The 5 Greatest Performances by Al Pacino

I’ve written this before — in my humble opinion, Al Pacino is the greatest living film actor we have today. Olivier passed away in 1989 and Brando left us in 2004. The highly venerated throne is now occupied by Mr. Pacino. Not only must he be admired for his wide-ranging, iconic roles on the silver screen, but he always has enough respect for the craft of acting to return to his home, the theatre. In fact, he just finished playing Shylock in this past summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice. He will be reprising this role on Broadway in the coming weeks. Nicholson, DeNiro, even Day-Lewis (who I think is a close #2 to Sir Pacino) wouldn’t be caught dead on the New York stage — let alone do Shakespeare! This is what sets him apart — in addition to his phenomenal performances in two films by HBO (Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack). He is much more versatile than most give him credit for. People think all he does is yell and scream — this is simply nonsense and a poor observation. I would ask those people to take another look at his strong work in People I Know, Scarecrow, Chinese Coffee and Frankie & Johnny as reminders. In any case, I took another look at his impressive resume and decided to come up with what I believe to be his Top 5 performances of all-time. They are not the five best films he was a part of, but 5 seminal feature-film roles, from my perspective. Give it a peek — and let me know where you agree and disagree…

#5. Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992)
You never open your mouth til you know what the shot is.

As brilliant as he is in Serpico and Insomnia, I just couldn’t omit this Oscar-nominated performance from the list. I think half the battle in performing in a work written by David Mamet is getting down the cadence and rhythm of the dialogue, which Pacino does here quite eloquently. The cast, as a whole, shines — and Pacino’s supporting role, blends in very nicely, though mostly apart from the rest of the lowly salespeople. His Ricky Roma is super-confident, suave, above the rules, and a great liar to those he dupes into buying swamp land in Florida. The way he manipulates Jonathan Pryce is a marvel to watch — and the way rips into Kevin Spacey (“Who ever told you you could work with men?!) is astounding.

#4. Lowell Bergman (The Insider, 1999)
To me, you are not a commodity. What you are is important.

This Michael Mann film is sensational and highly underrated. And Pacino’s turn as a producer for the widely respected “60 Minutes” news program is multi-layered, discreet and potent. His chemistry with Russell Crowe here is exceptional and you can feel the turmoil he is going through with this magnificent dilemma hanging on his very shoulders when CBS suits decide not to include a potentially damaging interview, leaving the research chemist (Crowe), dangling in the wind and afraid for his very life. Pacino spends so much effort trying to get Jeffrey Wigand to trust him…to open up and speak — and when he finally does, he feels a responsibility towards him; to protect and defend him. It is a terrific film that illustrates an interesting side of broadcast journalism — and watching Pacino work in this territory makes for great drama. It’s one of those movies that, if I catch on TV, I cannot turn away from it.

#3. Tony Montana (Scarface, 1983)
I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.

Brian DePalma’s movie has its flaws, but Pacino totally immersed himself into the vicious, drug-addicted, murderous (but loyal) gangster, Tony Montana. How many times have you heard people quote from this film (“Say hello to my little friend…”)? That’s all Pacino. The accent, the walk, the gestures…though the film might not be for everyone, he created a truly iconic character here. It’s amazing how much strength and power Pacino commands in such a small frame (about 5′ 7″) — but that’s what he does here. No one in their right mind is messing with this guy and if they do…well, you’ve seen the movie. Pacino pulls out all the stops in Scarface and he chews a lot of scenery — but it is all within reason and all justifiable when you think of the lunatic character he is playing. I love his commraderie with Manny (Steven Bauer) — that is, until he sees him with his sister. The scene with his mother is a powerful one — and his rapport with Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham is terrific. The film — and the character especially, have become symbols in certain sub-cultures of the society. This says something. It is an over-the-top performance, but not in a hammy way at all…he is an artist losing all of his inhibitions and delving fully into a frightening human being.

#2. Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon, 1975)
The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.

