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Thursday, September 26, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:14 PM ET
De Niro vs. Pacino -- who's the champ?

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Just so you know, the final question of today's mailbag doubles as the most important mailbag question in Sports Guy history (even bigger than "Who would have won a seven-game series between Hickory High and Carver High?").

Nomar Garciaparra
Has a television contributed to Boston's remarkable season?
But before we get to that, I wanted to mention that I've been absolutely swamped by e-mails over the past two weeks. I'm running about 1,000 e-mails behind, and every time I start to catch up, another wave comes in. Since you would hopefully rather have me working on new columns than sifting through e-mails, you could help in the following ways:

1. Please don't send me forwards or include me on group e-mails. I delete them all.

2. Please don't send me columns, essays or links to things you've written, only because I avoid reading them. I like to come up with my own ideas, and it puts me in a tough situation when somebody is sending me a "Hey, read this and tell me what you think" submission about a topic that was already something in my wheelhouse for a Page 2 column. If that's the case, I stop reading that e-mail immediately (please don't take this personally).

3. Please don't ask me for advice on fantasy trades, recommendations for bars or restaurants in Boston, movie recommendations and anything else that starts off with the sentence, "I know you're busy, but ..." As Dr. Evil would say, throw me a frickin' bone here.

4. Please don't ask me a question about anyone who works for Page 2, ESPN.com, ABC or ESPN that includes phrases like, "Do you agree that he's terrible?" or "Does she put out?" I obviously can't answer.

5. Please keep sending me meanspirited e-mails centered on themes such as "You absolutely suck" and "I can't believe you have this job." I love those and forward them to my bosses and friends.

6. Along those same lines, you've been reading me for more than a year now, so you know what you're getting at this point: way too many Boston columns, way too many NBA and NFL columns, no hockey, no college football, not enough baseball, too many references to my friends, too many pop culture/movie/TV/fantasy references, not enough media criticism (because my bosses won't let me), and I'm certainly not afraid to beat a joke into the ground 50 or 100 times. You don't need to e-mail me asking me to rethink some of these column choices. I'm not changing.

7. When in doubt, please keep sending creative questions that I could use for mailbags, mainly because it's my favorite column to write and I enjoy the give-and-take with you guys (when it comes right down to it, whether you like my columns or not, you have to admit ... nobody has funnier readers than me).

Many thanks to everyone who takes the time to send something in. I wish we could have a group hug, but that would probably be a little, um, awkward.

On to the latest mailbag ...

Doug Christie
It could have been worse; you could have had Doug Christie's wife show up at your fantasy football draft.
Q: At our fantasy football draft this year, one of my buddies (also the commissioner) brought his new wife so she could hang out. She didn't draft a team, but she felt the need to shout out lame comments after players were chosen, and she told her husband what delivery food would not be acceptable for him to eat (he was barred from having even a slice of pizza). Needless to say, our draft was missing the usual witty one-liners and guy talk. So does our commissioner have to step down for committing such a transgression upon his friends? Can our draft be considered binding, or do we need to redraft without our psychologically castrated friend? Has anyone else ever had this happen to the draft? To redeem himself, what would he need to do?
-- Paul P., Manchester, N.H.

Sports Guy: First of all, this might be the most disturbing Sports Guy e-mail ever... even worse than the guy in Vegas who pushed for his buddies to visit the Hoover Dam. I can't imagine why somebody would bring their wife or girlfriend to a fantasy draft, unless there were mitigating circumstances ... like, "I can't leave her alone because she has seizures," or "We're visiting from another state, we don't have a car and there is nowhere else for her to go unless we drop her off at a mall and leave her for dead."

Anyway, here's my ruling:

A. Your buddy has to relinquish the commissioner's chair. Immediately.

B. He can't trade with anyone else all season.

C. He should throw an extra $50 into the prize money pool for ruining everyone's else's draft.

D. He can't hang out with anyone else in the draft until March Madness. Sentence him to six months of chick flicks, apple picking, "Mad About You" reruns, and contemplating his actions and the consequences of those actions.

E. He has to wear a Doug Christie jersey to the next draft. No ifs, ands or buts. And he has to purchase the jersey with his own money.

And if he doesn't accept those terms, he's out of the league. Case closed.

