10th June 2020

Two of the most celebrated and distinguished actors of the past 60 years, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are still working at the top of the game. But… who is best? Jo Vraca has fun pitting the two heavyweights – and their incredible careers – head-to-head.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro do not appear to be slowing down nor losing their relevance. Their roles are as varied as they ever have been – the rejects, the criminals, the junkies, the comedians, and the damaged men. They go to great lengths to embody the characters that have brought them their well-deserved notoriety as proponents of cinema veritas, a genre that swept the film and literary industries in the mid-20th Century.



Now in their late 70s, the debate is still on: who is the greater actor? Who wins the Pacino versus De Niro battle royale?

Both graduates of Lee Strasberg’s famed New York Actor’s Studio, (graduates include Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson), Pacino and De Niro rose to prominence during a golden age of American cinema. Their homes amongst the gritty streets of NYC (yes, yes, De Niro’s parents were artists and he went to some fairly swanky private schools in Manhattan… but Pacino’s parents were actually from Corleone in Sicily, so there’s real cred there).

Their early roles were very ‘New York’. When you think of New York cinema of the 70s, they were its embodiment – Pacino as the baby-faced Bobby in The Panic In Needle Park, an early depiction of a junkie that was rarely seen on screen  in 1971; and De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the iconic, enduring anti-hero that won him plenty of accolades and enemies as a result of the violence and his character’s fondness for an under-aged prostitute. These were two very New York stories. And there’s more, plenty more.

Picking De Niro or Pacino is Sophie’s Choice. Both rival one another for their Influence on the growth of American cinema.

De Niro can lay claim to more than 120 acting credits, versus 60-odd for Pacino. But sheer output cannot be where we cross swords in this battle, so let’s look at the official accolades.

Pacino has received 9 Oscar nominations (winning Best Actor for Scent of a Woman), 18 Golden Globe nominations (winning 4 Best Actor Globes for Serpico, Scent Of A Woman, Angels In America, and You Don’t Know Jack) as well as 5 BAFTAs. De Niro has been nominated for 7 Oscars, (winning Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II, and Best Actor for Raging Bull), as well as receiving 9 Golden Globe nominations (winning one for Raging Bull), and 7 BAFTAs. There’s no doubt both men have been lauded by award ceremonies globally so, yes, we know they’re respected, they’re exceptional actors, and they symbolise the very essence of the craft.

And it’s curious to note that, with all the admiration we throw at them, they have never been attributed the role of sex symbol, or romantic leading man. We should be grateful they were never traditional romantic leads because it has given them the freedom to create characters of great depth, devoid of the cutesy romance of leading men like Clooney or Gere, and their legacy is larger because of it.

Let’s get controversial. Pacino’s greatest works fill the screen – Scarface, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather. But De Niro’s work is broad and wild. They fill your dreams and nightmares – Travis Bickle, Max Cady, Jake LaMotta. Through weight gain, weight loss, prosthetics, it’s never quite De Niro the man. He brings an unpredictable and unbalanced perspective to each role that is hard to anticipate. And that’s the gift. Even in comedies such as Meet the Parents, it’s impossible to know which way the wind of De Niro will blow. Pacino, on the other hand, is usually ‘Pacino’. Even as a heroin addict, a bank robber, a drug kingpin, or a gangster, Pacino is Pacino with all his anticipated light and shade – stillness followed by eruption.

Picking De Niro or Pacino is Sophie’s Choice. Both rival one another for their Influence on the growth of American cinema, and those of us who care have studied their recent union in The Irishman, scrutinising their moves, their language, and their hairlines to determine who has the greatest gift. Pacino brings a freshness to real-life union boss Jimmy Hoffa, eating ice-cream like a little boy, awkwardly reminding us of his talent with the mere dip of a teaspoon. But it’s De Niro who communicates his true gifts as the aged Frank Sheeran, looking back at his criminal life with a cloudy-eyed tenderness of the old and lonely. He brings a pathos to the role that makes the last ten minutes of the film worth sitting through the previous three hours and 30 minutes.

If Pacino is the sun, and De Niro is the moon, the conclusion is a simple one. The sun, when it rises, reveals everything – the shitty brother, the corrupt cops, the Vegas gambler yet to crawl into bed after a night’s wins and losses. But the moon, the moon is a black cloak that blankets the truth – one minute he’s a friendly taxi driver transporting young girls, the next he paints houses, an old man who once was somebody, who made important movies. And that’s where De Niro wins the battle royale. He’s the moon; and when the moon rises, the troublemakers emerge to play.


To hear our thoughts on Al Pacino at his best, take a listen to our podcast on The Godfather.