Still the boss

HOllywood diaries

Still the boss

I’m meeting Al Pacino in an old-school joint in New York’s Upper West Side with leather banquettes and good coffee. He sits quietly waiting, elegantly dishevelled in his civilian uniform. After four decades of exponential ‘legendary’ status, he simply owns the room by doing nothing at all.

Pacino has a way of making you forget, quickly, that he’s ‘Al Pacino’. True, he has the kind of presence that makes all 5ft 7in of him seem almost overpowering; he is charismatic — in life, as on screen, you can’t take your eyes off his face. Yet he is low-key, easygoing and incongruously humble.

Peak of success

In the space of five years, he conquered a series of self-eviscerating outsider roles that are still considered some of the greatest in film history: the inscrutable, passive-aggressive Michael Corleone in The Godfather I and II; the dogged idealist Frank Serpico; the wired gay bank robber turned media hero in Dog Day Afternoon.

Out of step with the power franchises of the next decade, he fell out of favour in the 1980s — though the operatic paroxysms of Scarface struck a popular chord. His box-office weight was reinvigorated in the more nuanced films of the 1990s, with Carlito’s Way, Heat and Donnie Brasco, but he has been periodically mauled by critics in recent years, perhaps for not re-summoning the rawness of his youth.

Great parts, he says, like great loves, are very rare. “Most of the time you’re just trying to survive. All the work isn’t the same. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do in it. You reconcile yourself to that. Only occasionally you find a role that really asks you to go there.” Still, he has “gone there” more times than most. He has performed in about 100 films and plays, has been nominated for eight Oscars — he won for The Scent of a Woman in 1993 — and has been awarded numerous Emmys and Golden Globes. He also has two Tonys and was nominated in 2010 for his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. He is not the kind of guy to “sit back and smell the golf balls”.

For Pacino gives no sense that he has in some way “arrived” anywhere or, indeed, that he is a master of anything — he is still “striving” for all of that, he says. He is insatiably questioning, grappling for the right words to accurately express what he feels more as instincts; conveying his meaning instead with a glance or a pause. 

Acting his age

Pacino has been ruminating on the decline of old age of late, partly due to a decision to accept only roles that are “part of what I am going through; it’s got to be a little autobiographical”, after a few films in the past four years taken on for financial reasons. His recent work heralds a potential fifth-act renaissance where he is once again emotionally in tune with his material.

He won an Emmy for his role as Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia activist, in You Don’t Know Jack in 2010. And late last year he delivered a self-reflective performance in the darkly comic The Humbling, about the 60-something actor Simon Axler, who, having lived vicariously through his roles, finds that, when forced to abandon the theatre, he has no real life left to speak of. Pacino’s own compulsion for the stage seems inextinguishable — by his own acknowledgement acting is the very life-giving force of his existence. “It’s sort of like breathing to me. It gave me life. It educated me, as little as I am educated. It saved me.”

In his new comedy, Danny Collins, he portrays a Rod Stewart-style geriatric rock star who was heralded as a folk genius in youth. There are resonances for Pacino. “As a kid (Collins) was touted as the next Bob Dylan. He’s completely shaken by that. He’s so sensitive, fragile.” And he engaged with the older Collins as “a survivor”. The script doesn’t do Pacino justice, but he is still irresistible as an aged musician, jadedly living on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, who attempts to connect with his only son, the product of a groupie tryst, after receiving a lost letter from John Lennon, written to him in 1971.

Collins is less Pacino than a version of the man he could have been had he not stopped drinking. Like the young Dylan, Pacino was a ‘purist,’ a South Bronx street kid turned ardent theatre actor who was entirely unprepared for the distorting lens of fame. “I had a strange reaction to it. The reaction wasn’t positive. I was catapulted out of a cannon. People are more accepting of fame today because of all the media outlets. Young people even aspire to it,” he says with incredulity. But Pacino “felt bombarded by life” and by people who approached him on the streets. “I became more aware of myself, constantly reminded that I had this name because (strangers) kept calling me by it. Being an outsider is part of being an artiste. You try to conform. But some of us just can’t. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I still don’t.”

A painful childhood

It would be easy for a psychologist to view Pacino’s life as defined by the abandonment of his father at an early age — and a subsequent search for paternal substitutes. Forty years after The Godfather, the absent father-son dynamic still seems to be fertile territory for Pacino. “Danny Collins reminds me of my father. He was a great singer and dancer; he felt that was his calling. He wound up as an insurance salesman. He was married five times.”

An only child, he retreated into his imagination, re-enacting scenes from the cinema to “fill up the loneliness”. He left school at 16 and moved to the West Village, working odd jobs to save for drama school, and joining the café theatre scene. It was here, at 17, that he met Laughton, who would become a crucial professional and emotional fulcrum for Pacino, helping to shoulder the catastrophic blows of the deaths of his mother and of his grandfather. 

He channelled his disorientation and grief into his performances at the Actors Studio, which he joined at 23, under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, who encouraged him to mine the emotion of real-life experiences. His freewheeling approach to acting and an abyss of emotional potential was precisely what lent his performances their potency, enabling him, as a short, working-class Italian-American, to break into Broadway theatre in 1969, and then into film two years later. But he had to fight. He auditioned three times for the role of Michael Corleone — Francis Ford Coppola alone wanted him. Acting, for him, is “freeing the unconsciousness, allowing it to take over. Mostly consciousness gets in the way.”

A lone wolf, Pacino has never married any of his girlfriends, a long list of strong, smart, generally unstarry women including Jan Tarrant, the acting coach with whom he has a 26-year-old daughter, Julie, and the actress Beverly D’Angelo, the mother of Olivia and Anton. He has been with Solá for the past seven years.

He’s late now. But he wants me call him again tomorrow because he knows he doesn’t speak in soundbites. The next day, when I call he is fired up after seeing a production of Hamlet last night. “It’s so wild that play. I’ve read it since I was a boy, but I still can’t get over it. I could see it a 1,000 times a year. The joy! And I’m not even in it.” He’s just being Pacino: a juggernaut of boyish enthusiasm. “The theatre is the flashlight for me. It’s done everything for me since I was three years old. I’m not in the playpen now. But I’m still playing.”

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