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by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are living legends. Two of the greatest actors of their generation, in fact, two of the greatest actors of all time. They came to prominence in the early 1970’s starring in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films and then branched off with some of the most iconic performances from method actors of all time. Pacino made his mark as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) and then having brilliant turns in Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Cruising (1980). De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Godfather Part II and then became one of cinemas greatest leading men with landmark performances in Taxi Driver (1976), The Deerhunter (1978), and winning Best Actor for his outstanding performance as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980). These are without a doubt two of the best actors to ever grace the silver screen. Both of their resumes throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are lists of some of the best films of their era from some of the most talented directors of the twentieth century.
So what the (BLEEP) happened? When did they go from being the best at what they did to an afterthought? A bit supporting player? Or in some cases a walking joke? How could filmmakers let this happen to two of the greatest treasures in the acting world? How could the guys who made the movies mentioned above lower themselves to working for Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill (2011) or Dirty Grandpa (2016)? Is it their agents to blame? Have movies gotten that bad? Do they really just need the paycheck? Where did everything go so wrong for them? Should they be more selective with the roles they choose and if so why aren’t they?
We may never know the real answer but something clearly changed at the dawn of the new millennium. They were both trained under Lee Strasberg who also taught Marlon Brando and basically developed their style of method acting. Movie theaters were not loaded with all these comic book movies, remakes, and sequels in the early 2000s but somehow De Niro and Pacino were missing out on a lot of the best films during that time. This was troubling. There was an article that pinpointed 2002 as the year it all started to go south for Robert De Niro. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes and the ratings for all of his movies there is a steep decline starting in 2002. A year in which De Niro starred in three critically panned box office bombs Showtime, Analyze That, and City by the Sea (I actually liked City by the Sea and think De Niro gives a really good performance but I am in the minority). From then on a lot of the films Robert De Niro starred in are not certified “fresh” for whatever that is worth. Ileana Douglas an actress and former girlfriend of Martin Scorsese, shared scenes with De Niro in Goodfellas (1990) and Cape Fear (1991) said in an interview that while she was working with him on the set of those movies he took his job very seriously and along with Scorsese they demanded a lot out of everyone from the cast and crew. They treated their material like they were making art, something that would live forever and wanted everyone to understand that and take their jobs seriously and perform at their best levels. Can you picture that Robert De Niro bringing the same high standards and intensity to Meet the Fockers (2004) or Grudge Match (2013) or practically any of the movies he made in the past fifteen years? Go and look at his filmography on IMDB. De Niro has always kind of been a workaholic and made more movies than his friend Al Pacino, but even during the 80’s and 90’s when he was willing to take supporting roles in films like Backdraft (1991) or Marvins Room (1996), or Cop Land (1997) they were usually pretty solid pictures from good directors and surrounded himself with talented actors. You could argue that is the case with films such as The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004), New Year’s Eve (2011), and The Comedian (2016), they just ended up not working out when executed.
Plus, he has not made all duds in the past fifteen years. Machete (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and The Intern (2015) were all well received and had respectable box office numbers and De Niro gave memorable performances in those earning an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, his first in over twenty years. But for the most part, he has starred in a lot of not just forgettable movies, but some really bad movies, and his acting has been like a somnambulist in many of his films this century, something you could never say about even the most mediocre De Niro roles in the ’80s and ’90s. Today Robert De Niro is probably more well known for his outspoken negative views and harsh criticism of President Trump than he is for any of his recent movies.
Al Pacino is a different story. His reputation as a method actor may be the same as De Niro’s but his resume is incredibly different. He was a huge star and became one overnight after The Godfather premiered in 1972. The following year he earned his second Oscar nomination and first for a leading role in the cop drama Serpico. Then another Best Actor nomination in 1974 for The Godfather Part II, and again in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon, arguably his best performance, many critics point to this film as the peak of his career. Al Pacino was an actor among actors, he was a star and when he appeared in a new movie it was an event. Critics, audiences, and award shows took notice of Pacino. He was a force to be reckoned with on the big screen.
But after Dog Day, his career started to dwindle. He seemed to peak and it was a steady downward spiral during the second half of the 70s and a disastrous 80s. Bobby Deerfield (1977) flopped, and his next film And Justice For All (1979) earned him his fifth Oscar nomination but underperformed and was pretty much agreed upon that it was not his finest performance. Then came the 1980’s which welcomed Al Pacino with a punch to the face after he starred in William Friedkin’s ill-fated Cruising released only a few weeks into the decade and met with much controversy and outcry from Gay Rights groups. Cruising was not a critical or commercial success either. Years later it found an audience and today is an interesting relic of a New York City underworld that no longer exists predating the AIDS crisis by a few years. Cruising despite a great performance, tarnished Al Pacino’s reputation since he was a method actor and was known to go great lengths to dive deep into the characters he played there were rumors abound that Al Pacino was gay. His voice changed during this time to be more high pitched and scratchy than the dominant vocals he displayed in his earlier films.
