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The Old Man and the Screen

Al Pacino's career is more than a collection of films, it's a memoirish self-commentary.

by John Saward
Apr 7 2018, 5:09pm

Photo by Roy Jones/Getty.

Here he comes, from the back of the theater, Al Pacino, swerving down the aisle, grinning and ricocheting from one set of rows into another with the delicious glee of a young boy who’s stolen the car keys, kissing people in the audience as he heads toward the screen, shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, skin tan like espresso foam, body engulfed by a heavy coat and a scarf that looks softer than Kleenex.

Pacino is an old man and we know this by his posture, by the occasional slow-churn froth of his enunciation, by the half-century of movies that seem to exist somewhere on basic cable, permanently, like a constellation. But here, approaching midnight, with needy friends in the lobby and A Schedule and Commitments, he is still skidding around with what you could describe as a fucking appetite for these sort of moments.

It is a Wednesday night in late March, at the Quad Cinema on West 13th street. It’s almost 10:30 by the time Pacino is introduced. He is here for a de-facto ribbon-cutting for the first proper release of two films he is in: Salome, based on a one-act Oscar Wilde play about the way lust can set fire to logic and decency, and a documentary, Wilde Salome, which Pacino also directed, about his years-long, stop-and-go assembly of Wilde’s play for the screen and stage. Pacino plays King Herod, whom he portrays with a blubbering, infantile petulance. Herod spends the play slouching in a throne and howling for more wine, pleading with his stepdaughter (played by Jessica Chastain) to take her clothes off. Chastain is mesmerizing; Pacino is too, but in a way like a magic eye poster, a mess to behold until, after 85 minutes, things begin to take shape.

The premiere concluded a two-week retrospective of Pacino’s career at the small Greenwich Village theater, which featured all the hits and a couple pockmarked films lost in the no-man’s land between when he got sober in 1977 and a four-year hiatus in the late 80s. This Sunday, HBO also premieres Paterno, which stars Pacino as khaki’d football coach and legendary geezer Joe Paterno, a man who, until the scandal he died inside of, seemed to exist somewhere between obliviousness and the tranquilizing indifference of old-age. If it’s felt at times like this is a phase Pacino has entered himself, well, that’s sort of the idea, and Pacino is in on it.

Paterno centers around the two-week period before and after allegations were made that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former defensive coordinator at Penn State, had for years been abusing young boys, many of them on the football team’s facilities. The film mostly avoids Sandusky himself as a character, and focuses instead on Paterno swirling the drain (he died of lung cancer just two months after being fired by the university). In the trailer, he’s played like a man who depended on football like it were a bodily function, a clearing of the throat, and the dopey selfishness of a pursuit that narrow at the cost of everything else.

Al Pacino in 'Scarface.' Photo via Getty

Paterno originally had Scarface director Brian De Palma attached to it, and it’s easy to see him making a film where Paterno is a big inflated parade float imbecile to poke pin holes in. Instead, Barry Levinson lets Pacino grumble and sigh; the question of complicity seems less of a focus than what happens when your time is up, and now you have to go away.

In the Q&A following a screening of the two Salome films, Pacino spoke for an hour, mostly about the lure of theater. There is, you realize, little else for him to reveal about his films; every butterfly wing of his mythology has already been pressed neatly between glass slides and examined. The roles he turned down (Han Solo), the bit about how no one at Paramount wanted him for Michael Corelone except Francis Ford Coppola. Or how he based the .gif-able cartoon lunacy of his character in Heat, detective Vincent Hanna, on scenes from earlier drafts of the script, not present in the final cut, in which Hanna is shown doing cocaine.

But something happens, the way he answers every question, the vivid intimacy with which he recalls the pocket lint details of his career, how he describes the sway of the audience response from one night’s performance of “Richard III” to another, 30 years later, like it’s a thing he can run his fingertips over. Or how once, he became so fixated on a review of a performance that described him as “prowling the stage like a panther,” that in the middle of an early scene at the next day’s show he realized that he had been standing almost catatonically still the entire play.

The work, the immersion, this was Pacino’s true love. Pacino has had many relationships; none of them ever really took. His obsession instead was this thing he did, the grenade pin he pulled on a full range of human torment and delusions.

In Diane Keaton’s second memoir, published in 2014, she wrote of Pacino, with whom she had a relationship through the 70s and 80s, “His face, his nose, and what about those eyes? I kept trying to figure out what I could do to make them mine. They never were. . . . For the next twenty years I kept losing a man I never had.”

