Al Pacino: Greatest actor of his generation?
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Al Pacino is an actor that demands a lot of respect. He is a performer who always makes interesting choices and has never taken to easy route to fame and fortune. As he marks his 80th birthday we select the five films that mark him out as the greatest actor of his generation
Al Pacino is one of the actors of his generation. Equally at home on stage or on the big screen, Pacino is a man who makes acting look easy. He makes his characters interesting, multi-faceted individuals. He never goes for the easy option or the cliched caricature.
As the great man turns 80, we take a look his greatest screen roles and ask whether he has managed to create a consistent body of work that perhaps his great hero Brando (or even his contemporary rival Robert De Niro) has never been able to achieve.
During a 50 year career Al Pacino has conquered the three big acting challenges: film, television and stage winning an Oscar, two Tony Awards for work on Broadway, and two Primetime TV Emmy Awards.
A method actor by training, Pacino has always enjoyed seeking out new opportunities. Although mainly a screen actor, he has always enjoyed venturing on stage, especially to play Shakespeare or classic roles. He performed Richard III on Broadway, came to London to stage Merchant of Venice and even played Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
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But, it was as a screen actor that Al Pacino has made his greatest mark on the world; arriving in the 1970s with a bang…
The Godfather (1972)
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Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the son of crime boss Vito Corleone played by Pacino’s idol Marlon Brando. Pacino fought hard for the role. He was the last person to be cast. Although Coppola wanted Pacino for the part, Paramount executives wanted a ‘name’ either Warren Beatty or Robert Redford for the part. Coppola refused and auditioned Pacino alongside Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, and James Caan. He cast Pacino who he wanted all along. Pacino went onto gain a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination even though his character had more screen time than Brando who won the Best Actor Award.
The year after The Godfather, Pacino was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for his eponymous role as Frank Serpico in Sidney Lumet’s tough New York police drama, based on a real-life detective who went undercover to expose police corruption. Pacino brings a lot of integrity to the role and wisely resists the temptation to make him a do-gooder superman. This is New York not Hollywood and is all the better for it.
Although Al Pacino made his presence felt in The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon, it can be argued that his next defining role was as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma remake of the Paul Muni 1930s gangster movie Scarface. Just as Michael Corleone had helped defined life in 1970s New York, so Tony Montana personified the colourful, high-living world of the 1980s in Miami. This was a harder, tougher version of Miami Vice and proved to be something of a defining role for Pacino, vividly demonstrating to Hollywood execs that he could exist away from the mean streets of the Big Apple.
‘De Niro and Pacino together’ screamed the posters for Michael Mann’s high octane heist movie. Pacino and De Niro did not disappoint, their two-hander scene across a table in a coffee shop was mesmerising. Often described by critics as the two greatest actors of their generation, they had never shared a scene together until now. De Niro was a criminal mastermind and Pacino, the tenacious cop, who was determined to catch him in the act. Both men respected the other and what plays out between is essentially a real-life chess game. Even a ear-shattering gun-fight towards the end of the movie can’t over-shadow the emotional intensity of that shared scene between these two great actors.
The Irishman (2019)
Despite being a very New York actor, Al Pacino had never appeared in a Martin Scorsese movie until last year. Then he was recruited to play teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in Scorsese’s epic homage to the world of crime lords, union gangs and life on the streets of the Big Apple. Not only that he was back opposite Robert De Niro, De Niro needing a critically acclaimed hit after a run of under-par, talent squandering performances in lightweight Hollywood fare that did little to stretch him but clearly filled his bank balance. Using some ground-breaking digital software Scorsese was able to de-age his older cast members to portray their characters as younger men. It’s a very accomplished piece of work and Pacino proves his ability as an actor by being able to connect with the audience even when competing with the somewhat distracting technological wizardry.