Tuesday 23 January 2018

Film: Just when you think he's out... Al Pacino's back in

Pacino's way: Al Pacino pictured in 1974, the same year the Godfather 11 was released, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Serpico.
Pacino's way: Al Pacino pictured in 1974, the same year the Godfather 11 was released, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Serpico.

Paul Whitington

At some point in the early 1990s, or so it seems to me, Al Pacino stopped acting in the sense of disappearing into different characters and began presenting us with various, amplified versions of himself. Which is not to say that he hasn't given some fine and entertaining performances over the last 20 years or so, because Al is the kind of actor who is never anything less than fascinating.

It's just that his late career has not included many of those famously intense and immersive method performances that made him famous in the first place. It was Pacino's electrifying work in films like The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon that established him as one of the two great screen actors of his generation (his friend Mr. De Niro being the other), but since the mid 2000s his film work has dwindled to a trickle.

These days you're more likely to find him holding forth at public interviews, 'An Evening with Al' events that cost up to €250 a ticket, or hosting intimate dinners for fans who pay €8,000 or thereabouts for the privilege of chowing down with the great man.

Hosting dinners for cash seems a sad end for such a great actor, but there are signs that the 75-year-old is currently staging a creative comeback. His portrayal of an emotionally catatonic locksmith in David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, which will open here over the summer, has been described by critics as his best and most measured performance in years, and his sensitive turn as an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown in The Humbling has also been widely praised. And then there's his absolutely irresistible work on Danny Collins, a cheesy but winning comic drama that opens here next Friday.

In it, Al plays ageing rocker Danny Collins, a music legend who was a major creative force back in the 1970s but has been phoning it in for years. Danny is about to marry his fourth trophy wife when he has a Damascus moment and decides to "make a few changes" in his life. This entails abandoning his Hollywood mansion for a Hilton Hotel in New Jersey, from which he stages a campaign to win over his blue collar, grown-up son, whom he's never known. He also woos a sceptical hotel manager called Mary (Annette Bening), whose no nonsense rebuttals of his slick chat-up routine do Danny a world of good.

Danny Collins is shamelessly manipulative and hopelessly clichéd, but Pacino's performance is so winning and charming that none of that matters very much. The wit and courage with which he sashays his way through Danny's slick, vacuous stage act is marvellous, and there's none of the roaring and bellowing for which Al has latterly become famous. Instead he watches and waits, listens to the other actors and gives a flimsily written character warmth, and heart.

It's heartening to see Al focusing his huge talent once again, and Danny Collins reminds you just how special and original a screen actor he is when he puts his mind to it. Pacino recently said that he "never intended to be a movie star," and he's sometimes seemed a most unlikely one. Short and dark and not conventionally handsome, Pacino was dismissed as a non-starter by Hollywood until Francis Ford Coppola insisted that Paramount cast him in The Godfather, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or as Al has put it, "it was all about pretty boys - then I came along".

Pacino has described his childhood as "complicated", and it was certainly pretty tough. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Italian-American parents who separated when he was two. He was raised by his mother, Rose, and his grandparents - by a strange coincidence, his grandfather James Gerardi hailed from the small Sicilian mountain town of Corleone.

He was a tear-away at school, where only two subjects held his interest - English, and drama. And as a teenager he began acting in basement plays and studying method techniques. But in 1962, just when he was beginning to find his feet as an actor, Al endured a crippling double blow.

"The lowest point of my life," he's said, "was losing my mother, Rose, and grandfather - they died within a year of each other. I was 22 and the two most influential people in my life had gone, so that sent me into a tailspin. I lost the 70s in a way…"

The 70s, of course, was Pacino's golden moment, but his sudden success did not seem to bring him happiness. "I felt as though I was shot out of a cannon because I became famous in a matter of minutes," he said recently, and has admitted that he spent much of that decade in an alcohol-fuelled haze.

His initial success had come on the Broadway stage, in plays like The Indian Wants the Bronx, and he was almost 30 when he made his screen debut. In 1971 he played a New York heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg's drama Panic in Needle Park, and the intensity of his performance was duly noted by Francis Ford Coppola.