Brittany Murphy, Freddie Prinze Jr.
Some readers don't think Brittany Murphy would be a "Summer Catch."
Q: What girl, who's considered hot by the media, just isn't? My pick is Brittany Murphy. She wasn't good looking in "Clueless" and has gotten worse from there ("Don't Say a Word").
-- Ed Sweeney

SG: As Ed McMahon would say, "Yes ... you are correct, sir." I couldn't agree more. Call me crazy, but when somebody looks like they haven't showered in three weeks, that's not exactly one of my "Boy is she hot!" prerequisites. My runner-up for this category is Tina Fey of "SNL," a brilliant writer and funny performer ... but how the hell did she break into Maxim's 100? I was flabbergasted by that one. She isn't a three-bagger or anything, but the Maxim 100? Has a tousled hairdo and quirky glasses ever carried anyone further?

Let's flip this question around ... which woman never gets consideration for being hot by the media, but everyone secretly digs her? The all-time Hall of Famer in this category was Mrs. Keaton from "Family Ties," but that's a story for another time. Anyway, I nominate Larry David's wife (Cheryl) in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I always dug her, I was afraid to tell anyone about it ... then I was on the phone with my buddy Joe House, when he suddenly wondered:

"All right, when are they writing an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' where Cheryl gets naked? Couldn't they have an episode where Larry walks in on her talking a shower and she gets mad at him or something? Would that kill them? Is that too much to ask?"

That prompted me to ask a couple more friends about it, and all of them agreed: Cheryl is dig-able. So why wouldn't you ever see her on the cover of a magazine, yet someone like Brittany Murphy has been on two Maxim covers? I don't get it.

Tina Fey
Thick-framed glasses, tousled hair and a quick wit aren't enough to get Tina Fey onto The Sports Guy 100.
Q: Where can I find these columns/books by William Goldman that you mentioned? Does he still write them?
-- Wally from Hoboken, N.J.

SG: Goldman is a famous screenwriter ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Princess Bride," "Misery") who also writes about his experiences in Hollywood ("Adventures in the Screen Trade," "Which Lie Did I Tell?" and "The Big Picture"), and even collaborated on a sports book with Mike Lupica 15 years ago ("Wait Til Next Year," a charter member of the Sports Book Pantheon). He writes from the perspective of a movie fan and a Hollywood insider, even if that doesn't sound possible. If you like movies and you like reading someone who knows how to write, I can't imagine why you wouldn't enjoy his stuff.

My favorite Goldman moment ("Which Lie Did I Tell," Page 23): "I don't understand the creative process. Actually, I make a concerted effort not to understand it. I don't know what it is or how it works but I am terrified that one green morning it will decide not to work anymore, so I have always given it as wide a bypass as possible."

(People always e-mail me wondering what it's like to write for a living. Well, that's what it's like: a constant hole in the pit in your stomach. And yet I digress.)

Q: A bunch of my friends were sitting around watching one of the Lakers-Kings playoff games and had this discussion: If five of us were to take on the Lakers in a full game of basketball, and the Lakers were to play hard against us, how many points do you think we would score?
-- Gavin Lazarow, Seattle

SG: In a 48-minute game, probably between 16 and 20 points, only because the Lakers would get bored at some point and wouldn't be trying as hard. And you might nail a couple of long-range 3s.

(See, this would be a great idea for a TV program: ordinary people going against professional teams, in a real game with real rules. We could set a gambling line and everything. Like the Lakers going against Gavin and his friends ... I would make the Lakers 188-point favorites. Would you take the Lakers or Team Gavin? Or what about Team Gavin going against the New York Liberty, with the Liberty as 68-point favorites? The possibilities are endless. I'm telling you, I should be running a network.)

Q: Who would you put in your All-"Real World" house? Based on when each person was on the show, which people would fill out your roster. What are those selections based on?
-- David Bluhm, Norfolk, Mass.

Cheryl Hines
Cheryl Hines, however, gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from The Sports Guy.
SG: Timely question, considering the show has clearly peaked with this season's "Real World: Las Vegas." It took 10 years, but the producers finally sold out and said, "Screw it, let's take this thing as far as it can go, morals be damned."

(To recap: They threw seven attractive characters into the penthouse suite of a Vegas casino -- most of them on the Go-Team, none of them with any semblance of morals -- all hanging out in the City of Sin ... and we didn't even make it through two episodes without two of the roommates going at it and a near-threesome in the hot tub. Years ago, "Real World" roommates argued about things like, "Who ate my peanut butter?"; now they argue about things like, "How do you know it's my baby?" and "Who swallowed my last Ecstasy pill?" I mean, how can they top this season, unless they move the show to Amsterdam?)

Back to your question ... I would throw all the crazy, self-centered head cases from over the years into the same house for a "Real World: Reunion" episode. Puck from San Fran (token pig). Flora from Miami (token harlot). Tanya from Chicago (token conniving bitch). Amaya from Hawaii (token clingy bimbo). Tammy from Los Angeles (token gold digger and social climber, who ironically ended up marrying and divorcing Kenny Anderson).

