Fucking Pacino

A couple months ago, I watched Heat and decided Al Pacino is the worst actor in the world. Today, I saw Dog Day Afternoon for the first time. Pacino is so heartbreakingly great in a movie that has him go from stadium broad and jazz club intimate. I don’t know if a performer ever degenerated so dramatically, except for maybe Bob Dylan. 

Heat is generally not brought up in a discussion of embarrassing Pacino performances.  Usually the examples of his awful shouty showboating are the Devil’s Advocate or Scent of a Woman. He’s terrible in both of those movies, for sure, but he’s just as bad in Heat, a movie that curiously kept in high regard (Richard Roeper once called it the best movie of all time in aHoward Stern interview) despite being total shit due to Pacino.

Pacino is supposed to be a police detective with the sort of skills that require meticulous attention to detail and complete knowledge of investigative techniques. Pacino plays the guy like a hungover uncle who can’t believe he dropped his egg sandwich on his flip flops. And, because they are professional actors and they are obligated to follow the direction of the script, the supporting cops around him respond to him like someone who isn’t a lunatic. It’s almost like a comedy sketch, like something Phil Hartman would have fiercely committed to. Speaking of which, this scene, where Hank Azaria seems to be looking off camera waiting for someone to yell cut, shows how that sketch probably would have gone.

And that’s late period Pacino in a role that’s supposedly good. The “great ass” scene is probably the high watermark of bizarre acting, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every choice he makes in the performance is off-putting and kind of selfish. He pushes away all the other actors and the writers and the director so he can be this screaming weirdo.

So it was jolting watching Dog Day Afternoon and just being floored by Pacino’s acting. It’s like watching a different person. Obviously, there’s a couple decades between the movies, but its weird how much his voice changed. In Dog Day, he speaks in this soft, nasal chime. It’s nervous and charming and sounds like how a real person (well, a real person from the outer boroughs at least) talks. Now, he speaks exclusively from the bottom of his throat, like he’s always trying to do an impression of himself.

One key point of continuity between the two performances I’m comparing.  he even goes big in Dog Day, too. Like in the scene above, the famous one where he riles up the crowd by yelling “Attica,” he’s framed like a stage actor. You see his whole body in the frame and he plays to the cheap seats. But the difference is that it makes sense for the character and the scene. His character is a self loathing bipolar loser who’s made nothing  but bad choices in his life and only known bad luck. But he’s propelled by his own sense of delusion. He believes he’s exceptional and the crowd reinforces that mistaken belief. He’s energized by the negative attention and plays to it. It’s a feedback loop. He invokes the attica prison tragedy, which was something that he said earlier in a free associative context, and in the eyes of the crowd, he becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure even though he’s really just a selfish, self deluded sociopath.

But the critical thing here is that you don’t have Al Pacino going big and eating scenery. You have a sloppy mess of a character going big and eating scenery. He’s not an actor; he’s a character. And watching it on the big screen, he looked like Freddy Mercury or Mick Jagger—a rock star, someone who commands attention effortlessly and comfortably.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his hair is amazing in Dog Day Afternoon. In the beginning of the movie, before Pacino walks into the bank, his hair is like this awesome Robert Smith/Ron Wood bird’s nest. Then, as he gets sweatier, it becomes like a Rocky Balboa/Keith Richards oil mop. Hipster barbershops could save a lot of time by posting screen shots on their walls.

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