In a screen career spanning three decades, Al Pacino has turned out powerful, accessible performances that have earned him two Golden Globes and eight Oscar nominations (five actor, three supporting). Arguably, he is the most accomplished actor of his generation, yet Pacino had to wait until 1993 to be awarded an actor Oscar for “Scent of a Woman,” a year in which he also earned a supporting nom for “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Born in 1940 in New York, of Sicilian descent, Pacino trained at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, ultimately becoming a model Method actor. He first gained recognition onstage, winning a 1968 Obie Award for playing a drunken psychotic in the Off Off Broadway production “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” A year later, his performance as a drug addict in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” brought him a Tony.
The flamboyant eccentricity and dramatic intensity that defined his theater work would soon become his trademarks onscreen.
Pacino’s Hollywood career can be conveniently divided into three chapters. The first, and arguably the most impressive, began with his debut, a small part in “Me, Natalie” (1969), and ended with his idealistic lawyer in “And Justice for All” (1979), for which he won an actor nom from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Along with Jack Nicholson, Pacino became the quintessential actor of the 1970s, playing brooding, anti-authoritarian figures whose mores reflected the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate zeitgeist of mistrust, vengeance and paranoia. However, unlike Nicholson, who played cool, alienated anti-heroes, Pacino specialized in doomed ethnic outsiders (often immigrants), emotionally explosive men who carry themselves with blustery bravado despite defeating surroundings.
On the strength of his turn as a junkie in “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971), Francis Ford Coppola selected Pacino to play the complex key role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972), gaining immediate prominence as the war hero-turned-tyrannical mob heir. Pacino’s pivotal performance, including the two sequels, holds the sprawling epic together. Despite flashier turns by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, both of whom won Oscars for playing Don Vito, it’s Pacino’s Michael who dominates the saga in one of the great tragic roles of American cinema.
A disproportion prevails between the physical size of Pacino — a short, slight man — and the grandeur of his acting. Two quintessential New York policers directed by Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973) and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1974), offered Pacino ample opportunities to display the magnitude of his talent; both performances were certified with Oscar nominations.
Acclaimed in the former as the incorruptible maverick cop, Pacino diverted the film from an expose of greed and corruption to a lyrical ballad of a hippie. His interpretation was imbued with religious symbolism: Showing fondness for wild disguises (a recurrent Pacino trick), Serpico adopts in his private life the mode of a flower child’s vision of Christ.
The role that epitomizes Pacino’s forte is his fiery, unwittingly comical, borderline lunatic, sexually confused bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon,” an absurdist vision of New York as a gaudy carnival city, shaped by contradictory forces of anger, frustration, violence and bizarrely communal feelings.
In Pacino’s second, 1980s phase, his career went into a tailspin after a string of bad pictures that culminated with “Revolution” (1985), a work that bombed critically and financially. Perhaps Pacino was away from the screen for too long, undertaking daring theatrical ventures such as “Richard III.” Yet despite failures like “Cruising” (1980), a controversial look at the gay netherworld, and “Author! Author!” (1982), a critically savaged comedy, there were highlights.
Pacino’s explosive turn as Cuban drug kingpin Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” (1982), and his ex-con Puerto Rican trying to go straight in “Carlito’s Way,” contributed to growing public adoration for the actor.
Pacino made an effective comeback as a volatile, hard-drinking cop in “Sea of Love” (1989), which launched the third chapter of his career. The following year, he appeared in “Godfather Part III” and the comic strip “Dick Tracy,” in which he revealed a comic flair while encased in heavy makeup.
He finally won the elusive Oscar for “Scent of a Woman,” in which he rendered a grand, theatrical performance. Though a schematic melodrama, it offered the actor a glorious platform as the proudly virile yet self-loathing Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, a presidential aide who lost his vision and is about to kill himself. Pacino gave a technically flawless performance that displayed the gamut of emotions, using blindness the way stage actors employ props.
Like all great actors, Pacino continues to surprise. As “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman in “The Insider,” he proved to be a generous partner, subduing his acting and almost handing the picture to Russell Crowe, who received all the acclaim.
There has always been a charm, and moody romanticism to Pacino’s films, even the darker ones. Ultimately, though, his distinguished oeuvre serves as a forceful demonstration of star Method acting: Always projecting inner verve, Pacino serves notice as soon as he appears onscreen.
Indeed, Pacino is not only the centerpiece but often the very reason for his movies; inspired work has easily transcended his narratives. Sparkling with unusual ebullience, he brings to his roles a mixture of strong presence, brooding intensity, acute vulnerability, seductive malevolence and light self-mockery.