(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2003)
Compared to a lot of movie reviewers, I think I spend relatively little time writing about actors. For sure, there are exceptions – you can’t review About Schmidt without writing at length about Jack Nicholson. But I used up my word quota on Spider without saying a word about Ralph Fiennes, and I don’t think many reviewers did that. So today, to remedy the balance a bit, let’s just chew the fat about two of the greats.
When I was getting excited about movies in the early 80s, two actors seemed preeminent: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Both were still in their first decade of stardom; they were smoldering and reclusive and unknowable and they made movies sparingly, so that fans suffered a long frustrating wait between projects. They were clearly mature actors who made hard-edged adult projects – if you were under 18, you were probably sneaking into the theaters.
Ups and downs
De Niro worked mainly with Martin Scorsese and was already legendary for his preparation – particularly how he gorged himself to play the fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. He was regarded as an insolent chameleon, although people tended to overlook how he was already relying on certain mannerisms. Pacino seemed somehow more wounded and less molded – his characters were usually essentially tragic, and with the failed Bobby Deerfield he’d shown a rather bleak romantic streak. Whereas De Niro’s absences from the screen seemed attributable to deliberation, Pacino’s were rooted more in a kind of desperation.
Thirty-year careers obviously have their ups and downs, and when I was first focusing in, both stars’ status seemed in some danger of eroding. Pacino seemed unsure of his direction – Author Author, Scarface, Revolution – and then entered a four year silence. De Niro’s films were usually commercial failures despite their critical standing, and with his cameos in Angel Heart and The Untouchables he seemed to be slipping into smaller roles.
In 1998 De Niro made Midnight Run, at the time a remarkably straightforward film for him. I thought he was amazing in it – every gesture, every expression was perfectly calibrated, creating a complex character who was also utterly stylized. I went four times at least, and watched it subsequently as many times on video (when you’re young, you tend to overreact to certain things). I saw the movie again last year and I still think it’s a kind of masterpiece – a film with a unique worldview both whimsically abstract and wearily abrasive. And De Niro is amazing in it.
De Niro then started to make movies at an unprecedented pace, including numerous projects (Stanley and Iris, Jacknife, We’re no Angels) that surely wouldn’t have made the cut for him a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Pacino returned with Sea of Love. I still remember how excited I was about that. The movie was pretty straightforward material, but Pacino was completely magnetic in it – transforming entire scenes with his inventive, laconic charisma. Apparently reenergized, he quickly followed up with another Godfather film, a goofy cameo in Dick Tracy and, within a few years, an Oscar for Scent of a Woman (De Niro already had two, for The Godfather Part Two and Raging Bull).
The mellow years
Some time after that, I failed to hang on their careers with the same zeal. They both started to make the odd film I considered missable. Including projects yet to be released, the Internet Movie Database lists 12 films for De Niro from 2000 onwards, and 7 for Pacino. That’s the kind of pace associated with work horses rather than Method geniuses. With his hit comedies Analyze This and Meet the Parents, De Niro scored his greatest commercial successes ever. And people started to discern a pattern in Pacino’s career where he played the charismatic mentor to younger men in indifferent films – Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, Colin Farrell in The Recruit, Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate.
They’ve both become more accessible in other ways too – turning up on award shows, or on Letterman, or in De Niro’s case even hosting Saturday Night Live (and apparently not having much fun). In Pacino’s case this accessibility seems like evidence of someone who’s finally comfortable in his own skin; who’s found a way to feel true to himself without drowning in angst. Even when his movies aren’t the strongest, it’s easy to see what drew him to them. The Recruit, for instance, is a run of the mill thriller, but his performance in it is amazingly inventive. He was just as great in S1m0ne, and even better in People I Know. In the meantime, he’s stepped up his stage activity – doing Bertold Brecht in Brooklyn last year and this year on Broadway in Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
But De Niro’s career has become inexplicable. My impetus to write this article came after I caught up with Showtime, the movie he made last year with Eddie Murphy. The movie isn’t so much bad as utterly valueless. It gives De Niro nothing to do that could possibly interest a great actor, and he merely seems to be drifting. His presence there is inexplicable. His recent movies like City by the Sea, The Score, 15 Minutes, Ronin – some of them are better than others, but none are worthy of the actor he was in the 70’s. But it’s not the material that’s so depressing – it’s De Niro’s increasing capitulation to it. I’ve sometimes wondered if this isn’t what appeals to him – to become as self-effacing as possible. Except that in other movies, such as The Adventure of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he seems involved solely because of a bizarre desire for self-parody.
In all the above, I’ve conspicuously failed to mention Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 film in which the two, for the first and so far only time, shared the screen (they were both in The Godfather Part Two, but never in the same scene). I think the movie was more than I could absorb on a first viewing, but it’s since become one of my favourites of the 90’s. Pacino as the cop has some of the most flamboyant moments of his career, sometimes going clearly over the top, but to the end of painting a man so immersed in darkness that his only option is to define his own psychological and behavioral territory. De Niro, as the villain, plays a man who hardly lets anything slip – buttoned down and all business, although with an emotional streak that costs him his life in the end. The famous coffee shop scene, where the two acknowledge their places on opposite sides of the law, and the inevitability of a confrontation to come, is fascinating, but oddly restrained, as though they both feared where it might lead them to let loose.
It's hard to write at length about one without bringing up the other, and their careers seem very much like two sides of the same coin. At the moment I think Pacino has the clear upper hand, but that could easily swing the other way again. Actually I hope it does. Surely these two amazing icons aren’t through with surprising us yet.