After Cruising, things did not get much better and Al Pacino’s first foray into comedy did not go over well when he starred in Author! Author! (1982) which came and went from theaters. He then teamed up with maverick director Brian De Palma for the controversial and violent crime drama Scarface (1983), a medium-sized hit which has also gained a huge following years after its release in college dorm rooms and is well regarded in the rap and hip-hop culture. Brian De Palma does not get the legacy of Scarface but Pacino has stated that he thinks it is his best performance. Sadly, everything came crashing down for Pacino with his next film Revolution (1985). What was supposed to be a big awards contender from Hugh Hudson, the director of Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (1981), turned out to almost ruin Al Pacino’s screen career Revolution is one of the biggest money losers of all time. Proving that the American Revolution is not profitable for movies and it was also probably a mistake having a British director and producers. After Revolution flopped he abandoned Hollywood to focus on acting in plays. Perhaps going back to basics would help along with the old phrase absence makes the heart grow fonder because Pacino would not make another film for four years but when he did it was Sea of Love (1989) which was a hit with audiences and critics and the next decade or so of Pacino’s career he was in demand by filmmakers and audiences and turned in some outstanding performances including finally taking home an Academy Award when he won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman (1992) his eighth and thus far final Oscar nomination.
During the 1980s while Pacino was struggling, De Niro was not and was continually impressing critics and audiences while also racking up a resume filled with award wins and nominations with films like Raging Bull (1980), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Brazil (1985), The Untouchables (1987), and Midnight Run (1988). When the 90s began De Niro was still churning out the same Oscar-caliber work at a steady rate starring in films like Goodfellas (1990), Awakenings (1990), and Cape Fear (1991). There was no lull in his career. By the time Pacino rebounded and was viewed as a bankable star with a legendary filmography people started to realize that De Niro and Pacino had not starred in a movie since 1974 with The Godfather Part II and they never shared a scene in their entire career. Producers wanted to fix that and in the mid-90’s when both actors were still viewed as worthy of headlining a movie, putting them in the same film was like creating a dream team that audiences would salivate over. The film that put them together was Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), an intense cop drama (and subpar romance) with De Niro as a master thief and Pacino as the relentless cop on his tail. It was a moderate hit but further solidified their reputations as masters of their craft. Heat was a landmark in both of their careers and looked at as a historic event, one that would be spoiled in later years. They had been friends for decades but never worked together in the close capacity they did in Heat. For the rest of the 90s De Niro and Pacino continued to work steadily with the changing Hollywood as the blockbusters evolved and started to take over more screens at the multiplex. Both De Niro and Pacino managed to stay out of that rigamarole and never reduced themselves to playing second fiddle to special effects.
The last year of the 90s would also turn out to be a landmark year for both De Niro and Pacino looking at how their careers went in the new millennium. Both actors would have two films released that year and both serve as an unofficial bookmark in their careers. Since Heat De Niro had consistently challenged himself working with top directors in lead and supporting roles such as Cop Land (1997), Jackie Brown (1997) and Ronin (1998). But in early 1999 Robert De Niro made a bold choice to spoof the tough guy persona he created in Mafia movies like Goodfellas and starred in Analyze This. A movie about a mob boss who is having emotional trouble doing his job (killing people) and looks to help from a psychiatrist played by Billy Crystal. Analyze This would be a big hit with critics and audiences and remains De Niro’s funniest performance to date. But like Heat, the reputation of Analyze This would be squandered in a few years with an absolutely abominable sequel (Analyze That in 2002), and the popularity of his next hit comedy Meet the Parents (2000) dwarfed Analyze This as a landmark moment of De Niro’s career as well as its director the late great Harold Ramis.
Robert De Niro’s other film from 1999 was a curio and his attempt to throw his hat into the Best Actor race with his performance as a stroke victim learning to regain his speech in director Joel Schumacher’s Flawless. He starred opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman (who had a very busy fall of 1999 starring in Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well) who played De Niro’s drag queen neighbor that offers to help De Niro’s cop character after he has a stroke despite the fact that De Niro’s character is extremely homophobic. Flawless is a showcase for two great actors, one aging star and another up and coming, to demonstrate their skills in two very different and showy roles.