When he was interviewed by Playboy in 1977, Pacino was 37 and had already been nominated for four Academy Awards. His attractiveness was described by actresses and girlfriends with an enraptured awe typically reserved for comets and Renaissance cathedral ceilings. But this was not a man of extravagance even then, when he was getting paid $1 million for some roles, when women he’d never met recognized him from across the street. Journalist Lawrence Grobel said his apartment at the time “consists of a small kitchen with worn appliances whose toilet is always running.” Pacino lit his cigarettes on the stove and ate celery and lettuce leaves for dinner. Almost 30 years later, in a New Yorker profile, his house in California was described as having an “absence of texture” and “remarkable for its indifference to externals: no paintings, no designer furniture.”

Most of his characters have been maniacal obsessives. During the Q&A, he said, “I require tremendous amount of rehearsals. It’s my nature.” You see that discipline in Frank Serpico, camping out on subway platforms for hours in the clothing of a vagrant, then later, at the dinner table, “If I could work alone— That's the thing, see?” As Michael Corleone, resisting all temptation besides cigarettes—not even banana daiquiris—and scrubbing rivals from his life like mildew. In Heat, as a detective whose obsession with chasing lowlifes has turned his face into old luggage. There is a near-invisible line between obsession and addiction, and Pacino tap-dances on it.

Al Pacino in the 'Godfather.' Photo via Getty

Pacino had been drinking hard liquor since he was 13 years old. He was hungover when he auditioned for the Godfather. After a binge one night in London some time later, he tried to back out of Dog Day Afternoon after initially agreeing to it, before producer Marty Bregman convinced him to sober up long enough to read the script. Pacino did, for three days, then he read it, and then he did the movie, in which he is a fidgety, compulsively-lip-licking work of art, bouncing around his scenes like a racquetball. And he kept drinking.

“I don’t remember much of the 70s,” he said. “All that stuff—the explosiveness of my life change. It would be almost fair to say I wasn’t really there. It was too much for anyone to handle.”

In Sidney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield, one of the misfires included in the retrospective, Pacino plays a spiritually vacant racecar driver shaken by a friend’s violent crash. It was made shortly after Pacino stopped drinking, and in the film—deeply reflective drives to nowhere; half-there conversations with a woman trying to reach him—he seems like a man who has lost a dear friend. In one scene, Pacino’s character drives through a tunnel with the woman next to him. She asks him to scream with her, as a means of catharsis. Pacino had spent the previous seven years playing characters defined by an incandescent, seismic mania, but here he was, sober for the first time. His character tells her, “I’m not screaming.”

The movie was ripped as dull melodrama, which it is, though there is something beautiful and haunting in the way Pacino seems to wear his own face as though it were a Halloween mask. Three other duds followed, with the initially-misunderstood Scarface somewhere in between. After that, Pacino quit acting. “I was blinded by the spotlight on my face. I needed to turn it around so that I could see out again,” he told the Telegraph in 2015. While Pacino was gone, he did theater work in New York, he financed movie adaptations of obscure one-acts. And he went broke. “Diane (Keaton) turned around one day,” Pacino told the Village Voice last month, “And said, ‘What, you think you’re going to go back to living in a room? Like the old days?’”

When he finally came back he was something else, someone who would be great and famous again, but the myth had scuffs on the corners now.

In the interview with the Village Voice, Pacino said, “But mostly what you’re always trying to do is get to the personal—because that’s what art is. It’s got something to do with how you feel about what you’re doing.”

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It is easy to see parallels between his personal life (his father abandoned him and his mother when he was very young; his mother died when she was only 42; the kids he had late in life; the way he was treated once like an earth-rattling force of nature and then, in some roles, a pull-my-finger mockery of himself) and the heavy themes of his work. Fathers and sons, solitary men paddling against big waves, the contemplation of decay, men sweating and panting on their way to redemption.

You see it in Deerfield, in 2015’s Danny Collins, about an old rockstar ashamed at some of the things he’s done for money, trying to spend more time with his kids. In 1992’s Glengarry Glenross, a film about man’s looming impotence, made just three years after Pacino returned from exile, as a character that seems like both the matador and the bull at war with each other. And now as Paterno, a man close to his end. What’s irresistible about Pacino is the way his career has served as this memoirish self-commentary, a glimpse.

In the Playboy interview, Pacino mentions a trip to the doctor to see about a pain in his toe. “I said to the doctor, ‘Well, it has to get better, right?’ He said no. And I realized there’s an age where everything doesn’t automatically get better… We talk like this, I’ll smoke cigarette after cigarette.”

Everyone gets old. Then you start wondering how you got there.

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