Pacino’s turn in ‘Godfather II’ a masterpiece

Actor's role as Michael Corleone one of nuance, restraint

It may be that Al Pacino’s performance in “The Godfather Part II” is not the greatest performance by an actor in the history of English-language cinema. He certainly has his rivals: Brando in “On the Waterfront.” Brando in “The Godfather,” for that matter. De Niro in “Raging Bull.”

Among those who similarly didn’t win an Academy Award — and Pacino didn’t — there is Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” and O’Toole again in “Beckett.”

But none of Pacino’s peers was able to realize their particular role over quite so much historic time, geographic space and emotional frontier. None of them had an entire movie to use as a flying head start. And few have so fully dominated a film.

“The Godfather” is arguably Michael Corleone’s story, but the movie is still an ensemble piece, a baroque octet of synchronized and harmonizing parts. Al Pacino in “Godfather II” is Horowitz at the piano, with a full orchestra backing him up. (Fredo? He would be the bassoon.)

It has been the common wisdom among fans and critics since 1974 that “Godfather II” is the story of a powerful man’s fall from grace. But if any man ever had a push, it was Michael Corleone. First, he is betrayed by people he knows, the ones who ordered his Lake Tahoe home riddled with bullets (“My bedroom … where my children come to play with their toys”). And while he expects treachery from Hyman Roth, he doesn’t expect it from Fredo, or his wife Kay, whose confession in Act 3 (aborting their baby) seals what Michael has suspected all along: that he is alone in the universe.

Pacino might have felt the same way, at least at the beginning.

“They didn’t like the casting,” Francis Ford Coppola remembers, in the as-yet-unreleased documentary “Fog City Mavericks,” recalling the litany of objections Paramount had to the making of the original movie. Pacino knew he wasn’t wanted for the role. He wasn’t even sure about it himself.

“It’s an impossible part,” Pacino tells Variety. “I didn’t see myself as (Michael). There was nothing about it except Francis. Francis said I could do it. Francis wanted me. And lucky for me he felt that way, frankly, ’cause I didn’t.”

For the second film, there was no question about Pacino’s participation (he’d received a best supporting actor nomination for the first film), or that he would be compensated more generously than he was for “The Godfather” (for “II” he got a reported $500,000 plus a percentage, a package described at the time “a near-2,000% raise”). Or that he had, as he puts it now, “found a way.”

“I had found someone, a place to go to,” Pacino says. “I felt a little more — I can’t say comfortable. That’s not a word I would use in describing Michael Corleone.”

No one would use it to describe watching Michael Corleone either. The world of “Godfather II” is relatively, and ironically, sunlit — Tahoe and Cuba, for instance, as compared to the Don’s gothic study, or the oftimes wintry grayness of Long Island — and Michael’s corresponding darkness comes solely from within. He kisses Fredo, screams at Kay, but the truly terrifying aspects of Michael Corleone are to be read in his quietest moments, across a face that is a map of both heartbreak and Machiavellian menace.

Despite several startling emotional outbursts — startling because, one, Pacino is so explosive, and, two, because they’re so uncharacteristic of Michael’s calculated temperament — it is in those moments of unexpressed rage and subtle art that Pacino is most eloquent.

In commenting on Michael’s initial appearance in the film, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote rhetorically: “Is it our imagination or is Michael’s face starting to rot?”

There is no scene in “II,” though, that parallels the creeping close-up of the first installment, which signifies Michael’s crossing the moral Rubicon: “Now we insist that it’s a public place: a bar, restaurant somewhere where there’s people so I feel safe … (the camera moves closer). They’re gonna frisk me when I first show up, right? (closer) So I can’t have a weapon on me then (closer). But if Clemenza can find a way to have a gun planted there for me (closest), then I’ll kill them both.”

Gordon Willis, who shot that sequence — and calls the second film “a classier piece” — says: “Al is a brilliant actor, but he doesn’t always connect the need for something cinematic to his desire for more elbow room on the screen. He is, however, quite unique.”

Looking back at how Pacino was received in the role doesn’t do much for the status of the critical community. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby, who barely mentioned Pacino, said, “The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better his original film was.” Roger Ebert, with eminent restraint, wrote that, “Pacino is very good at suggesting the furies and passions that lie just beneath his character’s controlled exterior.”

Even Kael, who rhapsodized about the film, was not quite as generous with Pacino: “Pacino does something very difficult,” she wrote, “he gives an almost immobile performance. Michael’s attempt to be the man his father was has aged him, and he can’t conceal the ugliness of the calculations that his father’s ceremonial manner masked.”

Not even Pacino has much to say about his performance, crediting Coppola, again, for the director’s passion and vision.

“I remember when Francis first told me about ‘Godfather II,’ ” Pacino recalls. “He sat in a room, or in a restaurant like this one, and he started talking. And I could feel the back of my hair starting to stand on end.”

Getting that feeling onscreen, of course, was not something Coppola could do on his own.