You can call me Al
Film Forum's week of '70s Pacino can't be refused.
Tue Feb 15 2011
Not so quietly (is he ever?), Al Pacino is currently enjoying one of his most successful seasons to date, as a magnificent Shylock on Broadway and an awards magnet for his complex Jack Kevorkian in HBO's You Don't Know Jack. Yet even though everyone has a favorite Pacino performance ("Hoo-ah!"), one must reckon with his first full decade of film work, the 1970s. Has any other performer so fully dominated their cultural moment? Here are four Pacino personas we look forward to revisiting this week at Film Forum.
A "nice college boy"
This is my pick for the greatest scene in The Godfather (Fri 18), and please know how hard it was to choose: We're in a smoke-filled study. Pop's been shot and the family is in turmoil. James Caan is bouncing off the walls with vengeance. Robert Duvall advises a cooler head. Then, meekly, we hear from Pacino, up to then just a guy who got punched in the face. His scheme draws us in like a vortex; Pacino will never be on the sidelines of Coppola's saga again. The other characters laugh, but the power structure has just been revised. That scene is Pacino's masterpiece; for an actor as explosive as he can be, the man works coolness better than any of his peers. We shouldn't lose sight of Pacino's smallness, his fragility in these early films. He makes a completely believable junkie in 1971's The Panic in Needle Park (Mon 21) and still, by decade's end in ...And Justice for All (Feb 24), there's a coyness to his legal eagle that requires love interest Christine Lahti to make the first move.
A saint in the city
In 1973, Bruce Springsteen sang how hard it was to be a saint in the city. In that same year came the mighty cop drama Serpico (Wed 23), itself the apotheosis of the 1970s-movie-star Jesus Christ pose. (There was plenty of competition.) You simply can't watch the film without falling into Pacino's limpid eyes, his exhaustion, his self-sacrifice. He had become the soul of New York City. Director Sidney Lumet was the first to understand Pacino's capacity for grace under pressure. When they reteamed for 1975's Dog Day Afternoon (Tue 22), they would produce the definitive NYC movie: a bumbled bank heist set on a sweltering Brooklyn corner. Cops would be taunted by a small man suddenly invested with power ("Attica!"); even unwitting hostages would gather around him in camaraderie. Between these two Lumet movies—little more than four hours of screen time—you have the entirety of what it means to survive in this city, a test of will and compassion both.
"Because you made me laugh"
We love his grand monologues, his glorious rants—and don't pass up ...And Justice for All's final scene for the best of these, a takedown of the criminal-court system that will have you cheering. Yet Pacino remains underrated for his generosity to his cast mates. Gene Hackman, himself a deferrer, shines in Scarecrow (Feb 24) as in no other film. (That quote above is from Hackman, after being asked by Pacino why he puts up with him.) Both he and Pacino play homeless drifters. Their feast of acting comes in not speechifying but in the small gestures primarily provided by Pacino, growing out his character's childlike cocoon. Meanwhile, have you ever seen Hackman do a striptease? You will. Consider, too, the tender, doomed performance of Kitty Winn in The Panic in Needle Park; she's taken in by a bad romance with Pacino's hustler, and he gives her the room to trip toward disaster. Devastating.
Brother Cain and the devil
Call it the most felicitous symmetry of the 1970s: In a decade that saw Pacino redefining the heroic sufferer (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), he also became its most emblematic demon. "You broke my heart," Michael Corleone tells Fredo, jaw clenched with fury, in The Godfather: Part II (Sat 19). Actually, it's Michael's soul that has unraveled as the shadows of Gordon Willis's cinematography envelop him in solitude and wrongdoing. Pacino is Coppola's fallen angel; any Nixonian overtones are fully intended. Why, Film Forum, couldn't you have made this a complete retrospective with the addition of one missing '70s entry, Bobby Deerfield? It's not a perfect movie, but Pacino, playing a Formula 1 race car driver, is grappling with the same fatal impulses that consume him elsewhere in his oeuvre. No matter. On view, for one week only, is the widest range to ever mark a young Hollywood career.