He had recently been hired by Paramount to direct an adaptation of Mario Puzo's best-selling crime novel, The Godfather. And while the studio wanted wasp-ish stars like Warren Beatty or Ryan O'Neal for the key role of Michael Corleone, Coppola was looking for something more authentic. Pacino appealed to him because he was an unknown, and could approach the character with a clean slate. But the director also believed Al had a brooding, watchful quality that would be perfect for a tricky, demanding role.

Pacino was too short, said the studio, and not good-looking enough, but Coppola got his way. He was superb in a part that demanded a huge arc (see panel), and was only pipped to the Best Actor Oscar by his illustrious co-star, Marlon Brando. Al Pacino had arrived.

He probably should have won the Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and was electrifying in Sidney Lumet's gritty New York crime drama Serpico (1973). He earned nominations for both films, and another for his unforgettable portrayal of a nervy criminal who robs a bank to pay for his boyfriend's sex change operation in Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon.

Suddenly, he was Hollywood's most exciting young actor, but the cracks were already beginning to appear. At the start of the Dog Day Afternoon shoot, he told Lumet he couldn't play the part and left, and only returned when he heard the director had asked Dustin Hoffman to take over.

He became more and more exhausted as the decade wore on, and has said that being a movie star "wasn't on my agenda, and it came as a shock - I was a bit of a wild guy and I was living a life in this kind of explosion". He gave up alcohol in the late 70s, and gradually gained control of his film career.

He turned down an awful lot of big roles in his prime. "I gave that boy a career," he said recently, referring to Bruce Willis and Die Hard, a film he perhaps wisely declined. "You know who else I gave a career to? Harrison Ford. I was offered Star Wars, but I didn't understand the script."

After a brief slump in the early 1980s, Pacino exploded back into the popular consciousness playing a depraved Cuban gangster in Brian De Palma's baroque 1983 crime thriller Scarface.

I'm not sure that's one of his finest performances, but through the 1980s and 90s there'd be plenty of good ones, in films like Sea of Love (1989), Carlito's Way (1993), Donnie Brasco (1997) and The Insider (1999). He retreated to the stage frequently to recharge his creative batteries, and in 1996 made a lovely little film called Looking for Richard, in which he demonstrated his enduring love of Shakespeare.

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That film, and his rousing portrayal of flashy salesman Ricky Roma in the 1992 movie adaptation of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross give some idea of his electrifying presence on stage. And one of my favourite Pacino scenes comes in Michael Mann's 1995 thriller Heat, in which he and Robert De Niro share a rare and wonderful moment together on-screen.

It was around that time that the whole "Hoo-ha!" over-acting Al began to emerge, but the funny thing is that even in films as bad as City Hall (1996) and The Devil's Advocate (1997) he was still hugely entertaining. The work he's doing now is the best he's done in a long time, and watching Danny Collins is a bit like listening to a great but jaded singer suddenly rediscovering his voice.

At 75, Al has nothing to prove, but when he's on his game, there's no one like him.

Becoming a gangster

In a sense Al Pacino had the hardest job in the Godfather films because his character, Michael Corleone, was the one with the steepest arc. Primarily a theatre actor, Pacino had acted in just a couple of low-budget films when he arrived on Francis Ford Coppola's New York location set to begin work, and must have known that Paramount were deeply sceptical about his involvement. But he made the character of Michael so vivid and believable that he even managed to hold his own against the irresistible, scene-stealing force of Marlon Brando.

At the start of The Godfather, Michael is the apple of his father's eye, a college kid and war hero who's never had anything to do with the family 'business'. Michael has high ideals, and hopes for a legitimate future, but all of that changes when Vito Corleone is shot and incapacitated. The trauma of that event reveals Michael's true nature, and it soon becomes obvious he's the Corleone family's leader in waiting.

Pacino brought a brooding, Shakespearean power to The Godfather, and was even better in the 1974 sequel, dominating a film in which Michael's heart is further hardened as he ruthlessly expands the Corleone empire.

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