Friday, April 25, 2008

My Favorite Al Pacino Performances: Part I

In honor of Al Pacino's birthday (the living legend turned 68 today), I have written a rant about my two favorite Pacino characters: Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER TRILOGY and Lt. Col. Frank Slade from SCENT OF A WOMAN. Conventional choices, I know, but I love these performances to pieces. I can literally go on forever regarding my undying love for Pacino's performances in these films. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

I was eleven-years-old. My favorite movie was Rain Man. Still, I had very little interest in old movies in general. I guess it was more of the fact that I was rarely exposed to old movies rather than my own reluctance to discover them. But The Godfather changed all that.

I didn't expect to like The Godfather at all. I didn't care for crime movies, old movies, or long movies. But I was bored and it was the only thing on TV. My idea of The Godfather for the longest time was that it was a movie about an old guy who ran some crime organization and kills bunch of people before the movie's end. But what kept me watching? Yep, you've guessed it: Al Pacino.

Michael Corleone probably has one of the best introductions in a film...ever? In the beginning, he is clearly shown as the typical outsider of his father's crime empire, being a decorated American soldier and all. But he's smart and knows what goes on in the mafia, which he wants no part in. The guy is so reluctant to obey the traditions of his Italian family that he even daringly brings along his WASP-y girlfriend, Kay Adams (I swear, it's so weird seeing Diane Keaton in that role), to his sister's wedding. He chillingly tells his naive girlfriend, "Luca Brasi held a gun to his head and my father assured him that either his brains, or his signature, would be on the contract. That's a true story. That's my family, Kay, it's not me." Despite Michael's enmity towards the crime world, he respects his father, the all-powerful don.

Everything changes when Michael's family descends into great danger because of a local New York mafia. Michael's transformation from the civilian to another mafia criminal is amazing to behold and again, it's all thanks to Pacino's stunning portrayal of the character.

Originally, the studios considered Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, or Jack Nicholson--all rising stars of the late sixties and early seventies at the time. Unlike director Francis Ford Coppola, the studios saw little talent in Pacino. There is one particular scene that convinced the studios that Pacino was the perfect choice for Michael Corleone. It is, of course, the mesmerizing, perfectly-directed restaurant scene. Pacino completely dominated that scene by saying little and acting more. As he obediently listens to the man he has agreed to kill, his eyes wander with great intensity. The tentative train noises in the background gradually increase the dramatic tensions in the scene. Suddenly, Michael excuses himself to the restroom to obtain the gun that had been hidden there earlier. He comes back abruptly and ruthlessly kills the man with a couple of gunshots. As he journeys toward the restaurant's exit, Michael knows he has officially sealed his fate. He just became a part of the family, and there was no turning back.

I was completely surprised when Michael decided that he had to kill Sollozzo. It was obvious that his reverence for his father motivated him, but I was still in shock when he made his decision. But Pacino's performance made me believe that all of this was part of his destiny. This was important to him. Everything he denied so far in his life was what he was truly meant to be. Pacino's performance fulfilled every void that Mario Puzo's novel (that I later read) didn't bother to develop.

How Joel Grey won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for Cabaret for a minor role, I will never know. But everyone knows that Pacino was definitely the more deserving of the bunch and it will be forever devastating to me that he lost to such an inferior performance.

In short, I became a total Godfather freak after my viewing of the first film.

I can't even start to describe my adoration for The Godfather: Part II. It was my favorite movie for the longest time. To me, it was cinematic perfection. I watched that 3hr+ movie five times in the same week. I thought it was that amazing. Why? Again, I couldn't keep my eyes off of Pacino's performance. As much as I loved him in the original Godfather film, there was something about the cold-hearted, emotionless young don that I found brilliantly heartbreaking. No other film at the time had made me feel that way.

There are so many scenes in The Godfather: Part II that I can name that could support the insane level of awesomeness in Pacino's performance, but I'll name one:

"There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

Yes, how corny. I chose a scene with a classic movie quote. But if you watched the scene, you would see that he scared the daylights out of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) and would scare the crap out of you too. Pacino's Michael exhibits his frustrations with amazing reserve and coolness. What makes every moment of the performance worthwhile is that Pacino never bothers to add more clutter than necessary.

I guess he saved the clutter for later. Sixteen years later, actually, for The Godfather: Part III. And how appropriately so! Sure, I am saying this as a die-hard Godfather fan and ignoring the inconsistency in Michael's character in the third film, but it all works because of Pacino's spectacularly over-the-top performance. Oh, and did I mention I absolutely loved every minute of it?

Forget Sofia Coppola's laughable presence--Pacino makes up for all of the film's many faults. Don't get me wrong, though. I love The Godfather: Part III. Not only for Pacino's performance, but the whole damn thing. Yes, I love it, despite the fact that I acknowledge the movie's moderate financial success is the reason why Mr. Coppola now runs a winery and occasionally makes bad movies like Jack instead of living in shameful bankruptcy. But it seems that Pacino respects the character of Michael Corleone too much to treat the material as pure money-making fluff. So he makes the most of out of the script and the result is well, another great performance from Pacino!

