Thursday, June 20, 2013

A look at the career of Al Pacino...

Earlier this month, when I saw that the acting school subject for June was Al Pacino, I pretty much resigned to myself that I was going to write a piece about how his star has fallen.  Not just fallen, but crashed, burned out, crumbled and been raked into the grass and covered over by fertilizer.  Al Pacino is one of those revered actors who has become somewhat of a punching bag in his later career thanks to his constant hamming for attention and his ridiculous film choices.  He's still showered with affection and accolades thanks to his television work, but when he takes on yet another 'old guys with guns' theatrical bomb or plays himself alongside Adam Sandler in drag the world dies a little and we continue to remember why so few take him seriously anymore.  What is sad about this truth is that the younger generation of movie watchers are not seeing this man in his prime and so it becomes easier and easier to dismiss his talents or his contribution to cinema in general.  

This is where I come into play because I fell into this group for a while.  For years I considered Al Pacino one of those overrated thespians who rested on a blockbuster to carry his name and considered his talents marginal at best.  Yes, he starred in 'The Godfather' films and yet it was easy to attribute their success to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, especially since the third film, which rested solely on his shoulders, is seen by many as a disappointment.  Judging the man solely on those three films and his 90's output, I was pretty confident in my assessment.  

Why did anyone defend him?

And then I stumbled across a small indie gem entitled 'Panic in Needle Park' and I was completely blown away by a young Al Pacino (in one of his first screen roles) and the fluidity that he developed in this chaotic and heart-wrenching look at addiction.  I didn't believe what I was seeing.  Then I saw, for the first time, 'Dog Day Afternoon', a marvelous film that is anchored with severe focus but Mr. Pacino.  That closing scene alone, the elongated shot of his body resting against the police car, is enough to give me chills even today.

This is where I came to realization that an uneducated opinion of an actor's career makes you sound ignorant, mostly because you are.  Many thought me ignorant as I was constantly berating those who claimed Pacino was an acting giant worthy of our respect.  How could that guy who runs around screaming and yelling at everyone be a legend and master of his craft?  

And yet I question, was I really all that ignorant?

You see, I still stand behind my current opinion that Pacino has gotten lazy.  His output over the past two decades has been spotty at best.  Still, this cannot and will never erase the fact that he pretty much owned the 70's.  His tendency to mug the screen for attention will never overpower the amount of charisma, charm and honest emotional presence he brought to his early work.

But this opinion leaves me rather conflicted.  I will be the first to admit that I am still 'discovering' Al Pacino.  I have yet to see some of his lauded work, such as 'Scarecrow', 'Serpico' and '...And Justice for All' and so maybe I'm not in a position to make this claim, but wouldn't a strong response to his early work and a negative reaction to nearly three decades of work constitute the opinion that he was a flash in the pan, and not a true legend?  As you can tell, I'm torn here.  Notice my initial idea for this post was to tear his career to shreds and yet I deferred to trying to honor his past and yet now I'm coming almost full circle, or maybe it's a compromise.  I'm meeting myself in the middle here.

You see, Al Pacino is one of those actors who has created a caricature of himself and has lazily fallen into pretty much repeating this character for the majority of his film roles.  His iconic 'Hoo-ah' from his largely considered undeserving Oscar winning performance has become this benchmark to judge his acting.  He has basically played a variation of his very performance over and over since 1992.  Between his hamming it up in 'Scent of a Woman', 'Heat', 'The Devil's Advocate', 'Glengarry Glen Ross' and 'Any Given Sunday', slumming it completely in anything made in the 2000's and pretty much phoning it in in 'Carlito's Way', 'Insomnia' and 'Sea of Love' I'm let wondering what to make of this career.  I mean, even when he's turned in admirable work in the 90's (such as in 'Donnie Brasco', 'The Insider' and 'Frankie and Johnny') he wound up being severely outshined by his co-stars.

I thought about making a 'Top Ten' list to honor the strength of Pacino's early career, and yet I found that my list was made up of the three Godfather films (the third being a throwaway), the two aforementioned 70's gems and some good yet forgettable turns in films better remembered for other reasons.

After all this, I'm on the fence with my feelings towards Pacino.  I feel it would be a shame for the highlights of his career to be overlooked, ignored or completely forgotten thanks to the sham his career has become, and yet when looking over his accomplishments I'm still left expecting more from a man who has eight Oscar nominations, winning for one of them.  Standing alongside other acclaimed actors of his generation like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro (both of which have sadly become walking caricatures as well), I can't help but consider Pacino the lesser since his consistency and range is questionable.

Where's Marlon Brando when you need him?


  1. Great post. Pacino is a fine actor, especially his early work. I haven't seen Panic in Needle Park yet, but his '70s run is quite something. He's great in Serpico, and his final speech in ...And Justice for All alone makes it worth a look. I actually think Pacino redeemed himself with Insomnia, but his theatrical work has dwindled in quality. I'm still discovering him too, though. I also need to see Donnie Brasco, Any Given Sunday, and Scarecrow, among others.

    1. I kind of hated Insomnia, so maybe that shaded my reception of his work. The last great thing I saw him do was Donnie Brasco.

  2. Al Pacino has a lifetime pass for me, simply due to Dog Day Afternoon. That performance is just so amazing to me. I haven't seen a lot of his worst work (like the Adam Sandler film), so my opinion on him is based on his fantastic early roles and recent TV work.