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 and grew up in the South Bronx, raised by his mother and grandparents. In interviews, he presents a tough, romantic vision of his childhood: schoolyard fights, parental curfews to keep him out of trouble, nights on the roof listening to his Sicilian immigrant grandfather tell stories of New York in the 1900s. At school, Pacino was not a good student. He began smoking at nine and drinking when he was 13. He quit school at 16 and worked odd jobs—supermarket checkout, furniture removal, shoe shining, a stint doing admin at Commentary magazine. (“Al was an excellent office boy,” recalled Norman Podhoretz some years later.)
By the time he was 19, Pacino had saved enough money to join acting school. There he met his future mentor, the actor and director Charlie Laughton, who introduced Pacino to the world of theatre. Pacino’s next decade was shaped by Laughton and another father-figure: Lee Strasberg, artistic director of the Actors Studio drama school, the man who had smuggled Method acting into Hollywood. Strasberg taught generations of American actors, from James Dean to Dustin Hoffman, to draw on personal experience in order to connect with their characters. They were not to simply speak the lines, they had to feel them. The aim was for actors to achieve a new kind of emotional authenticity, in contrast to the more mannered “English style” associated with Gielgud and Olivier. Strasberg and Laughton taught Pacino to see acting as a serious art, a view which he has always sincerely affirmed in interviews, if not always in his performances.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Pacino began to attract attention for his theatre work and soon he was receiving movie offers. In 1971 he took the lead role in Jerry Schatzberg’s unsentimental portrayal of heroin addiction in New York, The Panic in Needle Park (with a screenplay by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion). This was the first in the extraordinary run of films—The Godfather, Scarecrow, Serpico, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon—that made his name.
Pacino’s timing was perfect. By the end of the previous decade traditional Hollywood had run out of steam. In its place emerged a new breed of movie, starting with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967), which were driven by ambitious directors rather than the studios. These films were more violent, more sexually explicit, more realistic than before. As the film scholar James Morrison writes in Hollywood Reborn, the New Hollywood “reflected the popular disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate by demystifying the legacy of the Old Hollywood, debunking longstanding genres and exposing the mythologies that had previously sustained them.”
Alongside these new films came stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Pacino. These were actors who didn’t look like actors—or at least not like leading men. Pacino was short, with a hooked nose and intense, slightly crazed eyes. (“The first thing I noticed about Al was his nose. It was long like a cucumber,” wrote Diane Keaton in her memoir Then Again. “The second thing I noticed was the kinetic way he moved. He seemed nervous.”) He couldn’t pronounce his r’s properly. None of this was a problem.
Innocence and vulnerability are central to Pacino’s repertoire in his early films. His performances, even as a heroin addict in The Panic in Needle Park, have a bouncy, artless quality to them. From film to film, he often looks like he’s about to break into a smirk. There’s a childlike note to these performances that hovers just a few degrees from volatility, the way a child’s happiness can easily explode into tears or tantrums. It’s this fragile balance between innocence and violence that makes him so compelling as the drifter “Lion” in Scarecrow, as the incorruptible cop in Serpico or as the inept bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon. (One of his best performances of the 1990s, in Donnie Brasco, draws upon some of the same qualities, filtered through his character’s lifetime of disappointment.)
From the tedious Bobby Deerfield (1977) onwards, Pacino’s performances rarely matched those early ones. The films were less good, and Pacino himself often seemed tired, unable to find the electricity that animated his earlier roles. The 1980s began with two flops: William Friedkin’s exploration of New York’s gay S&M scene, Cruising, and the family comedy Author! Author! (Has a star ever appeared consecutively in two more incongruous films?) And Pacino followed his exhilarating performance in Scarface (1983) with the worst film of his career, Hugh Hudson’s self-important historical drama, Revolution. The reaction from critics and the public was savage. Pacino plays “an alleged Scottish immigrant but every time he opens his mouth he sounds like Chico Marx with a head cold,” wrote David Denby in New York magazine. The film cost $28m to make and earned a total of $358,574 in the US. Pacino slunk away from the big screen for the next four years, taking theatre roles instead and working on The Local Stigmatic, a short film that he didn’t release to the public until 2007.
Actors like to think that they get better as they go on. In most cases, they don’t. “I’m just at that beginning,” said Pacino in 1977. “I’m just beginning to understand what technique is.” But acting is not a pursuit where more knowledge and experience necessarily make for better work. Like novelists, actors can peak long before their career ends. Their success depends partly on talent, partly on luck, and partly on their connection to the moment. If Pacino was 1970s American cinema—playing men “whose divided natures embodied the confusion and ambiguity of modern American life,” as Karina Longworth says in Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor—then it is not surprising that he struggled to find a place for himself in the following decade, as Hollywood turned away from the challenging films of the previous decade in order to embrace the more comforting pleasures of franchises like Indiana Jones and Star Wars. (Pacino’s peers, De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Hoffman, fared slightly better in the 80s, but were no longer at the centre of things.)
Since the saxophone-drenched thriller Sea of Love (1989), most of Pacino’s performances have fallen into two loose categories: shouters and sleepwalkers. Into the former category go those films in which Pacino delivers BIG performances—yelling, whispering, taking bizarre pauses mid-sentence, and squeezing new syllables out of words such as “cop” and “fuck.” Scent of a Woman (1992), Heat (1995) and his cameo in Gigli (2003) are classic shouters. Sleepwalkers, such as Insomnia (2002) and Stand Up Guys (2012), are those films where Pacino aims for something subtler, but ends up without a character at all. This isn’t entirely his fault. In his best performances Pacino inhabits his characters, but in most of the sleepwalkers, the characters he’s playing are not habitable. They are dramatically barren.
Pacino was once asked what he thought about Tom Cruise as an actor. “Tom Cruise is a movie star, which is a whole other category,” he replied. This uneasiness with stardom haunts Pacino’s career. He returns again and again to the theatre as if to purge himself of his movie-star status, and every so often he swerves away from mainstream films in order to direct sweetly eccentric docudramas about Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Yet despite his protestations, he has not avoided the traps of stardom. His fame makes it impossible to “disappear” into his roles, and his success means that he has the power to choose his characters and play them any way he likes. No one says no. Discussing the dangers of overacting, he told an interviewer in 2005 that there are some roles he has done “where I cringe. I thought I went too far,” and he praised director Michael Radford for reining in his performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). This is not something, the interview implies, that directors often have the courage to do. It is easier for actor and director alike to repeat what’s worked in the past. In Anatomy of an Actor, Karina Longworth quotes a 2004 interview in which “Pacino was asked if he’s ever had a director say, ‘Give me more Pacino.’ The actor responded with a roar. ‘Yeaaaah. That has happened, yes.’”
Yet the tell-tale sign of Pacino’s talent is that even at his most excessive, he is never boring. In The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Pacino gives the maximum Pacino. But the film burrows deeper than it knows into the mysteries of acting. Pacino is more believable as the devil than Keanu Reeves is at playing a human being. To watch him alongside Reeves is a palpable reminder that screen presence is something real.
This year, Pacino will turn 74. He seems resigned to the idea that his best performances are behind him. In an endearingly honest 2005 interview, he told his biographer Lawrence Grobell that, “Acting comes more naturally to me [than conversation]. Or used to. I don’t know… now bullshitting comes more natural to me.” Maybe this is inevitable for a star of a certain age. De Niro and Nicholson have been performing themselves onscreen for years. For Pacino (as for Nicholson and De Niro), this hardly matters—his status is secure. The lousy performances fade in our memories, while the best ones have a luminous afterglow.
The BFI ‘s Al Pacino season runs from now until 20th March