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DiCaprio vs. De Niro: Who is the better Martin Scorsese collaborator?

Most directors may go their entire careers looking for a muse. Martin Scorsese was lucky enough to find two in Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese’s collaborations with the two actors helped him craft some of the most iconic movies of all time. Scorsese’s collaborations with De Niro from the 1970s to 1990s turned the director into a household name, while his partnership with DiCaprio further cemented his legacy as the greatest living American filmmaker. And Scorsese may even become TikTok’s biggest breakout star before his career ends.

De Niro has collaborated with Scorsese on ten films: Mean Streets; Taxi Driver; New York, New York; Raging Bull; The King of Comedy; Goodfellas; Cape Fear; Casino; The Irishman; and Killers of the Flower MoonFor DiCaprio, it’s six films with Scorsese: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Killers of the Flower Moon.

With DiCaprio and De Niro both starring in Killers of the Flower Moon, it begs the question: Which actor is the better Scorsese collaborator? Find out below.

Best lead performance

Travis Bickle sits in a theater in Taxi Driver.
Columbia Pictures

Picking DiCaprio’s best lead performance in a Scorsese is easy. Even someone on Quaaludes would know that DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street is his greatest role in a Scorsese film. DiCaprio’s charisma is off the charts as he plays a smug, hedonistic stockbroker whose criminal exploits made him a financial legend. Belfort is engaging in fraud and corruption the entire movie. Yet, the audience can’t help but laugh at and strangely root for this antihero. It’s a testament to DiCaprio’s all-in commitment to playing an irredeemable, larger-than-life savage.

Unfortunately for Leo, his tour-de-force performance as Belfort has to go up against two legacy-defining roles from De Niro: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. De Niro’s Bickle is a terrifying villain rooted in realism. Though many of us may never shave our heads into a mohawk or go guns blazing into a brothel, everyone can relate to Travis’ loneliness and the awkwardness we hide from others.

Taxi Driver would be the best credit on any actor’s résumé besides De Niro, whose performance in Raging Bull is just as good, if not better. There are actor transformations, and then there’s De Niro as LaMotta. The actor learned how to box and gained 60 pounds to look unrecognizable as the washed-up athlete at the end of his life. Two legendary roles give De Niro the edge over DiCaprio’s magnetic character.

Winner: Robert De Niro

Best supporting performance

Two men stand next to each other and stare in. Gangs of New York.
Miramax Films

This category isn’t a fair fight. Even though DiCaprio is billed as the lead actor in Gangs of New York, the top dog in that film is Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, one of Scorsese’s best characters of the 21st century. For fans of The Last Dance, DiCaprio is Scottie Pippen with a back injury in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, while Lewis is Michael Jordan. DiCaprio is vital for the film’s success, but without Lewis, the movie fails. Your eyes are glued to Lewis’ riveting performance as a maniacal villain. Lewis is so good that whenever he’s off-screen, you want to fast-forward to get him back in the frame. It’s one of the rare times when DiCaprio plays second fiddle. DiCaprio’s performance as Amsterdam Vallon is solid, but it gets lost in Lewis’ greatness as Bill the Butcher.

De Niro’s first film collaboration with Scorsese occurred in a supporting role as Johnny Boy Civello in Mean Streets. Harvey Keitel’s Charlie Cappa is the lead, but De Niro steals the show from the moment he confidently struts into the red-lit bar with two girls onhis arm. In Goodfellas, De Niro plays the second lead, Jimmy “the Gent” Conway. Don’t let his nice suits or charming smile fool you. Jimmy was a gangster who would kill anyone if it meant another dollar in his pocket. De Niro struck fear into the audience’s hearts. Also, De Niro gets my favorite moment in Goodfellas, as Jimmy tells Bats that drinks are on the house and includes a mysterious pause after “on.” It’s so out of place, but it makes me laugh every time.

Winner: Robert De Niro

More entertaining movies to watch

Two men sit at a diner table and stare.
Warner Bros. Pictures

I want to clarify this category. I am not selecting which actor has the better Scorsese movies (critical and financial). Four of De Niro’s collaborations with Scorsese – Mean StreetsTaxi DriverRaging Bull, and Goodfellas – have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. DiCaprio has zero Scorsese films preserved. Instead, I am picking the better movies to watch as a collection. If you were to sit at home on a Friday night, would you gravitate towards DiCaprio’s movies or De Niro’s movies from an entertainment value?

Scorsese’s magnum opus is Goodfellas, a film that can be seen countless times because of its terrific ensemble, fantastic musical selections, and entertaining premise. The same can’t be said about Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Watching an American incel go insane or a prizefighter committing domestic violence isn’t exactly comforting  watching on a Friday night. DiCaprio, on the other hand, has a wide selection of crowd-pleasers in different genres. Options include an epic crime saga (The Departed), a prestige biopic (The Aviator), an outrageous comedy (The Wolf of Wall Street), and a neo-noir thriller (Shutter Island). For a Scorsese movie marathon, give me DiCaprio’s films.

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio

If they switched roles, who is better?

Leonardo DiCaprio stands near a microphone in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Paramount Pictures

Pretend DiCaprio played De Niro’s roles and vice versa. Which actor is better? Leo is a terrific dramatic actor and could handle De Niro’s gangster roles in Mean StreetsGoodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman. Because of his role in Django Unchained, I believe DiCaprio would be OK in The King of Comedy, too. It’s the scary psychopath version of De Niro where I have trouble picturing Leo. Could he play a violent rapist in Cape Fear? A depressed and angry loner in Taxi Driver? A troubled boxer in Raging Bull? DiCaprio is too good-looking and well-liked to play these types of roles.

Meanwhile, De Niro would have an easier transition in DiCaprio’s parts. De Niro would thrive in Gangs of New YorkThe Departed, and Shutter Island. De Niro’s version of Jordan Belfort would be grittier, meaner, and less funny, but it would still work. The Aviator is the only role I could never see De Niro playing. De Niro wins this round, but it’s closer.

Winner: Robert De Niro

Who wins?

A man leans up against a car while another man holds his arm in Killers of the Flower Moon.

De Niro is a better Scorsese collaborator than DiCaprio. That’s not a knock against Leo, who will go down as the best actor of his generation. DiCaprio is going against the only guy who has a better working relationship with the legendary director than him. De Niro and Scorsese have been friends for nearly 60 years. That type of chemistry can’t be replicated. This interview with Scorsese in the Wall Street Journal Magazine perfectly encapsulates his strong bond with De Niro.

While filming Killers of the Flower Moon, DiCaprio’s constant improvisation started to irk De Niro. “Every now and then, Bob and I would look at each other and roll our eyes a little bit,” Scorsese said. “And we’d tell [DiCaprio], ‘You don’t need that dialogue.'” DiCaprio will always be Scorsese’s best student. However, De Niro will forever be Scorsese’s best friend and collaborator.

Winner: Robert De Niro

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Dan Girolamo
Dan is a passionate and multitalented content creator with experience in pop culture, entertainment, and sports. Throughout…
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