Al Pacino, Truth-Seeker

In some of his greatest roles, the actor searched for meaning — and, in that search, often poignantly lost himself


Al Pacino was my first favorite actor. That designation came less from any sense of wonder that captivated me as a thirteen-year-old than from the personal attachment my father had to Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973). I had by then seen other movies starring Pacino, but the title Serpico rattled through my house, as if, when my father talked about the man and the film, he was talking about some sort of role model. Based on the biography of a former member of the NYPD, Serpico (which is showing as part of “Pacino’s Way,” the Quad Cinema’s currently running salute to the actor) tracks one officer’s encounter with police corruption and his subsequent attempts to change popular practices. The film details an impossible scenario in which an individual finds himself working in an occupation that he wants to change, but never can. When it ends, all we see is Frank Serpico (Pacino) sitting alone in front of a gargantuan ship with his beautifully shaggy Old English Sheepdog, Alfie. Text scrolls down the screen informing us that Frank Serpico resigned from the NYPD and is “now living somewhere in Switzerland.” Consolation only comes where he can get it. The system, as it so often does, wins.

Serpico is awash in the grimy reds and browns that so defined the look of lower-budget genre projects from the Seventies. Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography, Charles Bailey’s production design, and Anna Hill Johnstone’s costumes capture the architecture of internal resistance. Pacino exists in their world, donning a beard that encapsulates a certain male aesthetic of the era. His movements and clothes signify little attempts at disruption within order. He wears ponchos and seems to change hats every third scene, as though fashion were the site to sculpt identity when all else fails. With his long hair and ever-developing beard, Serpico bounces around departments where officers cast him as deviant, queer, an outsider. These attacks are only amplified by his refusal to adhere to the badge’s brotherhood of bribery and hushed corruption. Whatever identity the man known to his friends as “Paco” carves out for himself is squelched in a world driven as much by a masculine code of conduct as it by any set of institutional rules. Attempts to rupture those codes are met with violence. We learn at the very beginning of the movie that Serpico has been shot in the face and that he won’t be protected by the department he serves. The message is clear: Punishment looms for those who imagine change. But the possibilities of hope are never fully abandoned; while the film concludes with failure, failure itself is not conclusive.

For my father, a man I witnessed as a kid struggle to change the frustratingly unfair practices of his own employer, Serpico was a moral tale about the difference between how an institution functions and how it ought to function. My dad wasn’t a cop; he was a mechanical engineer, and he turned his training in technology and physics into marketing and development acumen. For him, guns and cigarettes were the two great evils of the world. He came up as a working-class Brit whose parents ran a bed-and-breakfast. From an early age he learned to value cleanliness and propriety as traits that the world imbued with status and value. His father had been a pilot in the British Royal Air Force, and the rules imposed in the home were militaristic — stern as steel, reflective of a code of ethics.

Within this ironclad system, my father sought recognition. He perfected his penmanship, starched his shirts, and made sure to knot and align his ties perfectly, as though his outfit offered a kind of sartorial cover of respectability. When he left the U.K. and ended up in America, he thought he’d escaped an overweighted class structure and found a space to finally be heard by those around him. Serpico’s failure was a reminder that such an escape was always foreclosed. I watched Frank Serpico struggle and fail onscreen just as I watched my father fail to escape the fallout from his own whistleblowing. The system had won again.

Stars, like parents, have a way of captivating us through gestures of intimacy that alternatingly feel authentic and feigned. Of course, we see stars only in moments, but, like characters in a family mythology, they serve strategic functions for making sense of the world. Over time we watch an actor take on new roles, sculpting a differentiated cinematic identity. For much of the early part of his career, Pacino’s allure was in his typicality. He was never as statuesque as Brando, and his characters, while not everymen, often conveyed the calculus of everyday life. He made it look as if each decision was thought out rather than scripted — as if, on another viewing of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Pacino’s desperate bank robber, Sonny Wortzik, might make an entirely different decision about how to proceed. That film, also a Pacino–Lumet collaboration, presents us with another complicated moral universe in which the Pacino character tries to resist the pressures of power. It was a common theme for Lumet: When his protagonists raged against the constrictions and corruption around them, they were met with a shattered sense of the world and a life rerouted in ways previously unforeseen. What remains at the end of movies like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico is always the same question: What to do next?

