Top 10: Al Pacino Performances

In honor of the current book I’m reading Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel (which is a great look into the actor’s mind, life and acting process) here is what I personally consider to be Al Pacino’s best performances. Al Pacino is regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, his leap from the stage to the screen led him to a blazing start, appearing in some of history’s most famous films.

Although many like to poke fun that Al’s work gets gradually bigger and louder as time goes on. That he has now mastered the art of screaming and yelling on the top of his lungs, until it has become redundant. But nonetheless, Al Pacino’s performances are varied and vibrant.

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1. Michael Corleone – The Godfather

How can there be any other choice for #1? Francis Ford Coppola campaigned for Pacino against the studio’s wishes, refuting that there was no one else more perfect for the role. When he read the book, someone like Al Pacino was who he pictured in his head. Pacino would’ve preferred to play James Caan’s role as the hothead Sonny, (and Al eventually gets his wish and plays yelling hotheads many times throughout his career) but Pacino is masterful as the quiet, calculating Corleone. His still and subdued performance is much more powerful in the unspoken than any shouting could ever emote.

In this scene below, watch how he struggles to hold himself together despite the utter shock and contempt he feels for hearing what Kay has done. (And for a devout traditional Catholic, it is even more horrible) Note the wave of anger as he lashes out and slaps her, but you can see he regrets it as he quickly steps back.

There are far too many clips I could show from the first two films that demonstrate his fine work in this infamous role.

2. Sonny Wortzick – Dog Day Afternoon 

For all the stillness and subtly Pacino conveys in Corleone, he shows the complete opposite in his portrayal of Sonny Wortzick, a zany bounciness fueled by nervousness and hysteria. The role of Sonny was slightly controversial, a high-profile actor taking on the role of a gay man robbing a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. This was one of the first main gay characters to ever appear in a mainstream film.

But Pacino doesn’t play him flamboyantly or override him with stereotypes, instead he is filled with passion and love for his partner. Overall, there is such a beloved earnestness in Sonny. The combination of that earnestness and naiveté is wholly endearing, as the not-so-well planned heist ends up becoming a media circus. (Foreshadowing the days of reality TV and the allure of fifteen-second fame.) His rallying cry of “Attica! Attica!” was completely improvised, earning the status of becoming one of the most famous film lines of all time. You can’t get a better example of Pacino’s energy and passion as an actor with this role.

3. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade – Scent of a Woman 

This is the film that finally gave Al Pacino an Oscar. After being a seven-time nominee, most feel that this was given to Pacino more of as a consolation prize, making up for all his losses, rather than the part actually being deserving of one. Some feel the film is too long and overly schmaltzy. However, I view it as a heartwarming, moving, and triumphant drama with a lot of merit. Although it’s undeniable that the film would be nothing without Al Pacino’s performance. Al Pacino a Lieutenant Colonel Slade is a tortured soul, underneath all of his sarcasm and bravado, he is a lonely man. Blinded by an act of his own making, he is in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

Others feel that this role is very over-the-top and Oscar bait. But I think Pacino’s theatrical tendencies suit this character. Slade has got a lot of anger, a lot stirring up inside of him. And when it comes out, it over-bubbles.

That famous hoo-ha was Completely improvised by Pacino during his own private character work. If there’s anything I’ve learned by reading his interviews, is that despite a decades long career he still manages to take the time out to do private work for his characters. That’s someone who’s truly dedicated to their craft. Also, the closing speech is inspiring and audience-rousing.

4. Arthur Kirkland – …And Justice for All 

The film is a bit unbalanced, shifting between emotional drama and sitcom-like humor. (There’s really cheesy 70s sitcom music and close-ups) But Pacino’s performance certainly holds it together. Kirkland is an honest lawyer, he cares about the people and wants to obey the law and help as many as he can. This scene, below, I feel demonstrates some of his finest acting work, Especially when Kirkland admits that his client ended up hanging himself. The emotion in his voice and eventual breakdown is very well-crafted. You can really sense the other actor trying to keep up with Pacino’s skills.

…And Justice for All also features another famous ‘Pacino yelling speech’, one of the most famous. In his earlier days, before Pacino yelling became more of a joke and token staple in his films, you can see that when he nailed it he really did nail it. Similar to Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino portrays Arthur Kirkland’s earnestness and passion as endearing and commendable.

5. Frank Serpico – Serpico

Al Pacino as Serpico is a famous and big role for him, between this and the recent release of The Godfather, he catapulted into becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It is also a transformative role We see him go from a clean-cut fresh faced rookie cop to a grizzled hippie police outcast, the only one standing alone for what he knows is right. Watching it, it is undeniable that Pacino carries the film. Both gracefully and explosively portraying the struggles and convictions of the real-life cop.