One of the great New York films of the 1970’s and, for my money, the best bank heist movie of all-time. This character is on edge from beginning to end — you never know when he’s just going to lose it…or, being the “brains” of the group, hold it all together. It is a tour-de-force, seminal Pacino performance in every way and what a way to follow his work in The Godfather: Part II. Here, he plays a man who has nothing going for him and nothing at all to lose. So he robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. What ensues is a classic, suspenseful hostage situation filmed superbly by Sidney Lumet. Pacino here is intense (“Attica! Attica! Attica!!!“), vulnerable, even funny. In fact, there is a lot of humor throughout the film and part of what makes it so humorous is that Pacino plays it as straight as can be. The situation is so absurd, that this allows the humor to come about in natural fashion; not forced at all. Sonny is centerstage throughout, barking commands every which way (to Charles Durning, and the wonderfully talented John Cazale), trying to keep an eye on the prize and not lose control of himself or the situation. Pacino is doing so much all at once, you feel you kinda have to keep up with him. But it is all marvelous — and he creates a character that we ultimtely end up feeling great pity for…a testament to the great performance.

#1. Michael Corleone (The Godfather trilogy, 1972, ’74 & ’90)
If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.

What were you expecting…S1mone??? I put all three Coppola films together here or else three of the five slots would be taken up by The Godfather. And yes, I do include his excellent work in the vastly under-appreciated third installment. What can you say? Michael Corleone is one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema. A big part of that is surely due to Pacino. This made him. And to think that Paramount Pictures didn’t want this unknown anywhere near the movie. It seems ludicrous, even blasphemous to think of any other actor kissing the simple-minded Fredo (“You broke my heart, Fredo“), slapping Kay when she informs him of the abortion, shooting Sollozzo and McCluskey (look at those eyes sitting at that restaurant table), or marrying the beautiful Apollonia. Michael was supposed to be “the good son,” the war hero coming back home to make his father proud. As soon as he comes up with the idea to kill Sollozzo, his entire fate is changed. To watch Pacino subtlely develop this complex character from the original film to its sequel, and finally, the third film is one of the great accomplishments by any actor in silver screen history — and that is not hyperbole. It is riveting, majestic and flawless work.

Of course, other classics could just as easily be on this list — but 5 slots goes very quickly and again, I am looking at performance only. It’s a very challenging task, but I will take these 5 any day — and am eagerly looking forward to his future work, especially his turn as King Lear in Michael Radford’s upcoming film due out in 2012. I can absolutely get into that!

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44 Responses to The 5 Greatest Performances by Al Pacino

  1. Stephen Vani says:

    Hello Peter, thank you so much for writing this article. It brings me joy that you have acknowledged someone who is, and will always be an icon. I couldn’t agree with you more about the “yell and scream” bit, I get annoyed every time I hear that sort of criticism about him because it is, in your words, “nonsense and a poor observation”. If only certain people could see that he’s not the only person to have ever raised his voice in a movie, I’m happy that you do. I’m also glad that you mentioned his work on HBO, everyone always seems to forget about it even though he’s won two Emmys in the past decade and “could possibly” win another for playing Phil Spector; he has also signed up to play Joe Paterno, another Pacino biopic that I can’t wait for. I was hoping to see either Frank Serpico or Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero from Donnie Brasco, but I can’t argue with the pics you have, especially not Sonny Wortzik (my favorite Pacino performance). If not for the Godfather trilogy I would’ve ranked Dog Day Afternoon number one, but nobody can argue with Michael Corleone.

    Once again, great article. Al Pacino has always been my favorite actor and I thank you for appreciating what he has managed to do as an inspiration.

