When he was a young man, Al Pacino, a dreadfully handsome troublemaker and high school dropout, was often homeless. He sometimes slept on the stage at HB Studio, where he was studying and performing. The aspiring actor had ambitions but not many means. He took work as a busboy, a switchboard operator, and a mailroom clerk for Commentary Magazine. He was cheerful and hard-working, with an unbridled energy and, despite his circumstances, a pertinacious optimism. “I didn’t walk to work,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I leapt to work.”
Born in East Harlem and raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in the south Bronx (his grandparents were, funny enough, from a Sicilian town called Corleone), he went by the nickname Sonny, and was called “The Actor” by friends and family due to his penchant for performing scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which he saw when he was five. “Borderline shy,” by his own admission, Pacino lived in his imagination, seeking solace in the darkness of the cinema. (Before he pursued a career in acting, he wanted to be a baseball player, a natural inclination when one grows up in the Bronx.) When Pacino was two, his father abandoned him and his mother, and one feels this absence lingering over his most famous performances like an unanswered question. He regularly plays solitary men, professionals dedicated to their work, men whose family lives are a shambles, or whose families are their life. Think of Frank Serpico, twitchy-eyed and bushy bearded, uttering, “If I could just work alone, if I could just work alone…”
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, maybe the great father-son film of the New Hollywood era, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the good son who turns into a vindictive gangster, to his father’s immense disappointment. When he takes over the family business, Michael exudes a ruthlessness that his old man disavowed. Freud talked of men wanting to kill their fathers to become them, but Michael breaks his father’s heart and becomes someone else, someone increasingly craven, a man slowly slipping into evil. He loses his soul in his search for power. Watch Pacino, hair shellacked and slick, as black as crude oil, as he grabs his brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), and notice the vehemence in his eyes as he says, “You broke my heart.” He looks as though he could tear Fredo’s face off right there.
Though Marlon Brando was the ostensible star of the first Godfather—it’s his sullen and sapiential face that adorns the poster, and he who took home an Oscar—the trilogy really belongs to Pacino’s Michael. It’s the story of a man whose potential for greatness transmogrified into evil, slowly and heartbreakingly—of the college boy, the war hero, following not in his father’s footsteps, but in a disfigured image of his shadow. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting throws upon Michael a visual dichotomy, half basked in golden light and half shrouded in shadows. As The Godfather progresses, he veers increasingly into darkness until he emerges, alone, into an autumn afternoon, left to ponder his iniquitous decisions.
Despite the composed, sometimes phlegmatic demeanor of Michael Corleone, that simmering indolence and careful elocution, something seethes behind his eyes: a sufferance for violence. All of Pacino’s great characters have the potential to hurt or maim or kill, usually out of necessity or a particular sense of pragmatism—a rarefied dangerousness. Pacino has a tragic air about him. One feels it in his stare: an overcompensation for some unuttered anxiety or self-doubt in all that shouting that typifies much of his raspy-voiced later work. There’s a protean quality to Pacino’s acting. Like his great characters, these unrelenting professionals, he isn’t unwilling to do what’s necessary: to explode when his instincts command him to, to recede into placidity when the scene calls for it. Bespoke or bedraggled, garbed in elegant suits or a leather vest, he emanates a peculiar masculinity, a kind of vulnerability.
From 1971 to 1976, Pacino had a run of performances that boggles the mind—in Jerry Schatzberg’s A Panic in Needle Park, the two Godfather films, and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Each performance has become enshrined in the American cinema canon. In these roles, one finds a man mining the depths of masculine fragility, finding ways to express pain, desperation, and egomania that didn’t adhere to the cinematic image of the drug addict, the criminal, and the gangster. In Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, from 1973, Pacino finds not only the juvenility in a former sailor, but a kind of heartbreak disguised as juvenility. The actor’s Francis is a man of tenuous mental and emotional stability, who suffers tragedy, has a mental breakdown, and lapses into catatonia. There’s nothing gimcrack or stereotypical about Pacino’s embodiment of mental illness; it’s empathetic and earnest.
In the ’80s, Pacino did more controversial fair, notably as a cop infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in William Friedkin’s salacious and invidious Cruising, and as the bombastic, cocaine-huffing megalomaniac Tony Montana, a sort of Michael Corleone type without the discipline, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. While Scarface has become embedded in the pop-culture lexicon for its riotous ending and the way Pacino holds that grenade launcher as if it were a lover, Cruising, chopped up by Friedkin in post-production to avoid an X rating, remains the more fascinating, epochal piece of lurid pulp. It’s with great empathy and curiosity that Pacino approaches the role of an undercover cop, slowly slipping into the faux-identity that’s been created for him.
