Will Al Pacino Ever Matter Again?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 22 2013 7:00 AM

Is It Too Late For Al Pacino?

Phil Spector suggests he might never regain his rightful place at the center of Hollywood.

(Continued from Page 1)

Pacino’s career has long seemed to run on a parallel track to that of Robert DeNiro, and while there’s no shortage of apparent money-grubbing laurel-resting on the young Vito Corleone’s resume, De Niro has shown more agility with reinvention. His recent return to Academy approval, cultural vitality, and general respect via his supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook suggests a kind of savvy that it’s hard to imagine present-day Pacino exhibiting, as well as workmanlike humility. DeNiro’s work in Silver Linings proves that he can take and play a role that a lot of other actors could play. When was the last time Pacino played anything but Pacino?

Even when he’s tried to exhibit self-awareness, Pacino has done it in the absolutely least cool way conceivable, namely his Razzie-winning role as “Al Pacino” in Jack and Jill. My book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor, out in May, concludes with a chapter on that film, which is not by any means good, but is absolutely crucial to any conversation about Pacino’s late career. The version of “himself” that Pacino plays is a fairly ingenious blend of who Pacino actually is, and the distortions that surround his (or any long-term celebrity’s) legacy. And yet, on IMDb, his participation in Jack and Jill is categorized not under “Actor” but under “Self,” suggesting that his part, which is essentially a third lead behind the two characters played by Adam Sandler, is as much a “performance” as the one-scene cameo put in by Jared from Subway. Pacino’s “Al Pacino” is the actor’s most thoughtful comic performance since his turn as a charismatic Satan in The Devil’s Advocate, and he literally doesn’t get any credit for it.

Watching Pacino’s Spector wandering around his castle sputtering out stream-of-conscious monologues about conspiracies and the Kennedys and Lenny Bruce, I wondered: Is Pacino consciously going through the motions of past performances, rehearsing the vocal tics and the staccato conductor’s hands, because like a dinosaur rock band on their umpteenth reunion tour, he thinks we came to see the greatest hits? Or is he just being realistic about being a relic? Having achieved greatness more than his share of times, is he now spent—has he lost the ability or even the impulse to do anything new? As Spector, he talks about wanting to retire after having worked with the Beatles: “I’d done it,” he says. “What more was there left for me to do?”


Sadly, Pacino isn’t given opportunity to do much in Mamet’s movie. For all of his recognizable external tics, he’s always been essentially an internal actor: The “bigness,” and particularly its interplay with silence and reflection, are the manifestations, or translations, of feeling and thinking into visible action, to show onscreen what’s happening in a character’s mind and heart. But Phil Spector is not about what its title character is thinking and feeling; it’s about his lawyer’s struggle to manage the perception of Spector.

Near the end of the movie—spoiler alert, I guess—Kenney Baden makes a snap decision in the courtroom to not allow Spector to take the stand. She’s afraid to let him take control of his own narrative—even though she seems to believe he’s innocent—because she doesn’t have faith that he could stop being a weirdo long enough to speak his truth in a way that normal people would respond to. This film, and any film that showcases Pacino on greatest-hits autopilot, is essentially exhibiting the same fear, robbing the actor of the opportunity to show off his immense gift (at one time, the greatest in movies) for letting us in on his subjectivity. We get just a flash of that gift in Spector, in a single shot of his reaction to the news that he won’t be allowed to testify. It’s just a few seconds, but it verges on heartbreaking, and it made me wonder if that’s how Pacino himself feels, pumping out endless variations on the trademarked Pacino Wall of Sound.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The Only Good Thing That Happened at Today’s Soul-Crushing U.N. Climate Talks

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:06 PM Nothing to See Here The one national holiday Republicans want you to forget.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.