Pacino, Al (1940—)

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Pacino, Al (1940—)

When director Francis Ford Coppola's film masterpiece The Godfather was released in 1972, Al Pacino galvanized filmgoers with his brooding, dark good looks and masterfully controlled performance as a Mafia leader. Pacino, already an award-winning stage actor, virtually established a new level of screen intensity, winning an Oscar nomination and launching an international career as a major film star. The film depicts a significant passing of power when the ailing Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) makes his son Michael (Pacino) the new "godfather." Since both Brando (a film icon) and Pacino (relatively unknown in films) were considered "Method" actors, many critics and filmgoers saw a parallel symbolic passing of influence from one generation of actors to another. For box-office reasons Brando was designated "the star" but Pacino, with his aura of low-key sensuality, compelling screen presence, and underlying explosiveness not only held his ground onscreen with Brando, but mesmerized audiences.

The film completely transcended the traditional gangster picture; Pacino's performance forever changed filmgoers' image of ganglords. The uneducated, raised-in-poverty, loud, brutal Edward G. Robinson/Jimmy Cagney "tough guy" of the past was replaced by Pacino's educated, soft-spoken, unobtrusively wealthy, self-controlled characterization. In this film and his starring role in TheGodfather, Part II (1974 Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe nominations), Pacino chillingly portrays the metamorphosis of the basically decent Michael—idealistic, patriotic, and gentle—into an austere, steely-eyed, implacably heartless tyrant, deadly to anyone who defies him. His portrayal of Michael's obsessive self-control is so effective that rare displays of temper jar the audience. Pacino shows the gradual erosion of humanity in Michael by infrequent but extreme changes in character intensity, and subtle alterations in manner, speech, posture, facial muscles, and his deep, expressive eyes. Writer Jimmy Breslin said that Pacino "dominates The Godfather with a creeping sense of tyranny." Many years later, in The Godfather, Part III (1990), Pacino again assumed the role of Michael Corleone, now an aging, ill, demoralized, and ultimately tragic figure. Breslin described Pacino well: "The [ Godfather ] movies unleashed a new force, raw and fearless in his willingness to allow the intrusion of a camera into the soul of a man."

Pacino always seemed determined to become an actor. Although poor, from an early age he regularly saw movies, afterwards reenacting the major roles. He also was excited by and continues to love the stage. Because of family finances he had to quit school early and worked at various jobs; after some acting classes he began to get theater parts. In 1966 the Actors Studio accepted him; two years later he won an Obie Award. His first Tony Award came in 1969 and in that same year he made an effective screen debut in a bit part in Me, Natalie. Those performances led to his first leading role in a film at age 31—The Panic in Needle Park (1971).

In the 1970s he starred in five film hits, each role garnering him an Oscar nomination: the first two Godfather portrayals; an incorruptible, volcanic hippie cop in Serpico (1973); a sexually-confused would-be bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975); and an idealistic, angry lawyer in And Justice for All (1979). In the 1980s he chose far-ranging and unusual scripts, but did not have any major hits. Although included in lists of the top 25 most popular film stars in almost every year, his box-office success was shrinking. Then in 1989 he played a hard-drinking, lonelyhearts police detective having a steamy affair with a possible murderess in Sea of Love. The reviews were mostly good and many heralded his "comeback." Most filmgoers do not know that in those two decades, Pacino also was performing onstage in works by playwrights as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, and David Mamet; he won another Tony Award (1977, for Best Actor) for David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.

Pacino films made in the 1990s were successful because with few exceptions, such as the comically hammy Dick Tracy (1990), Pacino returned to the persona/roles that his fans wanted and expect-ed—the intense, focused, explosive, emotionally-disconnected anti-hero on either side of the law. Successful performances included the haunting and haunted Godfather in The Godfather, Part III; the shark-like real estate "closer" in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992); the ferociously bitter blind man in Scent of a Woman (1992); the charismatic, wheeler-dealer mayor in City Hall (1996); and the declining "goodfella" in Donnie Brasco (1997). Looking for Richard, a 1996 pseudo-documentary Pacino produced, directed, and starred in shows a cast and crew during parts of the rehearsals, discussions, and stage production of Shakespeare's Richard III. This unusual and enlightening film makes Shakespeare's gripping drama more accessible to a broader audience.

Pacino is especially effective at changing his facial expressions and altering the volume of his voice, dialect, and speech patterns. But he is best known for using his eyes, which in any one film can be tender and loving, cold and penetrating, full of rage, melancholy, confused, imploring, or cloudy and distant, changing from one look to another in an instant. He is capable of generating an icy heat, of exuding a physical energy while standing perfectly still. Although relatively short, he has a compelling presence and body language that increase his physical stature.

In the sentiments of Entertainment Weekly writer Ty Burr, Pacino was "[the best] fusion of Method acting and charisma since the young Brando." He has become an elder statesman of Hollywood; his versatility, integrity, and dedication to his craft are admired and respected by critics, fans, and peers. Eminent film director Sidney Lumet says that "every star evokes a sense of danger, something unmanageable." Pacino is a star; in the best sense, he has become the "godfather" of acting.

—Jaye Cohen

Further Reading:

Lebo, Harlan. The Godfather Legacy. New York, Fireside, 1997.

Maltin, Leonard, editor. Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia. New York, Dutton, 1994.

Schoell, William. The Films of Al Pacino. Secaucus New Jersey, Citadel Press/Carol Publishing Group, 1995.

Yule, Andrew. Life on the Wire: The Life and Art of Al Pacino. New York, Donald I. Fine, 1991.