A friend tells a story that captures the dilemma of the universally acknowledged Great Actor, entering his golden years with his best roles presumably behind him. It’s a few years back, and Al Pacino has just performed on Broadway in Oscar Wilde’s Salome (in a turn that, as local curmudgeon John Simon put it, offered “enough imploding pauses, demented stares, and wheedling singsong for six characters in search of a straitjacket”). Pacino’s audience gave off a bored, restless vibe in the theater, but now many of them gather around the stage door, and they go bananas when the legend comes tearing out: He pumps hands; he signs Playbills; he leaps atop the running board of the SUV waiting to whisk him into the night. Being Al Pacino, my friend recalled, seemed to energize the man and his fans far more than being King Herod—the actor was better suited to the role of Famous Person than for doing what he was famous for.
Maybe it was the moment he stuck his face into a pile of purest Colombian snow as the monstrous kingpin Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). Maybe it was all those bug-eyed hoo-ahs in Scent of a Woman (1992), the role that belatedly won Pacino an Academy Award. Maybe it was that endlessly replayed ad for The Godfather, Part III (1990), in which the timeworn Michael Corleone growls, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” But somewhere along the way, the Al Pacino persona—a crossbreed of cocaine-crazed gangster and droopy Borscht Belt jokester—took on the caricatured proportions of a folk hero, outmatching nearly any part he could play on stage or screen.
His peers Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson share a similar problem, but while De Niro has become ambassador of Tribeca after 9/11, and while Nicholson’s self-amused Oscar appearances are star turns unto themselves, both have maintained a certain impenetrability, a mystique. One can’t imagine either of them standing on the stage of the Actors Studio jawing endlessly for the cameras about his craft, as Pacino does in the meandering talkfest Babbleonia, included in the new DVD set Pacino: An Actor’s Vision. The box also collects the three films he has directed to date: the featurette The Local Stigmatic (1990, co-directed with David F. Wheeler), the shaggy Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard (1996), and the prolix chamber piece Chinese Coffee (2000). (Pacino is currently in post-production on another documentary: a behind-the-scenes peek at Salome titled Salomaybe?)
Each film in An Actor’s Vision has its roots in the New York theater, where Pacino got his start; in fact, he first acted in The Local Stigmatic more than 20 years before mounting the movie version. This was in the late ‘60s, when the young stage actor was cornering the market on nasty pieces of work, playing a violent junkie in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, a racist punk in The Indian Wants the Bronx, and, in Stigmatic, a malevolent Cockney hood who believes that “fame is the first disgrace” and, to prove his point, takes a celebrity out of circulation by beating and scarring him. “[H]is whole performance, a steel fist in a rubber glove, has all the authority in the world,” Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of Stigmatic. “However, personally, I would like to see what else Mr. Pacino can do in this world besides scaring babies, old women and me.”
So did plenty of others. At 31, Pacino won his first major film role as a heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Ostensibly, this was yet another manipulative-lowlife part, but Pacino added a jumping-bean energy, rough-edged charm, and shades of addled vulnerability. Panic led to Francis Ford Coppola casting him in The Godfather (1972), though not without fierce studio resistance—Paramount executive Robert Evans infamously referred to Pacino as “that little troll.” Even among the unconventional late bloomers of the era’s leading men (Gene Hackman, Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman), Pacino was arguably the runt of the litter: short, scruffy yet somewhat effete, and not quite able to wrap his lips around the letter r.
Michael Corleone’s seamless transformation from baby-faced college boy to hollow-eyed, brother-killing Don has been much celebrated, yet the first two Godfather films drew something from Pacino that’s rarely been tapped since: a regal stillness that evokes far more pity and terror than all the mugging and ranting that would later become his stock in trade. Though Michael does become a bit of screamer by Part II, all of his most tectonic scenes are quiet: when he announces his intentions to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey; when he plants the kiss of death on Fredo; when he wordlessly shuts the door on Kay, sealing her cruel exile from her children.
The first Godfather launched a magnificent run for Pacino: He was the puppyish wayfarer opposite Hackman in Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973), the heroic cop in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), and, in Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), he gave a stunningly complex performance as Sonny Wortzik, the ruined romantic who attempts a hapless bank robbery to secure funds for his lover’s sex change. The movie afforded a rare chance for Pacino to show his gifts as a physical comedian (just watch Sonny wrestle his rifle out of the box as the robbery commences). Dog Day Afternoon also proved that, more than any of his contemporaries, Pacino was willing to poke holes in the leading man’s armor of hetero-machismo, as he had in Scarecrow and The Local Stigmatic and would again as a New York cop investigating the gay S&M club scene in William Friedkin’s Cruising. (Maligned by critics and gay activists alike upon its first appearance in 1980, Cruising gets a select theatrical re-release on Sept. 7 and reaches DVD on Sept. 18.)
As was the case with many of his fellow ‘70s icons, Pacino saw his fortunes flag in the ‘80s, notwithstanding his turn as the eyebrow-flexing, cigar-wagging, chainsaw-defying psychopath known as Tony Montana. Pacino has indicated that Scarface is the film he’s most identified with, and the number of kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood who sport knee-grazing Tony Montana T-shirts would seem to bear this out. While Pacino has wicked fun with screenwriter Oliver Stone’s priapic bons mots (“This town is like a great big pussy, just waiting to get focked“), the cult of Montana set an unfortunate precedent. Pacino increasingly sought out big, shouty parts and then inflated them past their already outsized proportions: He out-Sataned Satan in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), spontaneously combusted at regular intervals in Two for the Money (2005), and imitated a disgruntled spaniel in this year’s Ocean’s Thirteen.
The victory of shtick over craft is disheartening. It’s important to remember, though, that the man is a populist, whether he’s communing with admirers outside the stage door or directing Looking for Richard, a film obsessed with making Shakespeare accessible to a mass audience. In Babbleonia, Pacino recounts seeing a performance of Paradise Now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a life-changing experience: “The audience became the theater; they were the event, they were the play.” This observation may be instructive: If, for Pacino, the audience is the thing, and the audience wants Cartoon Al, then Cartoon Al they shall have. (Oscar voters certainly did.)
And sometimes, big is best. Pacino is terrific in his films with Michael Mann, as the brilliant, voluble cop in Heat (1995) and the brilliant, voluble TV producer in The Insider (1999). A recent career highlight was prime-cut ham all the way. In Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of Angels in America (2003), right-wing attack dog Roy Cohn at last presented a character manic and outlandish and wildly contradictory enough to swallow up Al Pacino. But in the film’s most riveting scene, Cohn—in the last throes of AIDS and swooning with opiates—is mostly silent as his nurse (Jeffrey Wright) delivers a purring rebuke of the disgraced villain’s entire life: a vision of heaven where Cohn is nowhere to be found. It’s a stroke of genius to ask Al Pacino, of all people, to listen, to react, to efface himself. If only it could strike more often.