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In praise of Al Pacino's hamminess

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Al_lAl Pacino, let’s face it, is a big fat ham. And we love him for it. Yes, he used to be one of the most brilliant, subtle actors in film, plumbing all the complexities of a Michael Corleone or a Sonny Wortzik. Yes, he turned into a cartoon in Scarface (pictured), and he’s scarcely looked back since. He’s become as predictable and imitable as William Shatner, only instead of pregnant pauses, Pacino’s shtick is that volcanic thing he does where he explodes every sixth word or so. And yet he’s great fun to watch, and he reliably enlivens movies that would otherwise be thoroughly pedestrian (The Devil’s Advocate, Two for the Money) without his presence. A Slate article last week, timed to the release of the DVD set Pacino: An Actor’s Vision, bemoans this transformation, but c’mon, since Scarface, we’ve been getting the Pacino we ask for, and in heaping helpings.

Let’s look for a moment at Pacino’s generation of leading men, the guys who redefined film acting in the ’70s and have have served as role models for actors ever since. Besides Pacino, there’s Jack Nicholson, who seldom makes movies anymore and seems content to rest on his laurels. There’s Dustin Hoffman, who still works often, usually playing underdogs seething with resentment or back-slapping clowns. There’s Robert De Niro, who’s perhaps even more prolific than Pacino, but who seems less and less present in the perfunctory genre pieces he takes on like factory work. Only Pacino, with all his exuberant scenery-chewing, still seems to really enjoy each performance — like he wouldn’t rather be off running a restaurant or serving a social cause — and conveys his joy to the audience.

addCredit(“Scarface: Everett Collection”)

Slate thinks this behavior is pandering, and it probably is, butwhat’s the alternative? The DVD set is full of navel-gazing chatterabout the actor’s craft, and two of the movies Pacino directed (The Local Stigmatic and Chinese Coffee) are the sort of talk-driven acting exercises that are also of interest primarily to other actors. (The third, Looking for Richard,is overtly populist in its effort to make Shakespeare accessible to themasses, and Pacino glows with missionary zeal throughout.) Havinginterviewed Pacino a few times, I know he spent years tinkering with Stigmatic and Coffee;they were workshop studies he made largely for his own amusement,without regard for whether they would please an audience or whether amass audience would ever even see them. That’s what you get when Pacinogoes for craft and subtlety instead of his crowd-pleasing antics, andeven Slate seems to recognize how dull the results are.

Still, even in his populist efforts, Pacino can still achievegreatness — when it suits his broader style. Think of his rumpledmobster in Donnie Brasco, or his Roy Cohn in Angels in America.Both were characters for whom theatricality and flamboyance were partof the point, since they were using all that artifice to hide deepvulnerabilities that they would not admit, even to themselves. In roleslike those, Pacino can reveal both the flashy exterior and the humbledinterior at the same time, and the result is even more riveting than acharacter who’s all bluster like his Satan in Devil’s Advocate.Maybe that’s the other reason Pacino remains popular: We love to watchhim command the screen with his charismatic volatility, but we alsosecretly hope with each role that this will be the one where he offersmore, goes deeper, and illuminates a secret heart, the way he used todo.