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!