Wait, I'm not done. Dan from Miami (best described by a cast member as a cross between "Satan and the Joker"). David from New Orleans (one of nine people to rate a perfect 100 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale). Dominick from L.A. (token drunk). Eric from New York (token wannabe celeb). Steven from Seattle (token scary guy). Colin from Hawaii (token guy all the bimbos would be trying to seduce). Melissa from New Orleans (token nut case). And I'd throw in the two Las Vegas bimbos (token 66 percent of a hot tub threesome). All hell would break loose.

Q: What is your worst Doug Christie moment with the Sports Gal? Here is mine: I had a buddy who went to West Point, and he was the band conductor. Army was playing Louisville in football, and me and some of my buddies were going to drive up to see the game, then go get tanked with our friend. Well, my girlfriend at the time wanted to go shopping, so I bailed on my buds and went shopping. What a wuss. Every time that I think about it, I want to jump in front of a moving truck.
-- Wes Allen, Ky.

SG: Mine was the time that the Sports Gal dragged me to see "Riding in Cars with Boys." I wrote about it in a mailbag last October (scroll down to No. 5). I'm still in therapy about it.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The Sports Guy's Basketball Satan was mellow with a killer sky hook and goggles -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Q: If Larry Bird is the Basketball Jesus, who is the Basketball Satan? I would say Bill Laimbeer, but that might be a little harsh on the guy. On Satan, I mean.
-- Bill DeVinney, New York

SG: That was a good one. I would argue that everyone has their own personal Basketball Satan; mine was Kareem. Everything about him drove me crazy -- the way he whined to the refs, his utter and complete lack of personality, his unblockable hook shot that felt like a stake in the heart even before he released it, the disorienting bald spot on the back of his head, his goofy goggles, the way he jogged up the court ... I just couldn't stand him (and when he whistled an elbow at the head of the Basketball Jesus in Game 4 of the '84 playoffs, that pushed things to the next level).

You know what's funny? I still root against Kareem. Even when he was coaching that USBL hoops team, I was rooting against him and checking the USBL box scores and stuff. Kareem was a ninny. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I feel very strongly about this.

Q: My friends and I loved the "Cheers" vs. "Seinfeld" debate that you wrote a couple of months ago. But what about the ultimate Dr. Jack breakdown: Pacino vs. De Niro?
-- Rob Adams, Boston

SG: I'll be honest ... this question sat in my "Potential Mailbag Questions" file for an entire summer. I was afraid to answer it. Wouldn't you be afraid? Pacino vs. De Niro? The two most famous, influential actors of the past 30 years? I feel like I'm about to walk on Mars ... I probably won't return safely, but I can't resist.

All right, let's break this down, Dr. Jack-style:

Robert De Niro became Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."
Breakthrough performance -- Pacino with Michael Corleone in "The Godfather"; De Niro with Young Vito Corleone in "Godfather II." Yikes. Pacino's part was more important, only because Michael evolved as a character from "good-hearted, wide-eyed pup" to "evil mob boss" in the span of three hours, and the scene where he kills Solazzo and McCloskey at Louis' Ristorante has to rank among the most difficult scenes to pull off. If Pacino choked with that part, "Godfather I" would have failed miserably.

As for De Niro, his performance in "Godfather II" was incredible -- he actually made you believe that he was the young Marlon Brando playing the young Vito Corleone. Read that sentence again. But it was a supporting part ... the movie could have survived without a home run performance from him. And remember, Coppola auditioned both Pacino and De Niro for Michael's part when he was casting "The Godfather," with Pacino winning out. That's just enough to give him the nod. EDGE: PACINO.

Defining performance -- "Godfather II" for Pacino, "Raging Bull" for De Niro (the two most important performances by a male actor in the past 30 years). De Niro learned how to box, he gained 60 pounds ... I mean, he became Jake LaMotta.

But I'm still going with Pacino here, only because that's the one movie where I always think to myself, "Good God, he is absolutely amazing in this" every time I watch it. Just an electric performance from start to finish, like watching Pedro at his peak: Four pitches working, 98 mph fastball, everything for strikes. The scene where Diane Keaton tells him about her abortion, and Pacino's face starts to shake ... that's an absolute acting clinic. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it. SLIGHT EDGE: PACINO.

