It’s no overstatement to say Al Pacino is one of our greatest living actors. Hell, it’s no grand statement to call him one of the greatest actors in history. What has been frustrating to fans of the actor over the last decade plus is we haven’t been reminded of that fact very often in the films he’s been given. Aside from some splendid work on television with Paterno, Phil Spector, and You Don’t Know Jack, you could say most of the ’10s has been a lost decade on the big screen for Pacino.
Until this year.
It started with a small but tasty part in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. While his screen time in the film is modest, it’s also delightful. You really see what a good time he’s having playing Hollywood mover-and-shaker, Marvin Swarz (not “Schwartz”). When is the last time you could say that about Pacino? Maybe Ocean’s 13 way back in 2007, although I have a true soft spot for Danny Collins from just 5 years ago – come at me if you must.
From the first second he steps into this scene, you know you are with a master showman who is playing it free and easy. Just try not smiling through his every line reading. I dare you.
Of course, Pacino was not done with us in 2019. The long awaited Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman was yet to come, and when it did, we got the full Pacino we only got a bite of in Once Upon A Time. While some have found Joe Pesci’s underplaying more effective in the film, I think it’s hard to argue that, when Pacino is onscreen as Jimmy Hoffa, the energy level of the whole enterprise takes flight. Pacino received a lot of criticism in the back half of his career for overplaying his parts too often. While I find this argument to be reductive (especially if anyone with that lament has bothered to view Sea of Love, Frankie and Johnny, Donnie Brasco, Insomnia, The Insider, etc.), it’s irrelevant in The Irishman. Jimmy Hoffa existed as a larger than life character, and to play him in a muted fashion would not serve the character, the film, or history itself.
In a funny way (not “like a clown” funny), Pacino almost has the Joe Pesci part in Marty’s latest film. In both Goodfellas and Casino, Pesci served the part of the firecracker, the linchpin, that drove the film forward. For all of the love Scorsese rightfully gets for the subtleties he gets out of his actors, he’s never been afraid to let his performers do exactly that – perform. Think of De Niro as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Sharon Stone in Casino, and Jack Nicholson in The Departed. Scorsese has always recognized that there are outsized characters in real life, and they belong in his movies too. Which is exactly what Pacino is playing in The Irishman.
Those in the Academy did take note, awarding Pacino his 9th Oscar nomination. It’s his first since 1993 when he pulled off the Oscar double with nominations for leading actor in Scent of a Woman and for supporting in Glengarry Glen Ross. Perversely, while Pacino got his first (and long overdue) win for Scent of a Woman, that victory largely hurt him with critics and cinephiles. The reflexive nature of the overacting criticism became a meme. I remember reading reviews saying Pacino was in “hoo-wa” mode for great films like HEAT and The Devil’s Advocate. Basically, any time he would raise his voice in a scene that was the reductive criticism he would receive. As if the guy he played in Heat or The Devil’s Advocate was simply a variation of Lt. Col. Frank Slade. It’s more than reductive. It’s lazy, and it led to many of us not appreciating the true gift of being alive while Al Pacino was filling the screen with greatness in our local movie theaters.
In a year where there were so many great movies and performances, it’s a bit of an undercover story – this return to relevance by Pacino. That’s a shame, and one I would like to at least partially correct with this piece. Pacino is coming up on his 80th trip around the sun. Who knows how many more years he has onscreen? I do know that this one – 2019 – has been a banner one. Attention must be paid. Al Pacino is an all-time great.
Some of us had forgotten.
He has made us remember.