Enough of my empty praise for Pacino in this unbalanced film...what material did the film offer Pacino? Diane Keaton. It's sort of weird to think that Annie Hall is a significant part of The Godfather Trilogy but she is, and she courageously involves herself in a series of wonderfully humorous battles of words with an aging mafia don who can't exactly bring himself to fight back against his ex-wife's honest words. Keaton is remarkable in her own right, which enables her to be on the same page with Pacino, acting-wise. I would love to see them in a film together again, but that seems unlikely. But here, Pacino and Keaton certainly waltz around the script's soap operish elements and they continuously masquerade with grace and conviction.

...and I just adore the hospital scene where they are interacting:

Michael: I feel I'm getting wiser now.
Kay: The sicker you get, the wiser you get, huh?
Michael: When I'm dead, I'm gonna be really smart.

I must admit, there is something really wrong with the movie being intentionally funny...

Don't mistake the third film of the trilogy as some sort of epic romance between two estranged lovers. It is as much a crime movie as the previous two, with the addition of a young man who is eager to join in on all the mafia action (played by Andy Garcia). The film also emphasizes the importance of family, a recurring film in the previous films as well, but this time with a gentler tone. But most of all, The Godfather: Part III is about Michael Corleone's redemption. He despises what his life has become. He wants to come clean, but his soul will not and cannot. The man is a classic example of a tragic figure. Michael's corruption and guilt is where Pacino ultimately finds strength in the midst of chaos. It is also what makes the film itself entirely worthwhile.

It is beyond me why Pacino never received any recognition from the Academy for his work in any of the Godfather films. He was undeniably excellent in each and every one of them and how the Academy failed to see that, I have no idea. But they finally recognized him for his funny and sensationally inspiring performance in Scent of a Woman. In the film, Pacino plays Lt. Col. Frank Slade, a depressed blind man who has lost his sight, but not his demanding personality. For Thanksgiving weekend, he invites Charlie Simms, his prep school babysitter (Chris O'Donnell) to a lavish trip to New York--only to surprise the teenager with a plot to kill himself.

Pacino was given so many great lines to read in this movie and he delivers the words with a sharp, authoritative bang. Here are a few of my favorites:

Frank: Then, I'm going to lie down on my big beautiful bed, and blow my brains out.
Charlie: Did I hear you right, colonel? You said you're going to kill yourself?
Frank: No. I said I'm going to blow my brains out.

This line is delivered with such charm that you could never have guessed that there is a suicide plot going on if you didn't understand English.

"I'm in the dark, here!"

In a dramatic shout fest between Frank and Charlie, Charlie desperately struggles to stop Frank from killing himself. One of Pacino's finest scenes in the film.


What a grand line. Pacino says it with spirit and certainty. Nobody could have delivered it better.

Martin Brest's film is both a traditional character study and a classic buddy film. The characters are polar opposites, but they bond under strained circumstances. The boy is having some trouble at his corrupted prep school, the older man is having a personal crisis that lies between life and death. Brest sews the episodic scenes in this film together but he wisely spotlights Pacino. But Pacino never exploits the spotlight, instead he shares it with O'Donnell. They are a good team, but it is Pacino who carries the film from beginning to end. That speech at the prep school near the end of the film is one of the greatest speeches made in film and not even the blatant sentimentality can detract from Pacino's virtuosity.

Part two will focus on my favorite supporting roles of Pacino's career.


  1. I love how subtly affective the Michael Corleone character was. Definitely his best. The other great performances would be Tony Montana in Scarface, Col. Slade in Scent of a Woman (as you mentioned), John Milton in Devil's Advocate and Roy Cohn in Angels in America (although, which of his performances is bad, really?

    Another observation: I think Scent of a Woman and Devil's Advocate would not exist at all if it wasn't for Pacino. Imagine replacing him with a mediocre actor; I think the films couldn't escape from being cheesy, over-the-top and, to be honest, ordinary. God, they even cast Keanu Reeves in Devil's Advocate!

    One critique from me about Pacino would be how he seems to be playing himself all the time. All the time he's this cocky, talkative and kind of aggresive character (like his other legendary colleague Jack Nicholson) with the exception of Corleone (maybe that's why it's so great). Then again, I guess he's a representative of quality theatrical acting in cinema and that's also a good thing.

    Your blog seems like a good one, caught my interest. Will keep checking often.

  2. Nobody would have taken The Devil's Advocate seriously if it wasn't for Pacino. Pacino is great in the movie, although the movie itself isn't even close to great. Keanu Reeves and pre-Monster Charlize Theron aren't very good actors at all.

    I love the plot of Scent of a Woman, but it could have went wrong with a mediocre actor. It would just be ordinary, like you said, Anil. Unfortunately, Pacino's great performance in The Devil's Advocate did not take away the fact that I was nearly suffocating for two hours.

    Scarface is too silly for me to take seriously. It is definitely one of Pacino's more famous roles, but there are so many ridiculous things about that movie that I just can't stand. Plus, Pacino's "Cuban accent" in that movie makes me wince.

    I really need to see Angels in America.

    Pacino chooses roles that allows him to play the kind of character he plays so well, and so does Nicholson. And again, like you said, Pacino does represent the quality theatrical acting in cinema, which is sadly becoming extinct.

    Thanks for visiting my blog!