By John H. Foote
There was a time he was the most electrifying actor in movies, his performances earning raves from the nations film critics, legions of fans following his work, his peers celebrating his artistry, from film audiences around the globe. In the seventies his work was astounding, seeing him nominated for four consecutive Academy Awards, his loss for The Godfather Part II (1974) one of the great injustices in Academy history. We looked forward to his films because we were likely to see something exceptional, something new to the art of acting.
He loved to challenge himself, which in part, began what took him out of favor with his audiences, but he always managed to bounce back. The dreary love story Bobby Deerfield (1977) was the first film to showcase his limitations as an actor, and there are very few after which did the same. The comedy, well it was advertised as such, Author! Author! (1982) marked a low point in his career but he rebounded with Scarface (1983) which critics killed but audiences loved, re-discovering the film on video. Audiences were electrified by Scarface (1983), the sleek look of the film, that pulsing electronic score, like a heartbeat, and Pacino, seething with ambition, hate and rage as a drug lord who wants it all. Wretched excess was what would end Tony Montana, in a ferocious hail of bullets. Bathed in blood, the ran afoul of the censors for the famous chainsaw sequence, but at the centre of it all was that huge, superb Pacino performance, discussed at length to this day.
His next film was nearly a career killer.
Revolution (1985) was a massive historical epic directed by Hugh Hudson, one of the most critically reviled (and expensive) films of the decade, which was a huge flop. Pacino was hammered for his wandering Scottish brogue tinged with that Bronx accent he made so famous, sounding like what he was, a New York actor attempting a Scottish accent. It was, frankly, embarrassing. Stunned by the reaction to the film, he left movies, heading back to the stage.
Something happened to his acting in the time in between because when he came back to films. His work was broader, louder, hammier, often wildly over the top, and did I say louder?
It worked beautifully in Dick Tracy (1990) but not in other films such as The Godfather Part III (1990), a pale shadow of the previous films, and for his wildly over the top shouting, they gave him a freaking Oscar for Scent of a Woman (1992)!! So yes, in essence the Academy rewards bad acting!
Since 1992, he has given perhaps three strong performances, the best, Donnie Brasco (1997) a haunting and powerful piece of acting. But he has also become a caricature of himself, an industry joke, known more for shouting and his bug-eyed performances than anything else. The lowest he sank, and he has been mighty low, was playing himself in an Adam Sandler film. Why? What could have possibly possessed him to do such a film?
What frustrates me is that he was lethally brilliant in the seventies and part of the eighties. Brilliant. Now, he is not. Plain and simple, his best work is long past him. The other greats that emerged in the seventies, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman, Dern, even De Niro to a lesser extent continued doing fine work after the seventies, and not one of them became what Pacino did. There have been flashes of his genius in Angels in America (2003), Spector (2013) and You Don’t Know Jack (2013), no question, but by and large, unless you go back, way back, you will not recognize his genius.
Understand, I am rating his performances, not the films, and I so not include his documentaries about adapting plays to the stage, Looking for Richard (1995) and Salome (2010).
His ten greatest are…
- CRUISING (1980)
A surprise choice perhaps but look deeper than the surface. This is a tough, uncompromising film which takes an undercover cop into the world of S and M gay sex. When a serial killer starts slaughtering young men with a certain look, Steve (Pacino) is assigned to go deep undercover and get him. What he does not expect is how this bizarre world of sweaty, muscled men draws him in. By the end we are asking, has he lost himself in this world? Has he become the killer? Is he so filled with self loathing at what he has become he lashes out at gay men trying to live their lives? Pacino is brilliant, unsettling in one of his greatest, yet most controversial and troubling performances in a cruelly misunderstood film.
- DICK TRACY (1990)
Obviously having a blast under layers of make up as Big Boy Caprice the criminal mastermind in Warren Beatty’s dazzling, underrated Dick Tracy (1990), Pacino is superb in the film. In a film bathed in rich primary colors, with the added distraction of Madonna, Pacino chose to play his role like a cartoon Richard III, which was just perfect. Despite the make up he gives a deeply funny performance, though the humour is as black as his characters soul, giving the film a jolt of furious energy it needs. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this, which seemed to encourage him, because he has been playing the same part, often ever since, brash and over the top.
- ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003)
One of the greatest accomplishments for HBO television was this soaring adaptation of Tony Kushner’s masterful play about the early eighties AIDS crisis and how it devastated the gay community of New York. In an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Pacino is the evil lawyer Roy Cohn, known to be a gay man, but who denied it till his death of AIDS. A vicious bully who sat beside no less a monster than Senator Joe McCarthy during the communist witch hunt of the fifties, Pacino brings out the monster in the man, leaving us no question we are staring into the eyes of something that sprung from hell. Yet as he lies choking and gasping his last breath, the actor incredibly, brings humanity to a reptile of a human being. Genius from every soul who worked on the film.
- SCARECROW (1973)
A strange little film that was lost in the shuffle between The Godfather (1972) and Serpico (1973), The actor shares the screen with Gene Hackman in a sort of modern day Of Mice and Men tale, each getting the chance to flex their acting muscles. Both down and out, what society might call losers, the two men nonetheless have dreams. Pacino outshines his gifted co-star as a man who is an extrovert until sexually assaulted in prison, at which point he retreats into himself. Capturing the intensity of severe sexual trauma, Pacino is outstanding in the film. Little known, little seen, but most deserving of attention. One of those buried treasures that can be found out there.
- SCARFACE (1983)
Wretched excess is what the director, Brian De Palma wanted to capture, and the brash, big performance of Pacino as Cuban Tony Montana fit in perfectly. He seems always to be talking, and when talking he is observing, watching everything that takes place around him. He quickly works his way up through the ranks of the Florida drug world, until he its King. But he makes the mistake of getting hooked on the very cocaine he sells in the streets, and betrays a vicious Columbine cartel chief that seals his doom. Pacino is truly mesmerizing in the film, and though critics initially condemned the film and the performance, years later it is praised as one of the great films of the decade, and among the actors strongest performances.
- DONNIE BRASCO (1997)
Knowing he is going to be executed he puts down the phone. Speaking to his wife he tells her he must go out, but to her, in this life he leads that is no surprise. When she leaves the room, he removes his watch and a thick roll of bills and places them in a drawer where she will be sure to find them. Then resigned to his fate, a look of sadness on his face, he leaves never to return. He knows he is going to his death, and is resigned to it. As Lefty, a soldier for a large crime family, he is a low man on the poll. When he unknowingly brings an undercover cop into the midst of the family, his fate is sealed, because at some point the family will be brought down by that very cop. More than anyone Lefty knows his lot in life, he knows where he stands and accepts it, which gives this aging, lowly soldier a quiet dignity. Superb, haunting, melancholy, and for this he should have been nominated.
- SERPICO (1973)
As a purely decent and honest young man, Frank Serpico joined the New York City police force to do good, to serve and protect. He was stunned at the amount of corruption all around him, and as he rose to Detective it got worse. Not able to accept it, he began informing on his fellow officers. They were wrong, they were criminals and one man had the courage to speak out, placing himself in danger. Deemed a rat, he soon finds himself in grave danger. Suddenly his calls for back up were ignored, he received no assistance when arresting violent offenders, and he eventually was shot. Serpico would end up retiring early, living in Sweden for his own protection. Pacino slips under the skin of this seemingly world-weary cop and does not act the part, but becomes it.
- DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
In this simply commanding, towering performance as Sonny, a hard luck bank robber, Pacino was brilliant. In fact, there are historians who believe this to be his greatest performance! He certainly dominates the film, cockily talking to the army of police who have gathered, working the crowd, loving every minute of his grandstanding, but in the bank, where everything has gone wrong, he is quietly terrified, living in terror at being found out. You see Sonny is gay! He picked a bank with no cash on hand, the police spotted him from the start and his partner wants to start killing people and stacking the bodies. As if that were not enough, now his overweight wife knows he was robbing the bank to pay for his male lovers sex change operation! Ever have one of those days? Sonny did, and it was based incredibly on a true story. You simply cannot take your eyes off Pacino throughout. Brilliant.
- THE GODFATHER (1972)
His character arc here is astonishing, moving from idealistic young war hero, to cold blooded killer, to ruthless head of the Corleone crime family, he is astounding. Brando might have won the Oscar, but this is Pacino’s film. Wide eyed and knowing when his father is gunned down, visiting him at the hospital he realizes they are not going to stop until the old man is dead. So, though he is not part of the business, he guns down the men who have tried to kill his beloved father, returning years later to take over the massive crime organization from his father. Cunning, dangerous, intelligent, he plays the game almost better than his father, and by the film’s end, all his enemies are dead, Michael is referred to as “Don Corleone.” Simply astounding, and then he surpassed it in the sequel! A powerful study of the perversion of the American Dream and how idealism is corrupted.
- THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Simply remarkable, both the film and Pacino, his work as Michael Corleone should have won him an Oscar. In portraying contained fury, he radiates danger throughout the film, his silences more frightening than anything he might say. Eyes dead, like a deadly cobra, devoid of compassion or love, his world is about his business, his criminal empire that he has built into a world business. Morally corrupt, to say nothing as to his soul, Michael has become a victim in his own world, corrupted absolutely by absolute power. Told his business is bigger than US Steel he fights for that power, and by the end, at a terrible cost has achieved the power he seeks. As Michael, he does unspeakable things, killing his own brother, banishing his wife from his life, ordering the murders of many men, yet he remains a near Shakespearean tragic hero because we know what he once was, and see it again in a lovely dinner scene in flashback. The finest work of the actors career, by far, that he lost the Oscar is downright criminal. Never before, or since have I experienced an actor radiate such danger with his mere presence.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.