They Pull Me Back In: Pacino in 2019 and Beyond

Remember the McConnaissance? It was a cultural movement around 2013/2014 in which Matthew McConaughey transformed his perception as an actor from brainless, handsome hunk of meat to brilliant and critically-acclaimed leading man of television and film. From garbágge to gold. This is kind of phenomenon actually occurs pretty frequently in Hollywood (from partied washout to career journeyman, from popcorn goofball to indie sophisticate, etc.) and is typically part of a conscious and professional effort on the part of the celebrity and their team. Perhaps its most exciting form is one which we will witness over the next few years: the legendary actor returning from a muddled late-career era of phoning it in for their swan song.

Many point to Scent of a Woman as the tick in the timeline where Al Pacino’s troubles began. It was the first sign of the sort of cigarette-shouting, bloated-guffawing, crazy eyes Pacino that has now become nearly ubiquitous in his performances since and frankly inextricable from his actual personality. (Alec Baldwin has a great bit on this.) To be fair, Pacino didn’t lose his mojo overnight — most of the performances on this list actually followed Lt. Col. Frank Slade. But if there were ever a statistic to defend the theory of before/after Scent of a Woman: This 1993 Oscar win — one which has been popularly diagnosed as a common case of The Academy giving out a de facto lifetime achievement award to an actor who impermissibly has no statues, ie. The Academy awarding the right guy at the wrong time to cover their ass — was on Pacinos eighth and last nomination.

Whenever it began, general consensus has been solidly achieved by now that we are in the shield-your-eyes phase of Al Pacino. For a film reverant, it’s hard watching one of the all-time greats in trailers for Lifetime movies (Danny Collins, Manglehorn) and apparent winking self-mockery that actually isn’t (Stand Up Guys). Hope may have befallen some with Pacino’s casting as Joe Paterno for HBO’s film — HBO doesn’t really fuck around, so it at least appeared he was vying for quality work. The Pacinossance will truly begin, however, with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and carry on with Jordan Peele’s TV series The Hunt. While I expect to cover those projects extensively through Pretty Cool Joe at the appropriate time, I’d like to use today’s lesson to spend some time with Al Pacino’s legacy, remind ourselves of his titanic chops, and ultimately hop back on the Pacino bandwagon before it takes off this summer.

The Godfather (1972)

I consider this to be the greatest acting performance of all time. Sharing the spotlight with Marlon Brando’s more theatrical Don Vito Corleone (and about eight other powerhouse actors working at their best for that matter), Pacino is able to guide his character Michael from well-to-do groom embarrassed by his crime syndicate family to ruthless mob boss in the course of 3 hours. Instead of losing any sense of Michael’s identity during this 180-flip, Pacino actually strengthens it, demonstrating that the same cool head and straightforward speech that originally made Michael a voice of good reason downer are what make him a terrifying mafioso. In the scene of his first murder, you are brought along with every pulse-beat and stray thought raging through Michael’s nervous system.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Ahead of its time, nay, ahead of our time, Dog Day Afternoon is about a man who attempts bank robbery to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change. It’s not an LGBT movie; it’s just a regular movie with LGBT characters. And Pacino doesn’t play it with stereotype, he goes for anger, hope, fear, and passion, and he gets them all in spades. Essentially a one-scene film with far more monologues than gunshots, this is high-octane stuff driven entirely by acting. Speaking of which…

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

By God, this acting showcase is literally an adaption of a David Mamet non-musical play. What Pacino brings, aided here by increasing age which seems to have played a large role in his later fall from grace, is genuine pathetic sadness. Ever the fiery spirit, ever the alpha-male, ever the guy in the room not to fuck with leading up to this point, all that is merely the facade for Glengarry’s Ricky Roma. Underneath all the “cunt”s and “bullshit”s is a familiar middle-aged man, pissed off at the world because he hasn’t been handed the American Dream he believed was his birthright.

Donnie Brasco (1997) // The Insider (1999)

Paired here are two underseen films in which Al Pacino was tasked with playing relatively subdued roles across from actors in the midst of their fucking warpaths to gargantuan superstardom. A young Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco got the opportunity to work a thespian favorite — the undercover cop. Built into the concept are high-pressure, conflicting emotions as well as character play. Two years later Russell Crowe would launch a Best Actor nomination threepeat with The Insider. He slowly loses his livelihood, sense of security, and sanity in the brilliant nonviolent thriller. Despite the riveting focal points in both, you’d be surprised how much Pacino shines.

Any Given Sunday (1999) // Insomnia (2002)

Another pair — Here we have Al Pacino reacting well to directorial influences. To make it out of an Oliver Stone movie alive, this one being of the more batshit of his entire career, you have to bring a tour de force, plain and simple. As for Insomnia, you might not know that this was young Christopher Nolan. His career is essentially based on bringing quality to drive-in pulp genres — sci-fi action epics, superhero flicks, mindbending mysteries, etc. For this to work, the actors have to be in on the fun and be able to balance emotional acting with pretty zany scene pieces. Pacino got it, and in fact these two movies are perhaps where we can last observe that cultural literacy in him.

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