Saturday, January 14, 2012

Matching Up the Acting Greats

Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. In discussions of the acting greats, it always comes back to those two, not just for the quality of their performances, but how they dominated one of the greatest eras of American filmmaking. It is impossible not to discuss New Hollywood without talking about "The Godfather," "The Deer Hunter," "Serpico," "Taxi Driver," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Raging Bull." From the 70s through the early 80s, the debate raged over who was better, more iconic, more skilled, more memorable. And in recent years, when talking about contemporary actors, it has become popular to offer up potential candidates for their successors, the new DeNiro and Pacino.

Five years ago, the favorites were Edward Norton v. Christian Bale. Through a more mainstream lens, you might argue Leonardo DiCaprio v. Matt Damon. More recently, cineastes pit Joseph Gordon-Levitt against Ryan Gosling. At one time or another all these actors have managed to capture the popular zeitgeist. 2011 is being called the year of Ryan Gosling, who turned out performances in "Ides of March," "Drive," and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." 2012 may prove to be Gordon-Levitt's, with appearances due in "Lincoln," "Looper," "Premium Rush," and "The Dark Knight Rises." But why compare Gosling to Gordon-Levitt instead of Michael Fassbender, who had an equally good 2011 with "Jane Eyre," "X-Men: First Class," "Shame," and "A Dangerous Method"? Where do our more reliable leading men like Daniel Day-Lewis, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt fit into the picture?

This is the power of the narrative. The idea of DeNiro v. Pacino is so attractive, so deeply ingrained into movie-lovers' skulls, that we unconsciously search for similar pairs of actors to compare. It's not about the real quality of the actors so much as it is about the fun of creating the match-ups, dreaming up rivalries that only exist in the minds of fans. The guys who get paired up tend to come to prominence around the same time, and share certain superficial similarities. Norton v. Bale got a lot of momentum in 2006, when both were starring in films about turn-of-the-century magicians, and then in 2008, when both were headlining summer superhero titles. People compared their careers, which were characterized by a lot of good work in indies, brief brushes with mainstream success, and colorful reputations. Inevitably someone asked who was better, the new Batman or the new Hulk, and the match up was born. Who could resist?

Gosling and Gordon-Levitt are even better. Both were child actors ("3rd Rock From the Sun," "Young Hercules"), both spent their late teens making indie films about wildly uncomfortable subjects ("Mysterious Skin," "The Believer"), and both have largely resisted the siren call of the Hollywood mainstream, notwithstanding a "G.I. Joe" villain here, and a "The Notebook" love interest there. Most importantly, both seems to be on the verge of making it big in the movies, and that's the most intriguing part. We don't know how the careers of these two are going to turn out, but the potential for greatness seems to be there. Could they be the next Pacino and DeNiro? Could they have a run of performances as great as those two did thirty years ago?

Match ups tend to lose steam or never form at all when actors are past their prime or it becomes clear that they're not going to hit the heights that people were hoping for. Ewan MacGregor v. Jude Law was a popular one in my day, when everyone was waiting to see which of the British newcomers was going to break into the mainstream. Except neither of them really did. Yes, they both became very successful leading men and continue to deliver good, consistent performances year after year, but neither one can open a movie by themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you'd think Johnny Depp v. Robert Downey Jr. would be a big imagined rivalry - two former 90s bad boys who unexpectedly became major box office draws very late in their careers. But no matter how you cut it, they're known quantities. We know what to expect from them.

In this day and age, I doubt we're ever going to see any actors dominate the cinema conversation to the extent that Pacino and DeNiro did again. Current quality cinema is often too extreme or unapproachable for the mainstream to embrace, and though we have a few good directors doing their best to keep the blockbusters watchable, the standards have inevitably gotten lower and lower. Pacino v. DeNiro wasn't just a convergence of two great actors, but a whole slew of other factors that gave them the opportunity to do what they did, and when they did it. We're not going to have another pair like that until the movies themselves get better.

But it's fun to keep speculating. And the rivalry framework is a great conversation starter. Personally, I always liked DeNiro a little better than Pacino. I thought he had more range, more psychological heft. But god, Pacino was a live wire. Spectacular execution, always nailed the delivery.

Dammit, now I have to go watch "Heat" again.

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