This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … Al Pacino.
Now, the man does deserve his mega-props for creating one of the screen’s most memorable characters, Michael Corleone. His work in the first two Godfather films remains a stunning tour-de-force of acting. Every single word or facial expression has purpose. You never see Al Pacino. Michael Corleone is a real person to anyone who has watched the movie over and over, and that is a testament to Pacino’s genius in that role.
I’ll also acknowledge the acting clinic he put on with his Dog Day Afternoon performance. Every time I watch that movie, I am mesmerized by the consistency of his character, the mega-stressed, bank robbery-botching Sonny. From beginning to end, his nervousness and barely-in-control anxiety are palpable. How in the hell did he channel the same frazzled Sonny every day? It’s one of the finest acting jobs ever put to film.
But since those early 70s performances, I can think of only one other great role by “one of America’s greatest actors of all time.” (I’d cite that quote, but there are too many instances of its use for me to worry about it.) He turned in a scintillating performance as the unctuous, trench-mouthed Ricky Roma in the sublime Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s the only other movie where I forget that he’s Al Pacino, and I get lost in the verbal stylings of the curse-spewing, olive oil smooth, real estate peddling Ricky Roma. You’ve never seen it? Netflix it today. Call me if you can think of another actor who has delivered a more delicious use of the words “fuck,” “fairy” and “cunt.” By the time that movie is over, I want to know Ricky Roma. I want to get rooked in a real estate deal by Ricky Roma. I want to be called a “stupid fucking cunt” by Ricky Roma.
But once you get past those three classic performances, it’s either munch-munch-munch on the scenery, or it’s “Look at me act, now. Watch me play the understated, tired, world-weary, pensive middle-aged man. Check out this technique!” I either cringe or nod off when I watch his other work.
Let’s start with the overacting. Scarface is a joke. I understand that the character’s excesses are symbolic of the high-flying greedfest that was the 80s, but I don’t think Pacino went over the top with that role on purpose. Along with all the verbal thrashing and screaming, he changes his accent every fourth line. He seems to move from Spanish to Portuguese to Italian to … I swear, in one scene he breaks into a Pakistani voice. Both the movie and his performance aren’t very good. It appeals to knuckleheads, mainly. Need proof? In the school where I work, many of the dumbest teenagers today walk around with Tony Montana shirts, thinking it’s gangsta.
But Pacino’s Tony Montana seems almost sedate if compared to his embarrassingly burst-through-the screen turn as the blind ex-Marine in Scent of a Woman, an unwatchable piece of dreck with bad acting and a stupid message. (“You signed an honor code, kid? Fuck it. Break it to cover for a buddy. Even though it goes against everything this career Marine stands for, blow it off.”) Every famous actor eventually takes his gimp role, and this was Pacino’s. Gee, what a bravura performance, what with all that straight-ahead, look-how-blind-I-am staring. In his pathetic grasp for the Oscar he was robbed out of for the Godfathers I and II, he not only took the gimp role, he included a surefire Oscar-attention-grabbing catchphrase, in this case the insanely irritating and oft-imitated “Hoo-haaaahhhh!” I’m surprised he didn’t go for the slamdunk Oscar trifecta and die before the Oscar vote.
The roles in which he didn’t holler and wail for two hours weren’t much better. Heat, Carlito’s Way and Insomnia were examples of the “Watch Me Act” method of acting. I don’t see a character when I watch those movies. I see Al Pacino saying, “This is how it’s done. See how less is more? See how little it takes to show and say so much?” At least that’s what I see before I nod off.
At least those movies were decent, which is more than can be said for disasters like The Devil’s Advocate, Two Bits and Any Given Sunday. Donnie Brasco was saved by Johnny Depp, as are most movies that star Johnny Depp.
I’m sure his latest movie, in which he is paired with Robert DeNiro, another aging legend who has been phoning it in for years, is a mess. Even the trailers, which I saw four or five times, couldn’t make that movie enticing.
The funny thing is that, despite my dismissive put-down of his highly lucrative career, I really like Al Pacino. It’s not like his acting makes me want to punch him in the face through the screen every time I see him try to pass off a contorted face, some loud screams and a few hands run through the hair as acting. That’s Sean Penn. Maybe he peaked artistically too soon, like Brando, who lived off of On the Waterfront fumes for 30 years.
I’d be willing to tell this to Big Al’s face, but I wouldn’t do it to hurt his feelings. It would just make my life to have him listen, pause, then say, a la Ricky Roma, “You stupid fucking cunt.”
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.