  2. silver says:

    Dear Peter,, Absolutely enjoyed reading yours and everyones ideas, for me, Al pacino-god,f 2, it was a perfect sublime performance and testament to his artistry and gift- i thought great in god f ,but cutting his teeth there to find michael c so even better in 2 that closing far of gaze in God f 2 after killing his brother,”brilliant ” would be fair to say. Equally impressive id choose pacinos sonny in Dog day aft; wow” what a fantastic feel to it the authentic realness of this film kitchen sink its called in britain, Pacino and sidney lamet ,peter; Charles Durning what an underated actor he is. Lamet’ what a gift to bring to Al ,proof; they did it twice with Serpico, only john slesinger,midnight cow; or milos forman,One flew over; could have lent Al this perfect marriege between Actor /Director, see i know my films too pete; respondants may like to know, AL was pipped” for a more than deserved osc; because Nicholson won it that yr i believe for,One flew over; which pete i thought probably the greatest screen performance of any actor: To tred and weave that manical performance with such sublime depth so layered,jacks finest that movie was extraordinary that for me was a mirical of a film and perfection everyone and thing something really special happend there do you think pete a bit like otoole and lawrence of arabia,, every naunce and obseravation and tec;etc etc,but al,s sonny was probably just as good as nicholson ”thats how good”i thought” As a film lover yourself pete you might like to know some my fav; screen perf.
    In no pert,order, Morgan F” should got osc i feel for shawshank, but Steve Mcqueen who was just as good in one my fav film all time should got oscer for Papillon. Deniro-and so many great pers from him, best i thought deniro was -Taxi driver, again outstanding. Al pacino so perfect in-god f 2 and Anthony Hop; silance,lambs. but sometimes overlooked Robert Downey , his excellant and versitile but for my money one best actors of all time has to be Ben Kingsly whos range is fenom; without being ott” think gentle gand; then, Shindlers another exceptional performance and film” and then think terrifing but not ott;;acting Kingsleys Don logan- Sexy Beast completely tranforming..wonder what thoughts you and replys have about my opinions.

    • thank you for reading the post and for sharing your insight and commentary on Pacino, DeNiro, Lumet and others. I agree that he is better in GF2 than in 1, but he is still PHENOMENAL in the first. I also love Dog Day – a great New York film, with a wonderful cast. I agree that feels very authentic. And I have always loved Charles Durning, so good call on that. Nicholson was surely deserving in 1975 for Cuckoo’s Nest..tough competition. Al couldn’t catch a break in the 70’s with the Oscar, despite his many brilliant performances. You bring up some monumental performances here – all great choices. I can’t argue over any of them. Thanks for taking the time to write…

  3. vinnieh says:

    Great list, Pacino is one of my favourite actors especially in The Godfather

  4. connor says:

    Scent of a woman + Serpico should be on te list

    • Yeah, it was tough leaving Serpico off. But when I look at the 5 I listed, I could not take one off. I think his work in The Insider is EXTREMELY underrated. But I get your point. Serico is one of the great films of the 70’s and he is fantastic in it. I have a few problems with SOAW, but he is still very strong. Thanks for your comment!!!

  5. ajkima says:

    how can anyone not include scent of a woman. i feel thats his most demonstrative performance among his great performances. And also he won oscar for that role.

    • yes, he won an Oscar for ‘Scent of A Woman,’ but I felt it was the Academy giving to Pacino finally after so many years of remarkable work and nominations that never came out as a win. He is fine in “Scent” but I can’t put it in my Top 5. There are others I would place before it as I feel he, at times, goes a bit overboard. I would have preferred to sneak ‘Serpico’ in there — or ‘People I Know.’

      • Annika says:

        I agree, Scent of a Woman was a good movie but definitely not his best and shouldn’t be included in his top 5 performances. The Academy was making up for decades of injustice by giving him the Oscar for his body of work and not for his performance in Scent of a Woman. Personally, I would put his performance in Dog Day Afternoon as his best. It was first movie I saw of his and I have been a fan since.

        • You are absolutely right with why he won the Oscar for “Scent.” It’s the Paul Newman law….well, he lost all of these other times for brilliant work, so we HAVE to give it to him now for this lesser work. Dog Day is marvelous, you are right. I put it at #2. There was no way I could not have Michael Corleone be #1. Thanks Annika for sharing!