Consistency -- Pacino's prime lasted from 1972 ("The Godfather") through 1983 ("Serpico," "Godfather II," "Dog Day Afternoon," "And Justice For All," "Cruising," "Scarface"), with a resurgence for most of the '90s ("Godfather III," "Scent of a Woman," "Carlito's Way," "Heat," "The Insider," "Any Given Sunday"). I always thought that "Scent of a Woman"'s success was the worst thing that could have happened to him -- after he won the Oscar, he basically played the "Scent of a Woman" guy in every movie after that. Hoo-hah!!!!!

De Niro's prime lasted much longer -- initially from 1974 ("Godfather II") through 1980 ("Taxi Driver," "The Deer Hunter," "Raging Bull"), with a resurgence in the late-'80s ("The Untouchables," "Midnight Run," "Awakenings," "Goodfellas," "Cape Fear," "This Boy's Life," "Bronx Tale," "Casino," "Heat"), and then another resurgence in the late-'90s when he started doing comedies ("Analyze This," "Meet the Parents"). Just a more interesting, consistent, complete body of work, capped off by his improbable comedy success over these last few years (much like Barry Bonds improbably finishing his 30s by belting 73 homers one season and hitting .375 the next).

Any Given Sunday
Over-the-Top Pacino was past his prime in "Any Given Sunday."
Put it this way: If you were trapped on a desert island and could import all of De Niro's movies or all of Pacino's movies, you'd probably pick De Niro (unless you couldn't live without "Scarface" and "Godfather I"). Just more to choose from. EDGE: De NIRO.

Believability as a cop -- Pacino was more believable as a detective; De Niro was more believable as a cop. So why didn't somebody write a movie where Pacino (as a detective) and De Niro (as a cop) banded together to solve a crime? Frankly, I have no idea. EDGE: TIE.

Most admirable misfire -- De Niro as a stalker comedian in "King of Comedy" (he just couldn't pull it off); Pacino as a Cuban drug dealer in "Scarface" (you forget, that movie absolutely bombed when it came out). Which movie will you remember 20 years from now? BIG EDGE: PACINO.

Range -- De Niro in a walk, mainly because he could throw anything at you -- Funny De Niro, Deadpan De Niro, Scary Mobster De Niro, Quiet Cop De Niro, Intense De Niro, Crazy Cop De Niro, Just Plain Crazy De Niro, Athletic De Niro, Killer De Niro, Quirky De Niro, Kindhearted DeNiro and so on. Pacino could only offer Quiet Cop Pacino, Abrasive Cop Pacino, Brooding Pacino, Crazy Pacino, Intense Pacino, Scary Pacino and Over-the-Top Pacino. There was never really Funny Pacino, unless we're talking in the Unintentional Comedy sense. Ironically enough, neither of them could pull off Romantic Pacino or Romantic De Niro (it always felt uncomfortable).

Four performances from the latter part of De Niro's career really set him apart: 1) "Midnight Run" (genuinely funny, genuinely likable, carried the movie on sheer personality, his most underrated performance), 2) "This Boy's Life" (as the meanspirited stepfather), 3) "Bronx Tale" (as the likable bus driver), and 4) "Heat" (without having much to work with -- that bank robber was a blank slate). I'm not sure Pacino could have pulled off any of those roles. EDGE: De NIRO.

(And that reminds me ...)

The Switch -- If you switched their careers and had Pacino play all of De Niro's parts, and vice-versa, who would have done a better job? De Niro wouldn't have nailed any of Pacino's over-the-top parts ("Scent of a Woman," "Heat," "And Justice For All"), and I can't imagine him pulling off the quiet, conflicted-about-possibly-being-gay police officer infiltrating the Manhattan gay scene in "Cruising" (it would have played like an "SNL" skit). He definitely would have taken Tony Montana and Michael Corleone somewhere (maybe not the same heights, but somewhere). And I think he matches anything else.

But Pacino with De Niro's parts? None of the comedy roles would have worked. "Cape Fear" and "Raging Bull" wouldn't have worked. He couldn't have played the young Vito Corleone. He probably could have handled the mob parts and most of the cop parts, and the only movie he would have improved was "King of Comedy." It just wouldn't have worked as well as De Niro with Pacino's career. EDGE: De NIRO.

Ability to avoid unintentional comedy -- Pacino takes the cake here. Ellen Barkin groping him in "Sea of Love," the dancing scenes in "Cruising" and "Scarface," the "She's got a great ass!" scene in Heat ... the list is endless. De Niro never made you laugh unless it was intentional. EDGE: De NIRO.

Most improbable character that somehow worked -- "Cape Fear" was one of those movies that you only watched once (a little too disturbing, a little too disorienting), but De Niro transformed himself for the role of Max Cady -- ripped body, long hair, Southern accent, tattoos, the works. Ten minutes into the movie, you didn't even remember that it was him. I got you now!

