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