Robert De Niro vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Al Pacino, Who Is The Best?

Jack Robert Pacino Robert De Niro vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Al Pacino, Who Is The Best?

Who is the greatest actor of all time? A question often brought up amongst moviegoers, the answer is not an easy one to come by. In this writer’s opinion, however, there is an answer and all you have to do to find it is to go back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when three actors rocketed to stardom, each laying hold to a possible title as not only the greatest actor of their generation, but also perhaps the finest to ever be put in front of a camera.

The three were brilliant all in different ways. One was a natural star able to make any scene more dynamic by his presence alone. Another was a chameleon, always unique, but filled with a ceaseless intensity in everything he did. And the third was an onscreen explosion, filled with earnest passion and a blistering presence all his own.

Following a comedic turn for the ages in Easy Rider, which would garner him a best supporting actor nomination from the Academy Awards of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, otherwise known as the Oscars), Jack Nicholson was the first to stake his claim. Although Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were good, Nicholson was phenomenal in his short screen time, oozing star power from his very pores and a charisma that would prove unrivaled by any of his contemporaries.

%name Robert De Niro vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Al Pacino, Who Is The Best?

Throughout the 1970’s, Nicholson would begin to put together a filmography more impressive than any that had come before him, earning massive acclaim for Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, and finally his first Oscar in 1975 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In any regular era a performance of this caliber and complexity would be unmatched for at least five years, but the golden age of the 70’s was no ordinary time, producing two rival performances in a one year span: Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in 1976’s Taxi Driver.

With these three performances the three-man race for the greatest actor of the generation was on featuring the natural (Jack Nicholson), the chameleon (Robert De Niro), and the explosion (Al Pacino). Portraying dangerous characters that were representative of the tumultuous times that they lived like the aforementioned Bickle, Sonny Wortzik, The Deer Hunter’s Michael, and R.P. McMurphy, these actors were not pursuing money and stardom, but something more noble: acting as art. With each passing year came another sparkling turn from at least one of the trio, the order of the three always reshuffling and impossible to pin down.

Then came the 1980’s. Aside from one iconic turn in Scarface, Pacino seemingly withdrew from the race, doing almost nothing of note the entire decade. De Niro continued the path he had begun in the prior decade, delivering perhaps the greatest performance of all time as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and excellent work in The King of Comedy and Once Upon a Time in America.

ragingbull Robert De Niro vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Al Pacino, Who Is The Best?

Nicholson would begin on a different trail, moving away from some of the more restrained characters that had earlier defined him and taking on a new villainous persona in films like The Shining and Batman. Showing an almost entirely new side to himself, as well as taking the time to deliver one of the more romantic performances of the era in Terms of Endearment, the natural was no longer relying solely on his reputation as a rebel, but was continually breaking new ground for himself as a performer, becoming one of the biggest box office draws on the planet in the process.

As 1989 rolled into the 1990’s, Nicholson and De Niro were arguably deadlocked, but then Pacino roared back, returning to the role that had first given him life: Michael Coreleone. The Godfather Part III allowed Pacino to create his most fully fleshed out character to date, revealing talents that while previously existent had been all but forgotten in the prior decade. In the same year of perhaps his greatest onscreen triumph, Pacino was also able for the first time to show his comedic chops as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, revealing yet another layer of himself.

As the 90’s rolled on, suddenly the issue of “the greatest” was not as decided as before, with Robert De Niro seemingly running out of steam in the middle part of the decade. Like Pacino he tried to show some comedic muscle, but unlike his rival was not able to do so successfully. Unfortunately his foray into comedy was not a minor career diversion, but seemingly swallowed up all of his future ambitions.

As the years went by De Niro began to settle more and more, signing up for a disastrous adaption of Rocky and Bullwinkle here and a Meet the Fockers there. Whenever he did try to come back to the dramatic territory that had made him before seem indestructible, the spark that he once had was gone, bringing lifeless characters to the screen in films as uninteresting as they come.

