It has been more than 30 years since Al Pacino gave his career-defining performance as cold blooded Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.” He radiated quiet danger the moment he appeared on screen without ever raising his voice or allowing his mouth to wrap its way around words and spit them out like venom.
While a one-two punch of “88 Minutes” and “Righteous Kill” slithers its way to theaters this year, audiences are reminded once again that one of the cinema’s all-time legends has immersed himself once again in either sub-par material or, as has become his cliche, the tendency to overreach and overact on his way to becoming a walking spoof of himself.
There was a time when Pacino was thought of as one of the greatest American actors in movies…period. His work in the 1970s was nothing short of sublime, with strong performances in “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Scarecrow,” the aforementioned sequel to Coppola’s study of La Cosa Nostra and “Dog Day Afternoon.” In the latter he gave his most electrifying and properly energized portrayal.
Along with many of the fresh-faced actors of the day, Pacino owned the decade. Sure he faltered with “Bobby Deerfield,” which meant he was not the type for romantic films…right? Or was this his limitations beginning to become apparent?
Though Oscar-nominated for “And Justice for All,” I feel that film was the beginning of the actor recognizing uncertainty in his character. He let the volume to go up, went wildly out of control, spittle shot from his mouth, and for whatever reason, people mistook this as great acting. IT’S NOT!!!!
Though I’m in the minority, I liked what he did in William Friedkin’s “Cruising” because he was challenging himself again, taking risks, which is what being a great actor is all about. Failure came his way again with the dreadful “Author! Author!,” which I am sure no actor could have saved, and then of course came “Scarface,” which at the time was torn to shreds by critics. Later re-discovered on video, the film now enjoys a classic status, bursting at the seems with a powerhouse Pacino portrayal. For just under three hours we see how power corrupts, and wretched excess causes the decay of the soul…it is an astounding piece of work from the actor, in fact.
He left the profession for a time after “Revolution,” the God-awful historical film directed by Hugh Hudson in which Pacino portrayed a Scotsman transplanted to America circa 1776 with a Bronx accent. He should have known better.
When he came back in 1988, something about his methods had changed…forever. “Sea of Love” was an okay thriller, while “Dick Tracy” was superb, as was his Oscar-nominated supporting performance. Yet in the years since, he has been giving us Big Boy Caprice a hundred times over, in film after film after film, only without the make-up.
Later that year he was in the film that does not exist in the world of John H. Foote: “The Godfather Part III.” It is never discussed on my planet, sorry. Suffice it to say the Michael at the beginning of this film bears no connection to the Michael from the previous two films. What were you thinking, dear Francis??
They would give him an Oscar for one of his worst (Hoo-ah!!) performances, in “Scent of a Woman,” while nominating him the very same year in the supporting category for “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But Oscar hasn’t come knocking since, despite the actor generating at least one deserving performance, in “Donnie Brasco,” in which the challenge of working with Johnny Depp seemed to bring out the best in the elder actor.
When one expects him to do strong work, he fails — such as in Michael Mann’s crime epic “Heat,” where the only time Pacino is not chewing scenery, wrapping his mouth around words, or going over the top is in his diner scene with Robert De Niro. De Niro’s choices as an actor seem to bring Pacino down to earth for a few fleeting minutes.
His performance as the Devil in “The Devil’s Advocate” was, frankly, embarrassing, and while watching it I found myself asking why the devil, this all-powerful evil being, would have to shout and yell every word he spoke. I interviewed Pacino and asked him this, in fact, to which he answered that he was going after decadence. That didn’t cut it for me, because Viggo Mortenson portrayed Satan in “The Prophecy” in 1996, barely spoke above a whisper, and was TERRIFYING. Pacino rolled his eyes, smiled large and of course boomed every word as though trying to reach the top seat in the Old Vic Theatre, giving not so much a performance as a demonstration of everything not to do when acting — which is of course, get caught acting!!
“City Hall” was not much different, as volume stood in for character, and then again in “Any Given Sunday,” “Chinese Coffee” and “The Recruit”. His work in “Gigli” is as unmentionable as the film, while “S1M0NE” is best forgotten. Anyone out there remember “Two Bits?” Thought not. And though his work as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” was a credit to his gifts for Shakespearean acting, was there not again a show of acting rather than an actor slipping into character?
With Robert De Niro now reduced to supporting roles in films like “Meet the Parents,” Pacino takes the role of the stock villain in “Ocean’s Thirteen,” does as expected, goes off the rails, all the while his co-stars may even consider it wonderful acting. While working with him on “Insomnia,” he asked Hilary Swank why she was so nervous. She responded, “Because you’re Al fucking Pacino!!” Supposedly he smiled and walked away.
Perhaps that is the major problem in his work, he has come to believe his own press, he has come to believe the critics who tag him the great American actor. It certainly ruined the work of Laurence Olivier in the early 1950s, when he was wrongly elevated to the heavens of the the craft by critics worldwide, and spent the bulk of his career proving he was not a great actor at all. Pacino was, and had he stopped making films after the 1970s, he would be forever considered one of the greats.