Legendary film actor Al Pacino is back in the spotlight.
On the list of the greatest film actors in American history, both fans and scholars would likely rank Al Pacino near the top. He is in that rare company with the finest names in American film acting history: Bridges, Brando, Duvall, Nicholson, Hackman, Stewart, Fonda, Mitchum, Tracy, Keaton, Bogart and his New Hollywood (as well as Corleone) counterpart, Robert De Niro.
And, like all of those film actors, yes, Al Pacino has had his duds. Did he really deserve that Oscar for Scent of a Woman, or was it a hammy, sentimental performance in a hammy, sentimental movie, an easy gift for the coiled intensity of his Michael Corleone or the wild spirit of his Sonny Wortzik?
Have those very traits that made Pacino such a revelatory film actor in the 1970s become a cliché in modern times, worn out by stuff like The Devil’s Advocate, material that embraces the explosion without the essential ingredient of tension?
In 2015, Pacino has returned. The film actor features in three 2015 releases: The Humbling (a Barry Levinson film that came out in January), the recently released Danny Collins, featuring Pacino as a Barry Manilow-like crooner icon, and Manglehorn, directed by David Gordon Green, coming this summer.
Al Pacino: Rise of an American Film Actor
Scarface. Dog Day Afternoon. Heat. Carlito’s Way. Scarecrow. The Insider. The Godfather Parts I and II.
These performances, at turns vicious, violent, quiet, and revealing, collectively shape (among many others) the career of one of America’s most iconic film actors.
Trained by revolutionary teacher Lee Strasberg in New York, Pacino followed such iconic film actors as James Dean and Marlon Brando in the realm of method acting. Pacino’s early roots in New York theater, where he honed his craft, continue today.
As Pacino began to enter the world of film actors at the dawn of the 1970s, American cinema was changing. Actors like Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) and Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider) were becoming box-office stars. They didn’t look like the conventional leading man of old, perhaps. But their charisma and talent were undeniable. Fitting, considering the films these film actors would help make in the ‘70s would change Hollywood, for a flicker of a moment, in profound ways.
Director Jerry Schatzberg seized Pacino’s ample talent for 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park. An agonizing examination of heroin abuse in the Big Apple, Panic stars the film actor as Bobby, involved in a doomed, addiction-riddled romance with Kitty Winn’s Helen. The harshly visceral film wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that would break the bank.
But what Panic helped lead to for the young film actor… well, that was another story.
An Offer You Can't Refuse
A March 2009 Vanity Fair article details the turbulence that surrounded Al Pacino’s role in the film that changed the film actor’s life.
While the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, vouched for the film actor in its starring role, producers thought otherwise. The Vanity Fair article asserts that the classically handsome Warren Beatty, who had helped set off New Hollywood in Bonnie and Clyde, was the favorite. Coppola fought for his film actor, though. The director recognized uncanny potential.
The film, of course, was The Godfather. And the role was Michael Corleone. Needless to say, Coppola was on to something with Pacino.
Many an element helped make The Godfather one of the greatest films of all time. Its cast includes some of the great film actors of all time, including Brando, Duvall, John Cazale, James Caan, and Diane Keaton.
There is the impeccable editing (the baptism montage remains an absolute stunner). Those stunningly executed set pieces. The sinister-yet-alluring glow of the cinematography, from one of the all-time greats, Gordon Willis. The lived-in, familial Italian atmosphere Coppola indulges us in amid all of the gunfire. A script chock full of lines that have become pop culture legacy. That impeccable Nino Rota score.
And yet, at the dark heart of The Godfather is Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Over the first two Godfathers, this is the ideal symbiosis between film actor and role. Pacino adeptly turns from cool outsider, the one destined to escape his family’s violent fate, to viciously pragmatic warlord, gradually whittling away every strand of connection.
The legendary scene in Godfather I where Michael turns once and for all to the dark side, in his fateful meeting with the corrupt police Captain McCluskey, encapsulates the film actor at his finest. His performance is a mix of trepidation, fear, ferocity, and utmost, unflinching confidence.
Pacino has brought elements of this dynamic skill set to roles throughout his career. In the Godfather Part II, Pacino rarely raises his voice as he tears his family apart. The film actor plays Corleone as a man increasingly poisoned by his power, increasingly isolated, killing off enemies with barely a turn of emotion.
Conversely, the film actor displays his full-blown ferocious streak as Tony Montana in Scarface. One could say Pacino’s performance is indulgent, sure, but isn’t that the cocaine-fueled idea of Brian De Palma’s film, a commentary on ‘80s excess whose lead film actor chews up everything in sight? To give the Montana performance a surface reading is to miss the considerable talent on display. And, on top of all that jazz, how many film actors could make such a violent blowhard so strangely charismatic?
The cinema of Al Pacino is one of the richest in American film acting. The fellow film actors Pacino has collaborated with throughout his career, and the top-shelf performances they've delivered in these works, speak to the mutual respect given to the legend among his peers.
With three films in 2015, Pacino is showing no signs of slowing down and letting his legend rest.
Does he have another late-period Insider up his sleeve, the kind of role that shows his command of the low-key approach? Or perhaps a performance in the vein of Carlito's Way, a blend of the feral, the amiable, and the melancholy? What are your favorite performances from the film actor? Which project are you most looking forward to?