6. Lt. Vincent Hanna – Heat

Pacino sizzles in Heat, he has a lot of fun playing Vincent Hanna and you can see it. Pacino is able to run wild with his character, a wild-eyed hothead workaholic who struggles to keep together his crumbling marriage. But in the end, work is more important as he engages in a cat-and-mouse chase for the criminal Neil, played by Robert De Niro. Heat is famously the first film to bring the acting greats De Niro and Pacino together. Pacino brings his well-known bravado and theatrics to create a fun and truly memorable character.

7. Tony Montana – Scarface

Al Pacino’s role in this is iconic, so permeated in pop culture (“Say hello to my little friend” is perhaps one of the most infamous and widely quoted movie lines) that it’s hard to believe the film was poorly received when it first came out. Many felt that the film and performance was overly flamboyant, far too over-the-top. But Pacino, aligned with what he felt was Brian De Palma’s vision, wanted to make his performance operatic. And indeed, it is. Operatic as well as wildly entertaining. For all the extravagance that Cuban immigrant-turned-cocaine drug kingpin Tony luxuriates in, how can he be anything but over-the-top? There is no gray area or reeling in with this character, and Pacino goes all for it.

8. Lowell Bergman – The Insider

A lot of Pacino’s characters seem to be passionate, dedicated individuals who fight for a cause against the odds. In line with that narrative, Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, a reporter trying to take on the corrupt tobacco industry. However, for all of his passion this is much more of a quiet intensity. Rather than relying on his past theatrics, which work for other performances, this character brings a different kind of earnestness that we don’t usually see in Pacino’s other work.

9. Carlito – Carlito’s Way 

Also directed by Scarface‘s Brian De Palma, Pacino plays a character completely opposite Tony Montana. Carlito Puerto-Rican ex-convict who tries his hardest to stay on the straight and narrow path. It is a very quiet and understated performance, he tells a lot more through the eyes. Another thing that sticks out about the performance is that you want Carlito to succeed so much, you want him to be able to stay on the right path as much as he can, despite all the temptations along the way.

His character also brings a lot of humor, like in this scene.

10. Johnny – Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny is a rather underrated romantic comedy, featuring Pacino in a performance that we rarely see from him. Instead of his tough guy characters, we get to see his lighter side, an emotional and vulnerable man with a lot of humor and a heart of gold. It’s a sweet movie with Al Pacino yet again playing another earnest character. There is nothing deceitful about him for he lays all of his emotions out on the table. Michelle Pfeiffer is also exceptional opposite him.

Honorable mention to Two Bits, where Pacino gives a heartwarming and moving performance as a sickly and dying grandfather, a sweet and touching side we rarely see in his roles.

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In celebration of Al Pacino’s great work on film, I leave you with this fun remix.

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Pleasantville: Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

Director Gary Ross says that Pleasantville is about “the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression. That when we’re afraid of certain things in ourselves or we’re afraid of change, we project those fears onto to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop”

Pleasantville is perhaps one of the most blatantly liberal films. This political oppression that Gary Ross speaks of is what most conservatives bring on. Such as the oppression of the self when it comes sexual freedom, issues of race, and censorship of art. The film remarkably uses color, as the black and white world of Pleasantville slowly turns into color. The bland, conformist black and white transforms into beautiful color when the world and true self opens up.

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Tobey Maguire plays David, a teenager in the 90s. And between AIDS and global warming, there’s a lot to be scared of. Pleasantville is his favorite show, a Leave It To Beaver-esque escape to the good old years of the 1950s. But the film shows that those good old years had values that weren’t so good.

Through a magic remote, he and his sister get transported into the show. Since this is a television world, the oppressive elements of the 1950s are heightened. There are no roads out of town, their basketball team always wins, all the books are blank, and there is no sex. They don’t even go to the bathroom!

But although it’s a television world, television still reflected the values of the time. Before counterculture hit, the 1950s are often nostalgically looked back on as a sweet, idealistic and comfortable suburban life. The filmmakers dispel the fantasy that it was an era of innocence. What many think was ‘perfect’ or ‘idyllic’ about the 1950s, was in fact very ugly. In that time, women were confined to the household or purely as sex objects (nothing in between), many blacks couldn’t vote, and artists were branded as Communists. In Pleasantville, the changes that happen in the town are symbolism for the upcoming sexual revolution, feminist movement, and civil rights movement of the 1960s.

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At the beginning, David is in his glory being in his favorite TV town. He loves playing the part of Bud Parker and interacting in the town. Jennifer, on the other hand, hates living in the town, so she decides to shake things up. All of the changes that happen in the town start with sex, when Jennifer sleeps with a local boy on Lover’s Lane. After that, he sees color for the very first time, on a flower. Eventually, other teenagers start in on the trend and soon they all start turning into color, bit by bit. Just on the lips, or their bubblegum, or their shoes.

