Al Pacino on the screen
After debuting in a small role in 1969’s Me, Natalie, Al Pacino earned five Oscar nominations in his first decade in films — a feat equaled only by Brando in the ’50s. Pacino’s film output dropped off in the ’80s, as he spent much of his time in the theater. But just when most of us thought he had disappeared, he made his return to the screen in Sea of Love and Dick Tracy, with his third Godfather to come. Here — except for the forgettable Me, Natalie — is a complete Pacino filmography, with comments by the actor. All the movies (excluding The Panic in Needle Park) are available on video.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Pacino’s first leading role was in this relentlessly depressing story of young junkies in love on the streets of New York. Female lead Kitty Winn was thrust into the spotlight first, winning Best Actress at Cannes. But it was Pacino’s performance that caught the eyes of American critics, who praised his instincts and intensity.
The Godfather (1972)
Pacino landed the role of Michael, heir to the Corleone crime empire, only at director Francis Coppola’s insistence. The studio heads felt a big name was needed, and not even Pacino thought he was right for the role. ”I didn’t understand why Francis wanted me to play that part,” he says. ”I was shocked, like everybody else. I always thought he wanted me for Sonny, but Michael was the only character he saw me as.” The performance won him his first Oscar nomination.
Pacino and Gene Hackman are drifters who become unlikely friends while hitchhiking across the country. A downbeat buddy movie in the Midnight Cowboy mold, it shared the Best Film award at Cannes, and while critical opinion was mixed, acclaim for its stars was nearly unanimous. Despite rough edges, this lost-in-America travelogue remains an unsung high point in the careers of both actors.
Sidney Lumet’s street-smart drama based on real events and people starred Pacino as Frank Serpico, an honest New York cop who led a one-man crusade against rampant police corruption. ”(The role) was exciting to work on because I had the real guy to study,” says Pacino, whose Oscar-nominated performance captures how Serpico’s passion veered into obsession. Watergate-era audiences embraced the character as a bona fide hero, and the movie became a hit.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
If Godfather was about Michael Corleone’s rise to power, Godfather II showed him preserving that power at the expense of his humanity. The part earned Pacino his third Oscar nomination but almost cost him his life. He fell ill during filming in the Dominican Republic and was hospitalized, where his condition deteriorated. When his longtime friend Lee Strasberg saw the actor’s state, he contacted Pacino’s personal physician, who whisked him back to the States. ”The doctor told me I would have died if I’d been in there one more day,” Pacino says.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Back on the streets of New York, Pacino reunited with Sidney Lumet to play another character from real life, a nobody who becomes somebody when he tries to rob a bank to pay for his male lover’s sex-change operation. When he takes hostages, the heist escalates into a media circus. Pacino’s mercurial portrayal brought him Oscar nomination No. 4.
Bobby Deerfield (1977)
Pacino’s title character is a cold, controlled Grand Prix driver who falls in love with a dying woman (Marthe Keller). ”The middle of the film wasn’t quite thought out,” he says, but he was intrigued because ”it played a little on my condition, having to do with isolation and loneliness and what can happen with success and money.” Sydney Pollack directed Alvin Sargent’s screenplay, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, but all that talent couldn’t save Pacino’s first wrong career move.
…And Justice for All (1979)
A young trial lawyer bucking the rotten legal system was the perfect Pacino part in a less-than-perfect movie. ”It suffered from one too many incidents,” acknowledges Pacino. ”One less and the picture would have done a little better.” The moment that redeems this Norman Jewison film is its crowd-pleasing climax, in which the star denounces the trial, the system, and all of society as he’s carried kicking and screaming from the courtroom. That scene alone may have won Pacino his fifth shot at an Oscar.
Pacino rejoins the NYPD, this time as an undercover cop cruising the gay leather-bar scene in search of a serial killer. The film is among the most infamous in recent Hollywood history. Critics considered it a failed thriller, and segments of the gay community found it homophobic in the extreme. ”It was a movie I just fell into,” Pacino says. ”I was working with Billy Friedkin, who had done The Exorcist, The French Connection, so I thought he was going to make a real thriller in his tradition. Something that was going to be a fantasy. That was my perception.” Somehow the actor emerged from the controversy unscathed, but a good performance got lost along the way.
Author! Author! (1982)
Pacino’s first (and maybe last) light comedy found him playing a Broadway playwright whose wife (Tuesday Weld) has walked out, leaving him with her children from various marriages. As the story of a makeshift family pulling together, the movie was meant to run on warmth and charm. Few critics found enough of either. Pacino was uncomfortable with director Arthur Hiller, and it shows. ”Hiller and I did not get along,” admits Pacino. ”He’s the only director that’s happened to me with.”
Pacino is Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee turned Miami drug lord, in this remake of Howard Hawks’ gangster film. With Oliver Stone doing the screenplay and Brian De Palma directing, the result was understandably overheated. But, says Pacino, ”that was part of Brian’s concept, to do everything in an extraordinary way — to have the violence blown up, the language blown up. The spirit of it was Brechtian, operatic. You get a lot of movie with Scarface.”
In his only historical picture, Pacino played a colonial loner swept up in the American war of independence. Despite a splendid production and impressive battle sequences, this film by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) inspired few viewers. Pacino says it was rushed into release too fast: ”That film wasn’t finished, it had another six months of work. It was like selling somebody a car without a motor. The audience saw something incomplete.”
Sea of Love (1989)
Widely perceived as a comeback for Pacino, this film gave him a meaty role as a cop in mid-life crisis who falls in love with a woman he suspects of several sex-related killings. Critics hailed it as suspenseful and praised him and costar Ellen Barkin for the sparks they struck onscreen. Audiences were so happy to rediscover Pacino that not even scene-stealer John Goodman could swipe his thunder.
Dick Tracy (1990)
As Big Boy Caprice, the kingpin in a gallery of comic-strip grotesques, Pacino gave Jack Nicholson’s Batman Joker a gleeful run for his money. Chewing up the scenery with gusto, Pacino seemed liberated by his role’s cartoonfulness. ”It was fun to do,” he says. That seems an understatement: You could see that, even behind the ton of makeup he wore, he was having the time of his life.