A friend tells a story that captures the dilemma of the universally acknowledged Great Actor, entering his golden years with his best roles presumably behind him. It's a few years back, and Al Pacino has just performed on Broadway in Oscar Wilde's Salome (in a turn that, as local curmudgeon John Simon put it, offered "enough imploding pauses, demented stares, and wheedling singsong for six characters in search of a straitjacket"). Pacino's audience gave off a bored, restless vibe in the theater, but now many of them gather around the stage door, and they go bananas when the legend comes tearing out: He pumps hands; he signs Playbills; he leaps atop the running board of the SUV waiting to whisk him into the night. Being Al Pacino, my friend recalled, seemed to energize the man and his fans far more than being King Herod—the actor was better suited to the role of Famous Person than for doing what he was famous for.
Maybe it was the moment he stuck his face into a pile of purest Colombian snow as the monstrous kingpin Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). Maybe it was all those bug-eyed hoo-ahs in Scent of a Woman (1992), the role that belatedly won Pacino an Academy Award. Maybe it was that endlessly replayed ad for The Godfather, Part III (1990), in which the timeworn Michael Corleone growls, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." But somewhere along the way, the Al Pacino persona—a crossbreed of cocaine-crazed gangster and droopy Borscht Belt jokester—took on the caricatured proportions of a folk hero, outmatching nearly any part he could play on stage or screen.
His peers Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson share a similar problem, but while De Niro has become ambassador of Tribeca after 9/11, and while Nicholson's self-amused Oscar appearances are star turns unto themselves, both have maintained a certain impenetrability, a mystique. One can't imagine either of them standing on the stage of the Actors Studio jawing endlessly for the cameras about his craft, as Pacino does in the meandering talkfest Babbleonia, included in the new DVD set Pacino: An Actor's Vision. The box also collects the three films he has directed to date: the featurette The Local Stigmatic (1990, co-directed with David F. Wheeler), the shaggy Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard (1996), and the prolix chamber piece Chinese Coffee (2000). (Pacino is currently in post-production on another documentary: a behind-the-scenes peek at Salome titled Salomaybe?)
Each film in An Actor's Vision has its roots in the New York theater, where Pacino got his start; in fact, he first acted in The Local Stigmatic more than 20 years before mounting the movie version. This was in the late '60s, when the young stage actor was cornering the market on nasty pieces of work, playing a violent junkie in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, a racist punk in The Indian Wants the Bronx, and, in Stigmatic, a malevolent Cockney hood who believes that "fame is the first disgrace" and, to prove his point, takes a celebrity out of circulation by beating and scarring him. "[H]is whole performance, a steel fist in a rubber glove, has all the authority in the world," Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of Stigmatic. "However, personally, I would like to see what else Mr. Pacino can do in this world besides scaring babies, old women and me."
So did plenty of others. At 31, Pacino won his first major film role as a heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Ostensibly, this was yet another manipulative-lowlife part, but Pacino added a jumping-bean energy, rough-edged charm, and shades of addled vulnerability. Panic led to Francis Ford Coppola casting him in The Godfather (1972), though not without fierce studio resistance—Paramount executive Robert Evans infamously referred to Pacino as "that little troll." Even among the unconventional late bloomers of the era's leading men (Gene Hackman, Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman), Pacino was arguably the runt of the litter: short, scruffy yet somewhat effete, and not quite able to wrap his lips around the letter r.