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Betty Parker, Mary Sue’s mother, (played by Joan Allen) like most of the adults, catches wind of what is going on at Lover’s Lane and with the newly colored teenagers. Jennifer tells Betty about sex, but also the joys of pleasuring herself… (And in her discovery it causes a tree to burst on fire, and since there are no fires in Pleasantville, they don’t know how to put them out!)

Betty Parker, like most TV and real-life wives of the ’50s, was expected to be the perfect housewife. Dinner on the table at 5, house clean, always looking beautiful. After learning the joys of the self and striking up a relationship with the soda shop owner, she becomes the first adult to turn to color. Her husband wants her to cover up and remain black and white but she likes being in color, and awakened to the world. She likes the newfound freedom in herself to be able to leave the house, and live for herself. Not just living as a live-in maid who watches the clock tick by until her husband returns home for dinner.

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One night she dares to go out and doesn’t make dinner for George, leaving him to fend for himself. The men in the town and the mayor react in horror. This is obviously an emergency! David mocks the mayor in the end courtroom scene. “Pretty soon the women will go and work while the men stay home and cook!” Between the behavior of Betty Parker and the teenagers turning color, Pleasantville is shaken up and horrified by all these changes.

The use of color also, quite clearly, is an allegory of race. As more and more people become colorful, the mayor decrees that “You must separate out things that are pleasant from things that are unpleasant” and deems the true citizens of Pleasantville as those who are in black and white.Those who are the same and the majority (black and white) are good, those who are different and the minority (the colored) are seen as bad. (There are no African-Americans in Pleasantville because, since it was a 1950s show, they would not be depicted in suburbia) The tensions between the blacks and whites vs. the coloreds are quite obviously shown in this scene.

Pleasantville also takes on the censorship of art. Art and books allow you to be opened up to a world outside of your own, perhaps outside of the societal norms that you’ve been put in. And once the world opens up to you, you start questioning things. This is a no-no for Pleasantville. What’s here and what we know is good. What’s outside the world, what is unknown, we should fear and not be exposed to.

The blank pages of books start filling in, and soon the teenagers start filling the library excitedly reading. Jennifer starts falling in love with reading and her studies. But the film is not chastising her for being a previously ‘promiscuous’ character, and quelling that promiscuity is good. It shows that sexual freedoms and freedom of the mind are equally important.

The townsfolk are able to tolerate, but still question the sexual liberation of the young people. But they seem more disturbed that women are actually hanging out at the library. Women with brains are far more alarming.

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(There’s a beautiful scene where David tells them the story of Huck Finn and the pages fill in as he tells them. The teens are enamored with the story and thrilled to be able to read it.)

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The owner of the soda shop, who has a love of painting, (and one of very few adults to transform to color and become liberated) is now able to see the beautiful artworks from history. This inspires him to paint a nude painting of Betty Parker on the walls.

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This outrages the black and whites of town. Nudity to them, of course, is awful and disgusting and should not be seen, even in a painting. They vandalize and destroy the beautiful soda shop, breaking the glass painting. They burn the books. Haven’t we seen this before? The beauty of art when it is different or challenging, or “outside of our values” is something to be feared, smothered, put away. Censorship of art is still prevalent in our society.

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As more and more of the teenagers turn color, Jennifer becomes frustrated that she is still in black and white.

Jennifer: I’ve had, like, ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend, like, an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden they’re in Technicolor?

David: I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just the sex.

The color does not just represent sexual freedom, but freedom of the self. Black and white to color represents the transformation from repression to enlightenment. The people, and their surroundings, change to color when they connect with the essence of who they really are. This is perfectly exemplified in the ending scene, as well as a perfect representation of the stubbornness of some American people with conservative values to change.

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When filled with a sense of complete self, or a burst of pure unrepressed emotion, the color is released from within. The color is the change, finding one’s personality that doesn’t conform into social norms. See how David gets to turn his father and the mayor into color in the scene below.

Pleasantville is quite an underrated film. The beauty of it’s message is important. The people of Pleasantville turned to color when something stirred within them. Freedoms of art, music, sex, or freedoms from gender or societal roles allow us to be our true selves and what makes the beauty and differences of the world. When we hold in our true selves out of fear, ugliness does rear its head. Fearing differences or change does not allow us to connect with our fellow human or with the world. This is a film with a definite message, that stands for something that not all may agree with. But we shouldn’t be like the citizens of Pleasantville, for this is not a black-and-white world.

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Scene Sound Off: 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch, but an essential one. One that rawly portrays the horrors of American slavery. There are so many scenes that are hard to watch, (most notably the excruciatingly violent whipping of Patsey) but there is another in particular that is quietly disturbing, and one of the most important visuals of the film.