Through all the ups and downs of his competitors only Nicholson stayed steady delivering performances in the 90’s and 2000’s that were just as great as his work in the 70’s. Showing a capacity for both comedy and drama in equal measure Nicholson was able to quickly adapt to the change in the roles offered to him and found more and more ways to keep reinventing himself as an actor, perhaps hitting his personal opus with As Good as It Gets.

as good as it gets 649x360 Robert De Niro vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Al Pacino, Who Is The Best?

While his personality was as popular as ever, he found ways to submerge the crazy Jack that everyone associated with him in turns as breathtakingly subtle as those found in The Pledge and About Schmidt. Always immensely watchable, Nicholson found a way to return to the character actor of his origins.

Although impossible to tell at the time, forty some years on, perhaps now the question can be answered: just who out of these three was the best actor? While De Niro may have the most talent, he is the only one of three that has become content with mediocrity. Although a few of his recent supporting turns have been fine, for the most part his intense drive, which was always what separated him from the rest, has vanished.

Some might argue that it’s just the roles that are available to him, but this is not a valid excuse. And even if this was the best work that he could find, surely he could find someway to make the characters he plays more interesting instead of the same old same old that has come to define his performances. It has been fifteen years since De Niro was great and that is far too large a gap for someone who once strived to be the best actor the world had seen.

With De Niro eliminated, it comes down then to Pacino versus Nicholson. Both can proudly claim to have continually looked to stretch themselves throughout their careers and unlike DeNiro, both can claim to have given a performance in the last decade worthy of their immense reputations. Naturalism vs. theatrical is what it comes down to really. Both have always been immensely entertaining, no matter what character it is that they are portraying, but whereas Pacino has sometimes overcooked his performances, this has never happened to Nicholson.

Each and every moment of his onscreen is authentic and worthy of an artist.  Although its hard to say that the man behind Michael Corleone is not the greatest actor of his generation, when compared to Nicholson’s consistency that is exactly what has to be concluded. All three are tremendous talents who hopefully will deliver even more great performances in the years to come, but it is Jack, crazy old Jack that is the greatest of all time.

How about you readers? Who do you think is the greatest actor of all time and who out of the three described in this article do you like the best?

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  • Charity Torres

    Great Artical- My Favorite is Nicholson!!!

  • Claude

    Great article an good points about Nicholson’s consistency. However, I think you do Deniro injustice by discounting some of his great roles in the 90s and parts of the 2000s. Amonst those are A Bronx Tale, Casino, Heat (with Pacino), The Score and more recently Machete.  

  • http://twitter.com/will_chadwick Will Chadwick

    I would agree with Nicholson, Pacino has kind of revived his ailing career in TV though with projects like Angels in America and particularly You Don’t Know Jack, where he was extraordinary.

  • brandon

    Nice article, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the conclusion. Pacino is otherworldly and his dedication to his craft is unbelievable. He does Shakespeare on stage (nominated for a Tony this year), is killing on HBO, and his filmography is more consistent than the other two. 

    Here’s how I would rank them:
    1. Pacino
    2. De Niro
    3. Nicholson

    Also, I think Dustin Hoffman should be in the conversation as well. 

  • Manjusingh Ss

    I would rate Pacino above Nicholson & Deniro. While I agree that Nicholson has been the most consistent, Pacino has done remarkably well in TV & Theater too. He has been able to tackle the most complex characters of Shakespeare.
    Pacino is the greatest actor after Laurence Olivier.

  • Alexabba

    Interesting, but where’s Dustin Hoffman?  Certainly gives any of the three a run for their money.  

  • Chad Goodmurphy

    This is a very tough decision, but I’d probably have to go with De Niro. He was amazing in some of my favourite films, with one prime example being Goodfellas.

    Pacino would be second. He’s a phenomenal actor, too. I think Scarface is a tad overrated, but it’s a good movie. I just recently watched Dog Day Afternoon and he blew me away in that.

    I also like Nicholson, but not as much as the other two. All three are Hollywood elite though.

  • Harold Titler

    Well, it’s hard to say. If I were to take any of these three as serious contenders, it would have to be De Niro, for his career-defining turn in De Palma’s underseen HI, MOM! alone. With his tightrope walk of humor, perversion and cheerful, fascist all-American ignorance, it’s a comedic tour-de-force that tops anything the clowns Pacino and Nicholson have ever accomplished.

    That said, De Niro is hardly at the top of the list. Here’s who I would rank as the *real* cream of the crop (working actors only, of course):

    1. Michael Shannon (he alone elevates the anarchic psycho-pop mayhem of THE RUNAWAYS to a gripping satire of the overrated VELVET GOLDMINE…if Kuleshov lived, he would kiss his feet)

    2. Daniel Day-Lewis (is it possible to watch his rippling flesh and stone visage in Mann’s masterwork THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and not be spiritually and intellectually aroused? I leave it to you, dear reader!)

    3. Denis Lavant (cinema’s greatest acrobat since the days of Keaton! to watch him drink and slur his speech and fire a gun into the night sky of LES AMANTS DES PONT-NEUF is to experience something quite beyond the banal trade referred to these days as “acting”)

    4. Nicolas Cage (the favorite scapegoat of IMDbros everywhere, to be sure…but the raw talent of a man capable of reaching the baffling heights of insanity scaled in VAMPIRE’S KISS, a sustained shriek of a performance that shatters the feeble glass houses of screenwriter Joseph Minion’s targets, should never be underestimated)

    5. Lee Kang-Sheng (an acrobat and physical specimen nearly on par with Lavant, he administers in Ming-Liang Tsai’s THE WAYWARD CLOUD the most compelling watermelon fingering in cinema history since the outtakes of DEATH TO SMOOCHY)

  • ARKA BANERJEE

    well well well..i totally agree with the discussion above.for me jack nicholson is THE best because of his consistency and also for the fact that he brings life to totally a normal simple character in a simple story like “the last detail”.al pacino also did this.he took “scent of a woman” to height where i found the movie to be a ‘bliss of solitude’.as of robert de niro…unfortunately yes, he did lose himself. 

  • ajkima

    Well I would say Marlon Brando is the greatest. Ask Jack Nickolson, he would say the same. Its true that Brando was not consistent as the other three. but when he was at his best, no one came close. That’s my opinion.

  • ebrahim

    i will choose AL PACINO he is the best and i think he is the only actor who is more like marlon brando who was the best actor in history so my vote is AL PACINO

  • ebrahim

    i will choose AL PACINO he is the best and i think he is the only actor who is more like marlon brando who was the best actor in history so my vote is AL PACINO

  • The Best In The World

    Oh yes.. Jack Nicholson is my favourite too.. Pacino and De Niro are great.. De Niro perhaps the better actor.. But Jack has certainly proven to be more versatile and consistent.. All in all, no other actor entertained me more that these 3 (and Hoffman and Brando), but Jack is my vote as the best..

  • chris

    JACK NICHOLSON IS THE GREATEST ACTOR OF ALL TIME!!! No other actor, including De Niro, Pacino, or Brando, can compete with the success of Jack Nicholson. “Jack” has won 3 Oscars (2 Best Actors in a Leading Role, 1 Best Actor in a Supporting Role). He holds the record for the most Oscars and Oscar Nominations of all time with 3 Oscars and 12 Oscar Nominations. He also holds the record for the most Golden Globe Awards with 6, and he’s been nominated for a Golden Globe 17 TIMES!!!!!!. The only actor who even came close to that kind of success is Marlon Brando, who won 2 Oscars and was nominated 8 times. If you look beyond Nicholson’s success as an award winner, he has also taken on some of the toughest roles in the history of film, which include a schizophrenic killer in “The Shining,” an abusive and highly obsessive compulsive man in “As Good As It Gets,” a crazed villain in “Batman Begins,” and a criminal faking a mental illness in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And just for the record, De Niro has 2 Oscars and only 6 Oscar nominations. Pacino has only 1 Oscar and 8 Oscar nominations. Jack is the best, end of discussion!!!

