Why has one of cinema's greatest actors descended into self-parody?by David Wolf / February 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
There is a peculiar difference between great acting in film and great acting on stage. Film has the unique power to create a figure who is not quite real, not quite fictional: the movie star. “An exemplary stage performance is one which, for a time, most fully creates a character,” wrote Stanley Cavell in his philosophical study of film, The World Viewed. “An exemplary screen performance is one in which, at a time, a star is born. After The Maltese Falcon we know a new star, only distantly a person. ‘Bogart’ means ‘the figure created in a given set of films.’… If those films did not exist, Bogart would not exist, the name “Bogart” would not mean what it does.”
In 1971, when the cameras rolled for the first day of filming on The Godfather, Al Pacino did not exist. He was 31, cocky, nervous, and virtually unknown. Francis Ford Coppola had fought hard to cast him in the central role of Michael, the son of Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone. No one else wanted Pacino for the part. He was a theatre actor, with only one major film credit to his name. Casting director Fred Roos thought Pacino was just “this sort of runty little guy.” Paramount’s head of production, Robert Evans, referred to him as “that little dwarf.”
For the first few weeks of filming, Pacino thought he was going to be fired. When the executives at Paramount saw early footage, they complained that his performance was so understated it barely looked like acting at all. “When is he going to do something?” they asked. It wasn’t until they saw the scene in which Pacino shoots the drug trafficker Sollozzo and the police captain McCluskey that they relaxed. He could do boiling intensity (although in The Godfather the lid always remains on), as well as cool inscrutability.
Re-watching The Godfather in 2014—now screening as part of the British Film Institute’s two-month Al Pacino season—after three decades of messy, collect-the-paycheck performances, Pacino’s subtlety is striking. It is a supremely controlled, confident performance. The Godfather was released in March 1972 and it was an instant hit. Pacino was a star. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that his stardom began to eat away at his acting.
Pacino was born in 1940 in East Harlem…