As for Pacino, he was handed one of the most impossible parts ever -- play a swaggering drug dealer with no redeeming qualities, adopt a Cuban accent, say everything from the side of your mouth, drop F-bombs every few minutes, have your character slowly become a coked-up maniac as the movie drags along, carry every single scene you're in, do everything in the most over-the-top fashion possible, and somehow keep the audience rooting for you in the final 20 minutes -- and somehow pulled it off, singlehandedly making "Scarface" one of the signature pop culture movies of the past 20 years.

And if you don't like it ... well, (bleep) you, how's that? EDGE: PACINO.

Shamelessness about selling out -- Hey, it's not like Pacino hasn't taken a few roles just for cash ("The Devil's Advocate," "Godfather III," "Simone" and "Dick Tracy," to name four). But he always picked his spots, at least until recently, and every Pacino movie always managed to feel like an event, even if it sucked.

Not De Niro. The way he sold out over the past 15 years has almost been jarring: "15 Minutes," "Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Showtime," "The Fan," "Frankenstein," "Marvin's Room," "Great Expectations" and "Backdraft," as well as a number of below-average films that he inexplicably accepted ("Stanley and Iris," "Mad Dog and Glory," "Guilty By Suspicion," "Night and the City," "We're No Angels"). Bob, feel free to say no every once in a while. It's okay. BIG EDGE: PACINO.

Most influential line on pop culture -- De Niro has "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?"; Pacino has "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Which one do you use more? I thought so. EDGE: PACINO.

Wild card -- My buddy Gus (who's legally changing his name to "My Buddy Gus" next month) pointed this one out: In Pacino's movies, there's always a definitive scene that you remember, one of those Pacino Scenes where he basically tells the director, "When I'm finished with this take, we'll just send it right to the Oscar committee" (like the "I woulda taken a FLAME THROWER to this place!" from "Scent of a Woman,' or the final locker room speech in "Any Given Sunday"). No matter how bad the movie, Pacino always has that one memorable scene (even in "Devil's Advocate," which may have been the worst two hours of my life).

De Niro just isn't that type of actor; he's always better in understated scenes (like the scene in "Midnight Run" when he goes to borrow money from his ex-wife). If they were pitchers, De Niro would be Greg Maddux (steady and brilliant) and Pacino would be Randy Johnson (you never know what he's capable of next). Whatever the case, I think Pacino gets a small edge here, only because a collage of his best scenes would be more fun to watch than a collage of De Niro's best scenes. EDGE: PACINO.

Head-to-head matchup -- As we all know, Pacino and DeNiro shared one major scene together, the diner scene in "Heat," one of the five or six most exciting moments of my life as a movie fan (I still remember seeing it for the first time, thinking to myself, "Good God, is this really happening?"). That's also one of those rare scenes in a movie where you're flicking channels, you know it's coming up soon, and you'll hang around for 15 minutes just until it comes on ... and after watching that scene roughly 73,456 times on cable over the last seven years, I'm giving De Niro a slight edge.

Here's why ...

It was dead-even right until the end. Pacino did his "Brotha, you are going down" routine. De Niro did his "There's a flip side to that coin ... what if I have to take you down?" routine. And it was a dead heat. Both of them hit it out of the park. Except right at the end, Pacino broke into a slight smile, almost like he couldn't handle the moment -- either it was too intense, or he couldn't believe the scene just happened. Either way, it's always bothered me. His character never would have smiled in that scene at that particular moment. It didn't add up. And it was just enough to give De Niro the win. SLIGHT EDGE: De NIRO.

My stepfather's take -- Three things you need to know about my stepdad: 1) He's 100 percent Italian, 2) his favorite movies of all-time are "Godfather 1," "Godfather 2," "Scarface," "Analyze This," "Goodfellas," "Bronx Tale," and "And Justice For All," and 3) his two favorite actors are Pacino and De Niro. Going to him for a Pacino-De Niro breakdown was like going to Bob Ryan for the definitive take on Bird vs. Magic.

Anyway, I couldn't decide between the two of them, so I turned the decision over to him. Here's what he said:

"DeNiro vs. Pacino? (silence) Oh, boy. I don't think you want to do this. (More silence) Oh. Jeez. (More silence) You have to pick one? (Dead silence) Why would you want to do this? You can't win either way."

(After some prodding ...)

"(Bleep) ... I'd go with De Niro. Most of Pacino's best stuff came out 20 and 30 years ago ... De Niro keeps coming out with quality stuff. But that's no knock on Pacino ..."

(And he defended Pacino for the next five minutes.)

Final verdict: De Niro. Barely.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.