  6. Nick says:

    Lol. Including Scarface has to be a joke. Over the top, cartoon and insulting to any real life Cuban. His mannerisms and his inability to sound like wasnt choking on marbles is nothing but embarrassing

    • Ouch. Well, I certainly respect your opinion…especially if you are of Cuban descent. The film is a bit cartoonish and over-the-top. I think that is the point. My personal opinion was that he did a phenomenal job at re-creating the rise and fall of this character and really getting into the skin of Tony Montana. Again, I respect your views – let’s agree to disagree on this one.

  7. Margo says:

    My favourite Pacino performance is that of Frank SERPICO

    • It is a GREAT performance and a wonderful film. He worked so well with Lumet. I cannot argue with someone that states he/she feels this may be his best work on camera. I may not agree, but his performance is so good that I can’t put up much of a fight.

    • Great choice — and a classic. Took a lot to leave that one off the list, so had to just do a quick mention.

  8. Pingback: G-S-T Quick 5 – Favorite Al Pacino Roles | GO, SEE, TALK!

  9. Heather says:

    Tough, tough one again, just about as tough as DeNiro………..

    5. The Devils Advocate/Dog Day Afternoon
    4. The Insider
    3. Heat
    2. The Insider
    1. The Godfather

    I make no mistake about putting The Devils Advocate up there. It was and still is one of my favorite character roles of all time. He made that flick.

    Of course, nobody can argue Michael Corleone as numero uno.

  10. Joel Burman says:

    Tough one.
    1. The Godfather
    2. Scarface
    3. Donnie Brasco
    4. Sea of Love
    5. Heat

    I tried to get Scarecrow in thats one of his best films when doing his overacting routine (Dog day afternoon is one of these films aswell but i don’t like that one as much).

  11. Marc says:

    Swap out Tony Montana for Carlito Brigante and Glengarry for Dog Day and you’ve got my list…also I was planning a Top 5 for my site but now I guess I don’t have to. Just like always Peter, stealing my thunder:P

    Also I agree with Ruth; Devil’s Advocate was awesome replete with the growling Pacino we know and love…and no one seems to give credit to Al for Dick Tracy. Maybe I will go ahead with my list anyway XD

  12. rtm says:

    Ooohhh so glad to see Lowell Bergman in here! I LOVE The Insider, and both Pacino and Crowe turned in amazing performances. He’s great in Devil’s Advocate, too, but the devil isn’t so obvious in real life, which makes Michael C. actually more terrifying.

    I’d add his performance in HEAT also, but maybe he’ll make your top ten? :)

    Well glad you didn’t include Simone… that was a terrible movie!

    • Yeah, The Insider is a terrific film. Totally agree. Good point about Michael C. too – much more evil there. Heat is an excellent film and I think it’s a smart movie, but couldn’t squeeze it in here. S1mone was ok, not terrible. At least it wasn’t Ocean’s 13…

  13. Raul Duke says:

    Peter,
    Devils Advocate? I really liked it but thought he played Lucifer better as Michael C. I’m sure he channeled him for that role.

  14. Dan says:

    Great top 5…couldn’t agree more. Dog Day and Godfather would be my top 2 also but depending on how I’m feeling on the day I might switch the order with DDA at number 1. That performance is so raw and authentic and moving and captivating…etc. etc.

    • wow, #1, huh? Over Michael??? That would be very tough for me to do! Haha. But Dog Day is so raw as you say and quite brilliant. I can see people putting in Insomnia or Donnie Brasco for The Insider here, but I thought his performance as Bergman was so complex and restrained.

  15. Tracey says:

    I’ve never seen Dog Day Afternoon. I feel shame. I would have to squeeze Frankie and Johnny into the top 5 for me. The scene in front of the flower truck gets me.

  16. Castor says:

    So many performances to choose from, Al Pacino is a living legend. I had a mini-seizure when I couldn’t see his Ricky Roma in the top 5 but it was all an hallucination as it was there lol ;)

  17. MAGGIE SIMI says:

    I dont know if al pacino is the Greatest actor of our time I would have to give this some thought. I do know that in his personal life and in his mind he is so troubled and thats why he gives us such performances. But im going to thing about this! Thanks..Great revies as usual!
    Maggie.

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