Pacino’s 1999 is memorable for the two films he had released late in the year. That November he gave one of his more subtle and nuanced performances in Michael Mann’s The Insider. Based on the true story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) a whistleblower who speaks to ’60 Minutes’ about how big tobacco companies are intentionally adding chemicals to make cigarettes more addictive and cause cancer. Pacino played Lowell Bergman, the producer who fights hard for the story to come out and he was overshadowed by Russell Crowe in the film which earned Crowe his first of three consecutive Best Actor Academy Award nominations. Crowe gained a lot of weight for the role and it was a critical favorite even though audiences mostly stayed away. The Insider remains the last film Al Pacino starred in that would be a Best Picture nominee. His other film released in December of 1999 was Oliver Stone’s powerhouse football movie Any Given Sunday. Pacino played a beleaguered coach battling an overzealous owner (Cameron Diaz), an injury-plagued quarterback (Dennis Quaid), and his hotshot replacement (Jamie Foxx). Any Given Sunday is Al Pacino’s last great performance in a film. It would be overshadowed by Jamie Foxx’s breakout dramatic performance as the cocky back up quarterback because prior to this film, Jamie Foxx was known solely as a comedian and comic actor. Since Any Given Sunday his career took off and he won a well deserved Best Actor Academy Award as Ray Charles in Ray (2004). However on the flip side, since Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino has starred in nothing but films that have underperformed and underwhelmed or just outright stinkers that bombed at the box office.
De Niro’s career since 1999 has been on a similar trajectory, granted he had a few big hits with the Meet the Parents movies, and has had some notable roles in quality movies, perhaps because he works more often than Pacino. But neither of them have made films as noteworthy as they did in the 70s nor have they even been consistent at making respectable pictures as they did during the 90s. They tried to make the dream team formula work again eleven years after Heat, De Niro and Pacino reunited in the action-cop drama Righteous Kill (2008), but all that movie did was make their chemistry in Heat feel less special and took away from the allure of that movie. Righteous Kill was as run-of-the-mill as a cop thriller could get with a twist as arbitrary as one could possibly imagine. De Niro and Pacino both looked as tired as the cliches in the script, Righteous Kill could have been called ‘Two Old Guidos’ and it might have stood out more from its generic title.
In the eleven years since Righteous Kill Pacino and De Niro have been stuck in mediocrity. Mired in movies that feel more like paychecks. 2019 could actually be a special year for these legendary actors. Both are starring in two major motion pictures this year, one supporting role for each actor and the other they once again will share the screen as leads in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix movie The Irishman. That movie really is a dream team of a cast with Pacino being directed by Scorsese for the very first time (hard to believe) along with Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. Hopefully, it will live up to the expectations of its director and cast and not feel as if it is a bunch of has-beens trying to relive their glory days and they should have made in 1994. The supporting role for De Niro and Pacino are possibly even more intriguing. Al Pacino had one of his most significant roles in years this summer just appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His part was small and any number of actors could have played it but it was nice seeing Pacino share the screen with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt while being directed by the great Tarantino. De Niro has a supporting role coming up in a big movie this October opposite Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. That film is produced by Martin Scorsese and is getting compared to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which flopped with critics and audiences when initially released but has since found an audience and earned a lot of praise and respect from cinema scholars as De Niro and Scorsese spoofed their own film Taxi Driver, and comedian Jerry Lewis gave his best dramatic performance. Hopefully, these films will be bright spots in an otherwise turgid period of their legendary careers. Maybe leading to wiser choices in the twilight of two great actors filmographies.
Which brings us back to the question: What the (bleep) happened with these two guys? How did Al Pacino go from The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon to Gigli and Jack and Jill? How did Robert De Niro go from Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to Last Vegas and Dirty Grandpa? People are always complaining ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’ and how bad current movies are. But are they really as bad as the movies these guys are putting out? I know it is easy to say that they do not have to work since they probably do not, but it is also hard turning down huge paychecks for easy work with minimal pressure. How come in two decades they have not been able to find a project that is worthy of their talents?
