the Sea, not to mentions sequels like Analyze That and Meet the Fockers. Sure, he alway gives good value, but this stuff is way beneath him.
Pacino and De Niro joined forces again to underwhelming effect in 2008 with Righteous Kill. By this stage, they were both visibly showing their age and phoning it in for a generic serial killer thriller.
Over the next ten years, the roles got smaller and more insignificant, although De Niro probably came off best during that period. At least he had some nice supporting roles in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and Joy.
Thankfully, there was one last hurrah (to date) with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in 2019. Centred around the relationship between doomed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and the man who supposedly whacked him (De Niro), it was not only a substantial triumph in its own right (10 Oscar nominations), but an elegiac dialogue with the violent mob-related cinema of the four main protagonists: Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, and Joe Pesci, who was coaxed out of retirement for his role.
It was an old man’s movie, to be sure, but a reassuring reminder of why these guys were such a big deal in the first place. I have to admit that I cried a little when the final credits rolled knowing that we might never see them again, on such great form, on our screens.
That isn’t quite the end of the story, however. This year, Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon pairs De Niro with DiCaprio, the director’s alternative muse, for the first time since This Boy’s Life three decades ago. As long as De Niro and Pacino stay healthy and active, who would bet against them starring together one last time?
So there you have it, the careers of two giants of American cinema in a nutshell. Who is your favourite? What are their best performances? Let us know!