Early in the HBO movie Phil Spector—long before Al Pacino waddles on screen in a fat suit and a fright wig—Linda Kenney Baden, the beleaguered defense attorney played by Helen Mirren, whips a 45 record out of her handbag and asks a young legal assistant if he knows what it is. Aware that he’s failing this test no matter what he says, the young man gulps and answers, “Something to do with an early computer?”
Mirren thrusts the vinyl at the kid in frustration. “Put it on your keychain, it’s a piece of the past!” The point has been made: Spector, about to be tried for killing struggling actress Lana Clarkson with a gun in his Los Angeles home, isn’t likely to get any kind of Great Man bump with the jurors, because the world in which Spector was great no longer exists.
The magnetism of Pacino’s presence as Spector has little to do with what Pacino is actually doing on screen in David Mamet’s movie, which is a mix of his Oscar-winning showboating from Scent of a Woman—all loud-quiet-loud renditions of unhurried, integrity-of-a-madman monologues wrapped in ostentatious cosmetics and physical business—and the dead-eyed rage of Vincent Hanna from Heat. But Pacino is cast perfectly—on purely meta grounds.
A short, identifiably Italian Method actor who grew up broke in the Bronx, Pacino became one of the biggest Hollywood stars and even sex symbols of the 1970s—a blossoming that was as transformative for American pop culture as it was for him personally. With the unparalleled run of the first two Godfather movies, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon—all of them released in a three-year period—Pacino was as integral to the look, feel and message of 1970s American cinema as Spector was to 1960s pop. But Pacino, like Spector, is long removed from his synchronicity with the zeitgeist. Is Pacino, too, hopelessly a “piece of the past,” or can he find his way back to the center of the culture?
The actor first struggled to find his footing in the late 1970s and early 1980s; as Hollywood and its audience shifted into the blockbuster-friendly Reagan ‘80s, Pacino pushed a fascination with murky moral middle-grounds into risky fare such as Cruising (1980) and Scarface (1983). Both of those movies play today like time capsules of their era; in their actual era, audiences didn’t get them. Then came Hugh Hudson’s Revolution (1985), a massive disaster which sent a wounded Pacino into retreat. He quit making movies for four years, only coming back to star in Sea of Love (1989) because, as he’s frequently admitted, he needed the money. That film is half naturalistic character study, half lurid neo-noir, and it gave Pacino—by then nearly 50 and looking his age on-screen for the first time—a chance to embody the essence of broke-down late-‘80s New York.
Sea of Love was a hit, and three years later, the one-two punch of Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman cemented Pacino’s comeback. But the cultural climate he was coming back to was very different from the one he dominated in the mid-‘70s, as the voice and face of male angst in rotten America. Over the past 20 years, Pacino has done some great work in good films—think his Michael Mann collaborations Heat and The Insider, or his previous HBO joints Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack—but more often, he’s drifted into self-parody apparently for a paycheck.