By John H. Foote
There was a time he was the most electrifying actor in movies, his performances earning raves from film critics around the world, 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 could dominate a scene with his mere presence, something very few actors can accomplish.
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 (which they all have) 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 at the time, but audiences loved, re-discovering the film on video to the extent it is now revered. Audiences were electrified by Scarface, 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 film 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, and, needless to say, 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, poorly. It was, frankly, embarrassing. Stunned by the reaction to the film, he left movies, heading back to the stage, working Off Broadway honing his skills.
Something happened to his acting in the time in between because when he came back to films, his work was much broader, louder, hammier, often wildly over the top, and did I say louder? It was almost as though he was saying to the world, “Watch me Ma! I am ACTING!!!”
It worked beautifully in Dick Tracy (1990) as Big Boy Caprice, a Richard III based bad guy, 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)! For me, his Oscar win for that film remains one of the worst performances to ever win the award. So yes, from time to time, in essence the Academy rewards bad acting, though make no mistake, everyone knew his award for Scent of a Woman was a sentimental win, meant to make up for not awarding him for The Godfather Part II (1974).
Since 1992 he has given perhaps three strong performances. The best, until now, 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.
Now, he is not.
Plain and simple, his best work is long past him.
Or so I thought.
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.
Again, until now.
He is back this year as Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and like a well-fitting glove, Pacino slips on the bombastic persona of Hoffa and is perfection. His finest performance since Donnie Brasco, one of the finest of his career, this should put him in the Oscar race for Supporting Actor, right at the top of the category. Hoffa was a very brash, loud man, a gifted orator, and muscular personality, a difficult man to say no too. Pacino captures that brilliantly in this masterful film, his first time working with legendary Martin Scorsese. In every sense it was a pleasure to watch him tear into Hoffa, a miracle of a performance in a film full of great performances.
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 performances are:
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 but at the cost of his family and mortal soul. 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, a stunning testament to the actor’s range. The finest work of the actor’s career, by far, and that he lost the Oscar is downright criminal. Never before, or since have I experienced an actor radiate such danger and menace, with his mere presence.
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! Watching him become a ruthless crime chieftain remains one of the cinema’s greatest experiences. A powerful study of the perversion of the American Dream and how idealism is corrupted.
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 lover’s 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, especially his electrifying “Attica!” Sequence in front of the bank. Stunning.
The Irishman (2019)
What a startling surprise! The brash, loud style of acting Pacino has employed since 1992 is well used here, perhaps the perfect role for the actor, well cast as corrupt Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa. Though the film traces the life of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), Pacino steals the film with an electrifying performance that is a solid reminder of why he was one of the greatest of the seventies. Hoffa was a bombastic, loud man, who fearlessly led the powerful union with help from the mob and was eventually taken out by those same gangsters. Pacino tears into the role with great relish and it was wildly entertaining to see the actor back in a film, and performance, worthy of him. A stunning achievement, both for Pacino and Director Martin Scorsese, this work makes him the man to beat for Best Supporting Actor.
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 Frank Serpico had the courage to speak out, placing himself in danger, because it was the right thing to do. 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.
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. He has been sent for. As Lefty, a soldier for a large crime family, he is a low man on the poll, a “spoke in a wheel”. When he unknowingly brings an undercover FBI agent 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.
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 actor’s strongest performances.
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.
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.
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, 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 the 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.
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 in leather 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 quietly live their lives? Pacino is brilliant, unsettling in one of his greatest, yet most controversial and troubling performances in a cruelly misunderstood film.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”