We open with a wide shot of Solomon hanging by his neck, barley able to tiptoe. He is awaiting possible death, punishment for beating up a white superior. Fearing for his life, he struggles to stay alive. The camera does not let the audience look away for nearly 90 seconds. The slaves in the background go about their business. In the next shot we pull tighter as a kind slave gives him water, something she surely could’ve been punished for.

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There is a shot of the children playing, their sounds of laughter heightened. We know that the slaves are used to this kind of horror, but it is particularly effective to see that even the young children are immune to it as well. These children see this kind of torture and pain every day. It is a daily occurrence in their life and there’s no need to pay any attention to it.

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We see a shot of the mistress watching Solomon from atop her beautiful mansion as he dangles through the middle of the shot, the back of his head in a close-up.

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In the next shot, we are on the porch of the slave quarters. To the right a slave woman goes about her business, and you can barely see Solomon in the background, still hanging there. The shadows are growing longer, more and more time is passing.

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In the last shot, it is now evening. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit says, “What was very important is that the audience gets a sense of the passage of time, and sense the length of the shots, that feeling of the duration of the day as it goes through the heat of the day and drifts toward the evening.” Each shot in the scene has shown the daylight growing dimmer and dimmer. And now Solomon, once illuminated, is in shadow. After this lingering torture in the heat, as hours passed from day to evening, his fate is now coming.

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What is most striking about the scene is although it is difficult to watch, the setting and background is so utterly gorgeous. The beautiful Louisiana weeping willows against sprawling Victorian mansions, the constant murmur of the cicadas playing throughout the scene, it seems like a beautiful Southern summer day. It is hard to believe that someplace so beautiful held such horrors, such violence and pain in people’s lives.

The juxtaposition of the violence against the exquisite scenery reflects the passages from the book. Although this is taken from Patsey’s whipping scene, it is easy to see the inspiration for these shots in the book, “The fields smiled in the warm sunlight- the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees- peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere- save in the bosoms of Epps and his painting victim and the silence witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day.”

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This scene holds you and refuses to let you go. Editor Joe Walker says “The aim [of the scene] is that you’re left with this awkwardness and deeply uncomfortable viewing of that wide shot of him hanging … and held to the point where there’s no friendly cut. There’s no relief. We signal by holding the time that we do. It’s almost like fueling the audience’s subconscious that they are watching something real. There’s no safety net … there’s an element of enduring [something] real. You almost get the audience to a point where they want to stand up and make a scene, you know?”

You do want it to end. It is almost unbearable to have to sit through this. But that is what makes 12 Years A Slave so effective, emotional and important, it’s refusal to look away. So many films have alluded to or glossed over the true horrors of slavery. 12 Years A Slave puts everything in your face, demands you to take a look at the barbarity of America’s past, and makes no attempt to conceal what has been truly done. This was real. It happened. We need to acknowledge this, no more hiding.

To read more on my thoughts on the film, check out my review here.

See the scene below.

Scene Sound Off: The Hunter

**Discussing an end scene spoilers below**

At first, and as the film gets going, the plot for The Hunter can seem a bit dry. Martin is a lonely and independent hunter sent to the Tasmanian wilderness to find the very last Tasmanian tiger to gather it’s DNA samples. The film does have a slow pace. It becomes more of a character study as we see Martin, played by Willem Dafoe, become close to and bonds with his host family. This is something foreign to him since he is so used to being alone and on his own.

The ending scene is what really brings this film home. Martin David has been hunting in the wilderness for days.  Sleeping in a cave, he awakens to find the tiger staring at him. Martin follows him out, in shots with a lovely contrast of dark colors in his clothing and surrounding wildlife, while the tiger is surrounded in bright white snow. Martin shoots the tiger.

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Willem Dafoe gives a wonderful performance and brings this scene home while crying over the tiger. Martin feels remorse for killing the beautiful tiger, for it was the last of it’s kind and a beautiful animal. But he will not bring the animal to the company, for he has learned that they killed the father, mother, and child of his host family, and the hunter before him in search for this tiger. They wanted the tiger so badly they would stop at nothing to get it. The search for the tiger was wreaking a trail of destruction. Martin saves the tiger from being hunted it’s entire life, for no one would ever let it live in peace. He is putting the animal out of it’s miserable loneliness for being the last of it’s kind.

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Martin David slowly carries the animal as it fades to white. The next shot he burns the tiger and spreads it’s ashes over the beautiful Australian outback (set to a gorgeous score, very reminiscent of Heat’s song “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters”.)

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We cut to Marin making a phone call to the company, “What you want is gone forever. I’m going to see the sights.”. Then we see Martin greeting the little boy from his host family (the only member to survive) and giving him a hug. Just as he was saved from loneliness by the family he bonded with, Martin saved the Tiger from loneliness and despair, and now he saves the little boy from a lonely life in a foster home. All three of them, the boy, Martin, and the tiger were spared a lonely ending and existence.

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Watch the scene (in two parts) below