Scorsese’s Leading Men: De Niro vs DiCaprio

James Gallagher

To celebrate the UK release of Martin Scorsese’s 23rd feature film, The Wolf of Wall Street, I thought I’d take a look at the two main leading men in the great director’s life; ex-actor Robert De Niro (remember him?) and everyone’s favourite, never-aging pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio.

In a sense it’s futile to even attempt to pit these two men against each other. Both of them represent very different eras in Scorsese’s 50 years career and though De Niro has now taken to starring in anything and everything to make a bit of money, DiCaprio will never be able to live up to De Niro at his peak. This isn’t a slight against Leo; after all, very few people will be as great as De Niro at his peak because De Niro at his peak verges on otherworldly.

However, I don’t wish this post to be a comparison between these two wonderfully talented men, rather I want it to be an appraisal of how both of them – in collaboration with one of the greatest directors of all time – have given us some of the most memorable, the most loathsome and the most tragic characters in cinematic history and, in turn, have helped to shape the face of contemporary American cinema.

Scorsese’s latest film marks his fifth collaboration with DiCaprio, 11 years since they first worked together on Gangs of New York. Back in 2002 Leo was considered – to put it politely – a bit of a joke, albeit one who always turned in a reasonable performance. Terrible career choices had pigeon-holed him as the reliable love interest; he was someone for teenage girls and gay men to swoon over and that was where his talents seemed to end. Marty saw something though; he saw that DiCaprio had a lot more to offer than just melodramatic romance and, over the course of the next decade, encouraged him to discover his inner thespian.

DeNiro’s career however is almost the polar opposite to DiCaprio’s. Anyone born in the last couple of decades might be forgiven for thinking that Robert De Niro is the most overrated actor of all time. If you’ve only seen his work since the turn of the millennium – work that includes The Adventures of Rocky and BullwinkleLittle Fockers and, most recently, The Family – you must surely wonder what all the fuss is about. Heck, even I sometimes wonder if we’ve all been duped. Don’t get me wrong, De Niro has starred in some decent films since 1995’s Casino; for example, his roles in David O.Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were solid enough, and he was brilliant in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust. Alas, he’s nowhere near as great as he was back in the day. I guess part of the problem boils down to the films themselves; after all it’s tough to deliver a Goodfellas-esque performance when you’re trapped in a film-cum-nightmare with Ben Stiller and Barbra Stresiand…

You might notice that there’s a common denominator here. DiCaprio’s renaissance and De Niro’s fall from grace are both directly related to Marty. Though they collaborated with him at different points in his career, he brought out the best in both of them absolutely effortlessly. So powerful is his sense of character and his understanding of the acting profession that two very different men with very different styles have both dazzled as his lead. It’s perhaps notable that Scorsese’s style has changed – he no longer makes films about mobsters or the Mafia – and as such, a shift in leading man was necessary, yet the themes that have driven his career for the last 50 years are ever-present. His films change yet he always portrays quite similar ideas. Furthermore, his films are usually brimming with dangerous, hedonistic, uncontrollable men, driven by a firm set of (often amoral) principles, a desire for power and a lust for broken women.

What this means then is that though the films are different, the characters that DiCaprio plays are often similar to the ones that De Niro played. They might not be mobsters or criminals but they’re often insecure, dangerous and bitterly fractured. It is to DiCaprio’s great credit that few comparisons with DeNiro are ever made, not least because DiCaprio brings something new to each individual performance. If we truly wanted to compare the two of them, they’d need to star opposite each other again (they did so once before, but that was back in 1993) but I doubt that’ll ever happen. There’s a lot of talk about a new Scorsese-De Niro collaboration, provisionally entitled The Irishman and also set to star Joe Pesci and Al Pacino (if this does happen I might actually cry with joy…), but I can’t see Leo being a part of it which is a real shame.

But who’s the best? In my view it just doesn’t matter. De Niro was a better performer at his peak, but De Niro could never have played Amsterdam Vallon or Jordan Belfort (though perhaps he could have played Frank Costello in The Departed, if only to stop Jack Nicholson from chewing the scenery…) just like DiCaprio would have been laughable in the role of Sam Rothstein or Jimmy Conway. Scorsese’s relationship with both men has given us some of the greatest modern American films of all time, and both of them will go down in history as two of the greatest actors to have ever lived. Sure, DiCaprio has a long way to go before he’s considered a master of the art, but everyone – even De Niro – had to start somewhere. It’s just a shame that DiCaprio started in the nineties, when brooding young men ruled the day…

I thought I’d end with a brief countdown of both men’s three best performances in a Scorsese film, just so those of you who have a Scorsese blind-spot or who refuse to believe that Leonardo DiCaprio can act can hunt them out and give them a watch. Who knows, you might just discover – like I did a few years ago – that your irrational, deep-seated DiCaprio hatred was completely misjudged…

De Niro
1 – Casino
2 – Raging Bull
3 – The King of Comedy

1 – Shutter Island
2 – The Wolf of Wall Street
3 – The Departed

What’s your favourite De Niro / DiCaprio performance? Do you prefer one man over the other, or maybe you prefer Scorsese’s post-millennium output to his earlier classics? Whatever you think, let us know below! =)

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud