Early in the HBO movie Phil Spector—long before Al Pacino waddles on screen in a fat suit and a fright wig—Linda Kenney Baden, the beleaguered defense attorney played by Helen Mirren, whips a 45 record out of her handbag and asks a young legal assistant if he knows what it is. Aware that he’s failing this test no matter what he says, the young man gulps and answers, “Something to do with an early computer?”
Mirren thrusts the vinyl at the kid in frustration. “Put it on your keychain, it’s a piece of the past!” The point has been made: Spector, about to be tried for killing struggling actress Lana Clarkson with a gun in his Los Angeles home, isn’t likely to get any kind of Great Man bump with the jurors, because the world in which Spector was great no longer exists.
The magnetism of Pacino’s presence as Spector has little to do with what Pacino is actually doing on screen in David Mamet’s movie, which is a mix of his Oscar-winning showboating from Scent of a Woman—all loud-quiet-loud renditions of unhurried, integrity-of-a-madman monologues wrapped in ostentatious cosmetics and physical business—and the dead-eyed rage of Vincent Hanna from Heat. But Pacino is cast perfectly—on purely meta grounds.
A short, identifiably Italian Method actor who grew up broke in the Bronx, Pacino became one of the biggest Hollywood stars and even sex symbols of the 1970s—a blossoming that was as transformative for American pop culture as it was for him personally. With the unparalleled run of the first two Godfather movies, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon—all of them released in a three-year period—Pacino was as integral to the look, feel and message of 1970s American cinema as Spector was to 1960s pop. But Pacino, like Spector, is long removed from his synchronicity with the zeitgeist. Is Pacino, too, hopelessly a “piece of the past,” or can he find his way back to the center of the culture?
The actor first struggled to find his footing in the late 1970s and early 1980s; as Hollywood and its audience shifted into the blockbuster-friendly Reagan ‘80s, Pacino pushed a fascination with murky moral middle-grounds into risky fare such as Cruising (1980) and Scarface (1983). Both of those movies play today like time capsules of their era; in their actual era, audiences didn’t get them. Then came Hugh Hudson’s Revolution (1985), a massive disaster which sent a wounded Pacino into retreat. He quit making movies for four years, only coming back to star in Sea of Love (1989) because, as he’s frequently admitted, he needed the money. That film is half naturalistic character study, half lurid neo-noir, and it gave Pacino—by then nearly 50 and looking his age on-screen for the first time—a chance to embody the essence of broke-down late-‘80s New York.
Sea of Love was a hit, and three years later, the one-two punch of Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman cemented Pacino’s comeback. But the cultural climate he was coming back to was very different from the one he dominated in the mid-‘70s, as the voice and face of male angst in rotten America. Over the past 20 years, Pacino has done some great work in good films—think his Michael Mann collaborations Heat and The Insider, or his previous HBO joints Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack—but more often, he’s drifted into self-parody apparently for a paycheck.
Pacino’s career has long seemed to run on a parallel track to that of Robert DeNiro, and while there’s no shortage of apparent money-grubbing laurel-resting on the young Vito Corleone’s resume, De Niro has shown more agility with reinvention. His recent return to Academy approval, cultural vitality, and general respect via his supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook suggests a kind of savvy that it’s hard to imagine present-day Pacino exhibiting, as well as workmanlike humility. DeNiro’s work in Silver Linings proves that he can take and play a role that a lot of other actors could play. When was the last time Pacino played anything but Pacino?
Even when he’s tried to exhibit self-awareness, Pacino has done it in the absolutely least cool way conceivable, namely his Razzie-winning role as “Al Pacino” in Jack and Jill. My book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor, out in May, concludes with a chapter on that film, which is not by any means good, but is absolutely crucial to any conversation about Pacino’s late career. The version of “himself” that Pacino plays is a fairly ingenious blend of who Pacino actually is, and the distortions that surround his (or any long-term celebrity’s) legacy. And yet, on IMDb, his participation in Jack and Jill is categorized not under “Actor” but under “Self,” suggesting that his part, which is essentially a third lead behind the two characters played by Adam Sandler, is as much a “performance” as the one-scene cameo put in by Jared from Subway. Pacino’s “Al Pacino” is the actor’s most thoughtful comic performance since his turn as a charismatic Satan in The Devil’s Advocate, and he literally doesn’t get any credit for it.
Watching Pacino’s Spector wandering around his castle sputtering out stream-of-conscious monologues about conspiracies and the Kennedys and Lenny Bruce, I wondered: Is Pacino consciously going through the motions of past performances, rehearsing the vocal tics and the staccato conductor’s hands, because like a dinosaur rock band on their umpteenth reunion tour, he thinks we came to see the greatest hits? Or is he just being realistic about being a relic? Having achieved greatness more than his share of times, is he now spent—has he lost the ability or even the impulse to do anything new? As Spector, he talks about wanting to retire after having worked with the Beatles: “I’d done it,” he says. “What more was there left for me to do?”
Sadly, Pacino isn’t given opportunity to do much in Mamet’s movie. For all of his recognizable external tics, he’s always been essentially an internal actor: The “bigness,” and particularly its interplay with silence and reflection, are the manifestations, or translations, of feeling and thinking into visible action, to show onscreen what’s happening in a character’s mind and heart. But Phil Spector is not about what its title character is thinking and feeling; it’s about his lawyer’s struggle to manage the perception of Spector.
Near the end of the movie—spoiler alert, I guess—Kenney Baden makes a snap decision in the courtroom to not allow Spector to take the stand. She’s afraid to let him take control of his own narrative—even though she seems to believe he’s innocent—because she doesn’t have faith that he could stop being a weirdo long enough to speak his truth in a way that normal people would respond to. This film, and any film that showcases Pacino on greatest-hits autopilot, is essentially exhibiting the same fear, robbing the actor of the opportunity to show off his immense gift (at one time, the greatest in movies) for letting us in on his subjectivity. We get just a flash of that gift in Spector, in a single shot of his reaction to the news that he won’t be allowed to testify. It’s just a few seconds, but it verges on heartbreaking, and it made me wonder if that’s how Pacino himself feels, pumping out endless variations on the trademarked Pacino Wall of Sound.