These days, the received wisdom is that Al Pacino is a bit of a scenery chewer, revelling in portraying loud, self-possessed, over the top characters that eat up every inch of screen space. Turn your mind to his Cuban drug lord, Tony Montana, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface; his embittered, blind army veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman; his driven, incendiary cop, Vincent Hanna, in Michael Mann’s Heat. Even when called upon to embody the antichrist in Taylor Hackford’s Devil’s Advocate, Pacino made Satan a shouter, bellowing to Keanu Reeves that God is an absentee landlord.
But this stands in stark contrast to Pacino’s early work. Having trained at the Actor’s Studio under Lee Strasberg and found success on the stage – his Broadway debut was the 1969 production of Don Petersen’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, for which he won a Tony – Pacino’s early film roles were marked by a quiet, introverted intensity. Jerry Schatzberg, who directed Pacino in his first leading role as a heroin addict and dealer in 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park, recalls how he beat out fellow legend Robert De Niro for the role, while Francis Ford Coppola had to fight to cast him as Michael Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, studio bosses fearing that the stage actor couldn’t carry the film.
But he did carry it, of course, and history proves that Coppola and Schatzberg, along with Sidney Lumet and Sydney Pollack and everyone else who gave Pacino a role in the first decade of his screen career, were right – Pacino’s quiet intensity is absolutely mesmerising.
Opening, appropriately enough, with a busking trumpeter playing the theme from The Godfather, Al Pacino: The Reluctant Star traces the entire arc of Pacino’s life and career up until his turn as Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the first time the actor and director had worked together, and while film fans will have a ball revisiting his cinematic body of work, what emerges is Pacino’s deep love of the theatre. In one piece of archival footage (Pacino is not directly interviewed for the film) he remarks, “The best thing an actor can do is a role in a play in front of an audience”.
It’s a motto he lives by, and perhaps the most fascinating elements of the documentary are when various commentators, who include Bobby Deerfield, co-star and long-time partner Marthe Keller, director Jerry Schatzberg and biographer Lawrence Grobel, recount Pacino’s days not just on Broadway, but performing in the cafés and comedy clubs of Greenwich Village.
It’s wild to imagine Pacino doing a tight set at an open mic club, but that spirit of experimentation was impressed on him early on when, in the late ‘60s, he took a date to a show by the experimental troupe The Living Theatre and quickly realised that all the rules were there for breaking.
His love of theatre informs his choices throughout his career; while the 1973 production of Richard III in which he took the title role was coolly received, it did lead, over twenty years later, to his absorbing docudrama Looking for Richard (1996) in which Pacino, directing as well as starring, examines the cultural importance of Shakespeare in general and Richard III in particular, roping in luminaries such as Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline to help.
Appropriately for its subtitle, Pacino only appears in old footage in The Reluctant Star, but the portrait that emerges thanks to commentary from his friends and colleagues is of a man of quiet determination and dedication to his craft. Fans will be absolutely engrossed, while newcomers will be left in no doubt about what all the fuss is about.
Al Pacino: The Reluctant Star airs on SBS VICELAND at 8.30pm, Wednesday 24 November. See Pacino in Scarface immediately after the documentary, with the film airing on SBS VICELAND from 9.40pm.