Marlon Brando the leading method actor from the previous generation that inspired De Niro and Pacino’s acting styles had a bad final few decades of his career, however, he worked much less often than De Niro and Pacino have this century. Brando’s final film ironically was a heist movie called The Score (2001) which allowed him to share the screen with Robert De Niro, uniting the two actors that played Vito Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, alongside Edward Norton whom many consider one of the greatest method actors of his generation. The Score was a modest hit during the summer of 2001 met with middling reviews although I found it to be a fun, top-notch heist movie watching great actors share the screen for the first time. Brando allegedly hated making it and like all of the films of his last twenty or so years, it was just a paycheck for him. He was especially rude to the director Frank Oz calling him Miss Piggy on the set and refused to take orders from him. James Woods once did a rant about Marlon Brando’s career and why he starred in the infamous flop The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) where he “strolled around a tropical island with a f*cking puppet on his shoulder! What happened to him? Nothing. He still gets his new f*cking house! His legacy? Still intact with Streetcar and The Godfather making people offers they can’t refuse”.
One can suppose that when all is said and done on Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and they pass away or decide to retire that their careers will be celebrated for their outstanding early work, while few will be praising their work for films like The Devil’s Advocate (1997) or Hide and Seek (2005) the two films that I personally think are their worst performances to date. But they likely will ignore a plethora of other mediocre work from the two actors, while their legacies will still be intact from the great performances they amassed throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
So is it better to burn out fast or fade away? Jack Nicholson has not officially announced his retirement and keeps teasing that he will make another movie yet he has not starred in a film for nine years. Daniel Day-Lewis, who is significantly younger than Nicholson, De Niro, and Pacino announced his retirement after Phantom Thread (2017), he obviously does not want or need the money. De Niro’s friend Joe Pesci essentially retired after Lethal Weapon 4 back in 1998 and has starred in only three movies since then, the third being the aforementioned Irishman reuniting him with his friends De Niro and Scorsese. Sean Connery and Gene Hackman both stopped working in 2003 and 2004 respectively and even though their last films were really bad their legacies are solidified and they are both still revered as two of the greatest living actors.
De Niro and Pacino must still love what they do, or have that desire in their heart to continue to work and act. Maybe that was why De Niro’s performance opposite Anne Hathaway in The Intern (2015) seemed so perfectly cast. That character really spoke to De Niro’s method and his life and he channeled that into one of the better performances of his recent career. The same cannot be said for most of his other films this decade or just about any of Pacino’s in the past two decades, but they both must still be driven by something, hopefully, more than just money.
Getting old is not easy and the decision to retire and stop doing what you love and are meant to do is really tough. Most people that love their jobs do not want to retire. People hear about this constantly in sports when athletes do not want to face reality and stop playing the game that they love. If injuries do not spoil it for them, eventually time will and even the greatest athletes have had to stop because time was not on their side. De Niro and Pacino do not have to be in peak physical condition for most of the roles they play, De Niro even put his health and his body on the line for a number of performances most notably when he gained a lot of weight to play Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. He could not do that today, no doctor should ever let him, but he can still act well enough to appear in movies regularly. Movie lovers just wish that the movies he picked were worthy of his talents.
Pacino has struggled more but similar to Brando and other actors of their ilk like Connery and Hackman, Pacino’s place in history is set. Sadly he has not been nominated for an Academy Award since his long-awaited win for Scent of a Woman so some could look at that as his peak and it was downhill from there. I for one still value Al Pacino’s performances tremendously in films like Carlito’s Way (1993), Donnie Brasco (1997), and Any Given Sunday (1999) and am very grateful he made those movies. He was also terrific opposite Meryl Streep in the HBO miniseries Angels in America directed by Mike Nichols. Plus he made a nice trio of performances for HBO original movies playing real-life people Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack (2010), and the title characters in Phil Spector (2013), and Paterno (2018). You Don’t Know Jack (2010) was by far the best of those three films. Maybe it is humbling for Pacino to star in made-for-TV movies but in this day and age, television seems to be the more prominent medium for making smart, thought-provoking art, whereas movies are filled with remakes, reboots, sequels, and comic book stuff that thankfully Pacino and De Niro have avoided. Perhaps that is why people are complaining that their careers are in the toilet at this moment. Maybe the films they act in are the best roles they are offered without reducing themselves to franchises for even bigger paychecks. We can only hope that The Irishman is a return to form for De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and everyone else involved. Hopefully with Scorsese at the helm, who unlike those actors has not struggled to make great films this century can give those actors roles worthy of their incredible talent.
Below is a video featuring some of the best roles of De Niro and Pacino. It starts with The Godfather and ends with Heat. Obviously, the guy who made this video agreed with me that many of their later works are not worth putting on this reel. Plus notice the lack of Pacino roles featured in the 80’s other than Scarface. I would have included Sea of Love but I did not make this. Spoiler alert if you have not seen The Godfather Part II or Part III.