Scorsese’s Silver Screen Legends: De Niro vs. DiCaprio

Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese is a titan of cinema. He has been making movies since the 1960s and has a good claim to be the greatest living movie director. Scorsese’s movies include gangster epics, thoughtful biopics, insightful dramas, dark comedies and more. Like many directors, he has actors he uses again and again in his films but there are two people who stand out as the actors he has most relied on – Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. What is it about these two actors, both clearly brilliant but Scorsese would surely have his pick of actors, Daniel Day-Lewis has starred in two of his movies, so why not have Day-Lewis pop up in a few more instead of De Niro or DiCaprio?

De Niro jokes about DiCaprio being better than him //credit: King of Comedy, 20th Century Fox

So if these two actors and Scorsese have a special connection the question remains – who is the better muse for Scorsese?

The Stats

Number of Films – Robert De Niro – 10, Leonardo DiCaprio – 6

Oscars – Of De Niro’s two Oscars he won Best Actor for Scorsese’s Raging Bull. DiCaprio’s Oscar win was for The Revenant – not a Scorsese film. But Scorsese’s only Best Director Oscar came from The Departed, starring DiCaprio.

Reviews Aside from Oscars and looking at the general critical reception going through Rotten Tomatoes Scorsese-De Niro films have an average critic rating of 85%, compared to 80% for Scorsese-DiCaprio. Perhaps a small difference but the 5% between 80% and 85% might just be where a film becomes a classic.

DiCaprio looking at the reviews for his films vs De Niro’s //credit: Shutter Island, Paramount Pictures

Money In terms of box office – adjusted for inflation – Scorsese-DiCaprio films have made an average $168,000,000, compared to $84,000,000 for Scorsese-De Niro. DiCaprio’s box office is double that of De Niro, a huge difference…but what does Scorsese care of money? He is an artist and would rather make a good movie than a profitable one.

The Switch

De Niro rewatches Wolf of Wall Street for the 50th time //credit: Cape Fear, Universal Pictures

De Niro worked steadily with Scorsese until Casino in 1995, when he didn’t work with the director again until The Irishman in 2019 and in this time it seems like Di Caprio replaced him as Scorsese’s go-to actor. Part of this could simply be down to age, Di Caprio could play roles that would be ridiculous for De Niro to play. Its worth noting that when Scorsese was confident enough in the technology he would digitally de-age De Niro for The Irishman allowing him to cover decades of the character’s life.

The Roles

De Niro is famous for playing gangsters, in Scorsese films and beyond, Goodfellas, The Irishman, Mean Streets and Casino all see him take on a gangster or someone in that world. Apart from gangsters De Niro has played a lot of troubled characters – King of Comedy, Taxi Driver and Cape Fear all feature characters who are deeply disturbed. The most glaring exception is New York, New York, a musical romantic comedy where De Niro plays a saxophonist.

What happened when Matt Damon suggested he could be the new Scorsese muse //credit: The Departed, Warner Bros Pictures

DiCaprio has some similar roles – in The Departed he plays a cop posing as a gangster, in Gangs of New York he plays a gangster but this time in the nineteenth century, in Shutter Island DiCaprio plays a cop/patient at a psychiatric hospital. In The Aviator DiCaprio plays the real-life character of Howard Hughes, inventor, filmmaker and more. Then there is The Wolf of Wall Street, with DiCaprio playing the charismatic, ruthless stockbroker Jordan Belfort.

Obviously, when the technology exists Scorsese will splice together some terrifying DiCaprio-De Niro hybrid clone creature – terrifying but undeniably a compelling actor (Robnardo Dei Nirio?)- but until then can we determine who has the best working relationship? My instinct leans towards De Niro but that could be just because the passage of time has elevated these films to classics while Di Caprio’s are more recent. Outside of Scorsese DiCaprio’s recent film output has been vastly superior to De Niro’s…but this isn’t really about outside of Scorsese and so the title will have to be given to Robert De Niro.

Also Read: The Many Films of Martin Scorsese

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.