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.

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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?”

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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.

Karina Longworth is the creator/host of You Must Remember This, a podcast about the secret/forgotten history of Hollywood's first century. She is the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and has contributed to LA Weekly, the Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications.