Why Al Pacino Matters

Al Pacino (front) with Robert De Niro and Ray Romano in The Irishman (Netflix)
Over the decades, through movies bad and good, he always makes the most of his part.

A  lot of movie stars are on the short side — Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dreyfuss. Despite being only about 5′8″, Paul Newman always managed to get himself described as “lanky.” Al Pacino is one of the few who always seemed shorter than they were. (About 5′7″, I think.) Maybe that was because Pacino always seemed to be fighting uphill, having to try harder than anyone else. Even in the Godfather pictures, he was the little squirt of the family. Until he wasn’t. He wouldn’t have been Michael Corleone if he had been tall and imposing.

Being compact has proved critical to Pacino’s success. His combustibility, his pugnaciousness, his scorching sarcasm, his intelligence, and his toughness all played off against his tortured hangdog eyes, his mild speech impediment in the early films, his vincibility. Along with Jack Nicholson, Pacino is the most essential American actor of his generation, endlessly watchable even in shameless-hambone mode, pumping electrifying craziness into his lines. Al Pacino has not always been blessed with great scripts but he always shows up for work. He pursues new variations on a theme. If nothing else, he makes you smile.

By contrast, consider a randomly chosen example such as, say . . . Robert De Niro. The two are frequently compared, but there is no comparison. De Niro ran out of acting ideas 30 years ago and has been coasting ever since. Viewers of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix film The Irishman, in which the two actors are costars for the third time, will observe that Pacino simply blows Robert De Niro off the screen. De Niro plays the acting equivalent of a prevent defense, falling back into a template of a generic tight-lipped, noncommittal tough guy. He fails to invest his character in The Irishman, a hit man who lives long enough to dissolve of old age, with any sense of regret or even acknowledgment of his many sins. It’s unclear whether this character has suffered any internal rebuke whatsoever for his lifetime of horrific acts. In his scenes with Pacino, De Niro gets reduced to “guy who is standing there” while Pacino bends the audience to his will, commands the mysterious forces of cinema to dance to his necromancy, provides a resounding answer to a question never before answered in movies, not even when Jack Nicholson played the role, which is: Why was Jimmy Hoffa such a big deal?

Pacino doesn’t write his movies but he chooses them, and they form a well-curated gallery. Romcoms like Author, Author! (1982) or historical epics like Revolution (1985) are not the norm. Often his roles seem to comment on each other, to harmonize, even to rhyme. In both Serpico (1973) and Carlito’s Way (1993), Pacino’s character opens the movie by being shot and rushed to the hospital in New York City, which sets up a flashback in which he enters a new landscape, runs afoul of the lawbreakers around him he is seeking to avoid, has a love affair with a dancer, receives bad advice from a seemingly knowledgeable friend (Tony Roberts, Sean Penn), incurs even more wrath, and gets shot by a nobody instead of by his more nefarious organized enemies.

In both movies, there is a dream of escaping Seventies New York balanced against the certainty that this will never happen. Offered a transfer in Serpico, Pacino’s title character replies, “To where, China?” “Escape to Paradise,” says the poster Pacino’s Carlito looks to helplessly after he’s been shot in Grand Central Terminal trying to flee the terrible city. The line Pacino made indelible in The Godfather, Part III, summed up not just Michael Corleone’s frustrations but Pacino’s screen persona: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Pacino is cursed, fallen Man, forever being bent to the will of forces larger than himself, which was the great theme of the greatest decade of movies.

Serpico was a cop and Carlito was a criminal, but that’s the Pacino persona: a bit cop, a bit criminal. In Insomnia (2002), his greatest film this century, he was a cop with a horrible secret — he killed a colleague by mistake, although his wrongdoing goes back further than that — whose inability to sleep is exacerbated by the 20-hour days in an Alaska summer. The sun serves as his conscience. It’s the light kept on in a prisoner’s cell. It tortures him and it illuminates his sins. Unlike the typical leading men who came before him (John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda) and unlike those who came after (Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Brad Pitt), Pacino (like other Seventies actors) hungered for roles that were morally stained and slightly out of control. Even in Heat, in which his expert cop is close to the ideal super-sleuth, he is such a bastard at home that he loses one wife, alienates another, and causes his stepdaughter to attempt suicide. The Pacino way is to expertly deride those who don’t understand him. When, as Heat’s Detective Vincent Hanna, he runs into trouble with his wife for not “sharing,” Pacino delivers this rebuke with flame-thrower sarcasm:

Oh, I see, what I should do is, ah, come home and say, “Hi honey! Guess what? I walked into this house today, where this junkie a**hole just fried his baby in a microwave, because it was crying too loud. So let me share that with you. Come on, let’s share that, and in sharing it, we’ll somehow, er, cathartically dispel all that heinous s**t.” Right?

We laugh, we’re frightened. We’re disgusted. We’re fascinated. We get the sense of ink-black truths being delivered by a man who knows what he’s talking about.

If the script pushed Pacino out of the gray areas and into mad-dog villainy, most notoriously in Scarface and The Devil’s Advocate, he made the cartoon glorious. Who else routinely came up with such memorable performances in bad movies? When big-screen roles petered out, he turned to the small screen, playing Roy Cohn and Joe Paterno and Phil Spector on HBO. The man loves to work. Here’s hoping for more roles as expansive as the one he has in The Irishman, in which Pacino’s Hoffa is funny and pathetic and weird and sardonic and dangerous all at the same time. The film’s de-aging technology presents us with a 40-years-younger version of Pacino and raises the possibility that many other older actors could step into roles meant for much younger characters. Cue Pacino’s Colonel Slade in Scent of a Woman: “I’m just gettin’ warmed up!”

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