In the ’90s, Pacio began to craft his own caricature, though he didn’t succumb to it. He extrapolated all that incendiary indignation, that despair and loneliness, into something resembling a stark-raving lunatic, men of profound desperation. This is the Pacino most often parodied, and most unfairly maligned. In Michael Mann’s almost-three-hour opus Heat, he married his contemplative sadness and his proclivity for erupting into voluble paroxysms. “Cause she’s got a great ass!” bellows his Vincent Hanna, an L.A.P.D. lieutenant, to a loose-lipped police officer who, after finding out he let slip sensitive information, wants to know how he got mixed up with a duplicitous phone sex worker. Hanna’s eyes go wide, his mouth like a great hungry O. His hands cup the hypothetical hindquarters. It brings to mind Whitman’s phrase “a barbaric yawp.” Then, he adds, “Ferocious, aren’t I?” as an aside, as if the other cops in the room are the audience to his Looney Tunes act.
That scene, in all its histrionics, is the apogee of Pacino’s shouting period, which began around the time of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which he played a corporeal cartoon character, Big Boy Caprice, and reached a fever pitch when he played John Milton, the head of a chthonic law firm in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate. But whereas those two outlandish roles presented Pacino with the opportunity to chew scenery with wanton relish, to go full-on hammy villain, his turn in Heat is, for all its ferocity, a deeply sad performance, an ongoing act of contrition. His eyes are wreathed by bags, sunken in from so many sleepless nights. There’s an ashen languor to his face. Vociferous and volatile, with that underlying hint of fragility, his Hanna is one of those cops who’s dedicated to his job, whose life revolves around his vocation. He carries his badge as Sisyphus does his boulder. (Pacino admitted, two decades later, that Hanna has a cocaine habit, which helps explain why he’s so labile, so clamorous. He needs the spark, the rousing scintilla, of each line setting his brain on fire, to keep him going.)
Later in Mann’s film, during a moment of tender resignation, Pacino’s character elucidates on why he harbors so much pain, why he keeps his work so close. “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp”—he snaps his fingers—“on the edge”—snap—“where I gotta be.” The timing and rhythm of this delivery is precise, as exact and measured as any stratagem crafted by the career criminals he’s chasing, yet Pacino exudes a certain fluidity, a certain malaise, as if the words are just seeping out of him.
Heat earned pre-release notoriety for featuring the first shared screen time between Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the ire of some fans who were disappointed by the reticent badinage that comprises their much-hyped meeting. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna confides to De Niro’s Neil McCauley, “because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” The scene represents the most low-key acting either performer had done in some time—just two professionals tersely chatting, making small talk that is, they know, infused with ominous warnings, like milk into coffee. “Brother,” Hanna says, calm and assured, “you are going down.”
For his second collaboration with Mann, 1999’s The Insider, Pacino dialed it back down and returned to a recurring theme of his work: struggling with the moral quandaries of professional men trying to do the job. There’s Frank Serpico and Vincent Hanna, Michael Corleone, Steve Burns in Cruising, the burned-out—but still, in his way, quite suave—detective Frank Keller in Harold Becker’s Sea of Love from 1989, and Will Dormer trying to navigate the sunlit brume in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia. Even Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, a despairing, broken-faced man driven to extremes, fits into this pattern, though his motivation is one of love, not professionalism.
What, then, to make of the last two decades of Pacino’s career—that period during which he made an appearance in Martin Brest’s legendarily bad Gigli, starred in a bevy of police procedural detritus, and gave a surreal performance as an ersatz version of himself in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill? As the pathetic, last-gasp salesman Shelley in a 2012 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, Pacino acted with what Ben Brantley called “the exaggerated pantomiming of a boozy player in a late-night charades game,” which is to say he wasn’t great. Yet, when he appeared in Mamet’s film version, in 1992, he earned an Oscar nod for his sleazy Ricky Roma, a chicanerous smooth-talker.
It’s not that he’s lost the ability to act: Despite potential “comeback” roles as the eloquently flustered Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and as an aging actor struggling with dementia in the Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, both directed by Barry Levinson, and as a lonely keymaker in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s been relegated to VOD titles like Misconduct and Hangman. No, Pacino still has the chops; he just doesn’t appear in films that deserve them. Pacino’s is one of the great, flummoxing careers of American actors. He’s a profoundly talented, hard-working thespian whose ungrudging sense of explosiveness sometimes deviates into empty grandstanding, and who’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision. In the final moments of Heat, as De Niro’s robber lays slain before Hanna, the thief manages, for his final words, “I told you I’m never going back.” Hanna, exhausted, victorious but not triumphant, intones, simply, “Yeah.”
Pacino’s Way runs at the Quad from March 14—29.