  • chris

    JACK NICHOLSON IS THE GREATEST ACTOR OF ALL TIME!!! No other actor, including De Niro, Pacino, or Brando, can compete with the success of Jack Nicholson. “Jack” has won 3 Oscars (2 Best Actors in a Leading Role, 1 Best Actor in a Supporting Role). He holds the record for the most Oscars and Oscar Nominations of all time with 3 Oscars and 12 Oscar Nominations. He also holds the record for the most Golden Globe Awards with 6, and he’s been nominated for a Golden Globe 17 TIMES!!!!!!. The only actor who even came close to that kind of success is Marlon Brando, who won 2 Oscars and was nominated 8 times. If you look beyond Nicholson’s success as an award winner, he has also taken on some of the toughest roles in the history of film, which include a schizophrenic killer in “The Shining,” an abusive and highly obsessive compulsive man in “As Good As It Gets,” a crazed villain in “Batman Begins,” and a criminal faking a mental illness in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And just for the record, De Niro has 2 Oscars and only 6 Oscar nominations. Pacino has only 1 Oscar and 8 Oscar nominations. Jack is the best, end of discussion!!!

  • Lee

    ROBERT DE NIRO !!!

    * still visible in films and TV

    * bankable in drama, comedy, action, etc.

    * very credible in his different roles/characters

  • toufic

    ok we have to agree about nicholson being the most sucessfull (3 oscars-17 nominations. but i recently watched al pacino’s scent of a woman and the guy is just incredible! one of the best performances an actor has ever did.

  • Honest E

    A nice article for the most part, but totally rendered invalid by describing Pacino’s acting in Godfather III as his “greatest onscreen performance.” Not only is this an insult to Pacino, but it’s horribly (and almost universally accepted as) inaccurate. Pacino in GFIII is recognized for being out of character and not truly in the head of Michael Corleone, as he had been before in those incredible restrained performances. Meanwhile, when describing the actors’ knockout roles in the 70s, you neglected to bring up Pacino in Godfather I and Godfather II, the two roles in which he is most known and celebrated for. Clearly you’re in Nicholson’s camp (which is fine), but the design of your argument is flawed on the basis of withholding information. It would be like describing why Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, but neglecting to mention that he won 6 championships. I am in the De Niro camp (Nicholson for me too often just plays “Nicholson”), but come on–no mention of Pacino in Godfather 1 (Oscar nom), Godfather II (Oscar win), Scent of a Woman (Oscar win), or Glengarry Glen Ross (Oscar nom), and calling the laughable and panned Godfather III his “greatest onscreen triumph?” It’s too bad, because the rest of your piece is relatively sound. Furthermore, notable De Niro omissions: Goodfellas, Godfather II, Heat, Cape Fear. I agree that Jack is great, but he never had overcooked performances? Have you seen The Departed? All in all, solid article, but too many biases and omissions to be taken as an actual analysis.

  • Mandingo

    No way Pacino. I love the guy in a lot of rolls, but he has become a caricature himself for the past decade. Nicholson in some ways too although He is my favorite of the three. DeNiro is the only one that consitstently changed with the role. Hoffman is better than Pacino and Nicholson.

  • ovidiu

    Jack Nicholson is the best actor in the world!

  • Nabeel Khan

    The greatest performance ever, is apparently The Joker, by Heath Ledger.
    But we can not claim Heath Ledger was the greatest of all time, because he wasn’t consistent and also because of his untimely death, that we couldn’t get to see what more he’d have offered.

    3 time Oscar winner for main role, Daniel day Lewis may be said as the greatest but not by many, Because he got the Oscar probably because there wasn’t enough competition.

    Al Pacino without a doubt, would’ve been honored as the greatest, only, if only Jack Nicholson was born on a different planet.
    Al Pacino has done mainly gangster movies and has been similar in almost all the movies, whereas Jack was so versatile.
    There are people who like Robert De Niro too, but let’s accept the fact that he isn’t in the league of these two great, he may be a third, if you may.

  • Andy

    Love all three! Daniel Day Lewis takes it but watch out for Tom Hardy!

  • Andy

    DDL and Brando are still the best….Tom Hardy though!

  • Andy

    Richard Harris should also be considered! Beyond everything else, it’s Paul Newman. He’s the greatest of all time!