For Lumet, that question was raised not only by story beats or the downturn of a plot, but the performance itself. The lingering irresolution was just as apparent in the beautiful difficulty of Pacino’s craft as it was in the screenplay. As Lumet later wrote, “Yes, Al Pacino challenges you. But only to make you more honest, to make you probe deeper…[he] isn’t terrifically articulate, but he’s got a built-in sense of the truth.” Obsessed with performing from a young age, Pacino honed his craft at the Actors Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg, known for popularizing a new type of acting in America loosely described as “the method.” Whatever Lumet is getting at in his description of “truth” (and that might be related to the cultural cachet awarded to contemporary male method actors that Angelica Jade Bastién has detailed at the Atlantic), Pacino carries it in his voice and body. It is evident on his face and in the little home his large hazel eyes seem to occupy, protected by the sharp thin lips of curled eyelids and those deep bags that catch an occasional glance.

Between 1970 and 1980, Pacino starred in eight films, working with a roster of actor-driven directors like Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, Norman Jewison, and Jerry Schatzberg. Across these roles he became an emblem of a particular kind of battle for a particular kind of truth. In those battles he searched for meaning and reckoned with loss and, in that search for meaning, sometimes lost himself. Even when he was distraught or suffocating, his anxious desire to carve out an identity persisted (sometimes through violence). As the vaguely reluctant son Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), he steals himself away from his friends, his family, and his self. At the end of the first film, he closes the doors on his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), with the anxious ease needed to close the doors on everything and everyone. At the end of the second, he distances himself from his family, finding that the strongest connection to his brother Fredo (John Cazale) is forged in fratricide. His lineage defines his future and reluctance permeates his being.

In Scarecrow (1973), Pacino plays Francis “Lion” Delbuchi, a down-on-his luck dude whose confusion and failure to care for the person he loves most is sublimated in the hope that, with his new friend Max (Gene Hackman), he will create a beautiful car-wash business. Francis is obsessed with parables and new beginnings, weaving stories at every moment possible. He finds a philosophy of life in one tale describing that when a crow descends onto a farm the crow doesn’t fly away because he is afraid of a scarecrow. Rather, the crow finds the fake figure funny, and laughs. In return for this moment of joy, the crow avoids becoming a nuisance and leaves the farmer alone. That story, told with sincerity and a subtle awareness of how sometimes the only way pain can be articulated is through humor, reflects the characters that Pacino so often embodied. The man who began his career as a stand-up comedian seemed driven to roles where being a nuisance was necessary to disrupt the rickety systems that wielded power.

In a New Yorker piece from a few years ago, the then-seventy-four-year-old Pacino reflected on his anxieties as an actor: “I feel like an outsider who got on the inside, so I’m inside out, if you know what I mean. Or outside in.” That outsider status was on display throughout the Seventies, and was no more apparent than in Norman Jewison’s …And Justice for All (1979). At the time, critics discounted the movie as an incoherent blend of humor and self-righteous seriousness, describing it as “soapy” and “idealistic.” In the nearly forty years since its release, it has unfortunately faded from view as just another entry in the overflowing library of courtroom dramas, albeit one distinguished by Pacino’s explosive performance as the lawyer Arthur Kirkland, who delivers the film’s climactic courtroom speech (“You’re out of order!”). The movie’s closing shot is a freeze-frame of a befuddled Pacino staring into the camera as he plops down onto the courtroom steps. In the end, what came for Serpico comes for Kirkland: The dream that you can change the game by playing the game is ruthlessly dashed.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell suggests that “if the character lives and dies with the actor, that ought to mean that the actor lives and dies with the character.” Even through the Reagan years Pacino continued to be reborn as the relatable outsider scratching at something bigger. Often, Pacino’s characters found that meaning in fatherhood. In Author! Author! (1982), he portrays a playwright contending with a lack of inspiration and a failing marriage, while yearning to care for his many (step)children. In the following year’s Scarface, Pacino’s Tony Montana, assured by the corporate slogan “The world is yours,” seeks to wield power as the new (god)father of the drug game. And then in 1985, the strains of parenthood play out in the historic and historical bomb Revolution, in which Pacino plays a father trying to save his son during the American Revolution. After those three films, Pacino stepped away from cinema, as Hollywood’s bright lights became burdening drapes. The familiarity which defined his career had become a curse; as he once told an interviewer, “People just think they know you right away.”

He returned to screen acting in 1989 with Sea of Love, and Pacino’s performances in the decade that followed look less like attempts at reinvention than variations on a theme. He inverts his earlier portrayal of Frank Serpico with Lefty, of Donnie Brasco (1997), a wiseguy who desperately wants to get out of the Mafia but hopes even more to be a surrogate father to Johnny Depp’s undercover agent. He upends the dreams of …And Justice for All’s Arthur Kirkland with Mayor John Pappas of City Hall (1996), a politician willing to twist political connections so tightly that the deals he strikes end up choking the city’s most vulnerable populations, as well as his own career.

In these films it’s as if the aspirations of his early roles have fallen away, the hopeful inquiry now replaced with hard-earned cynicism. No longer a diminished individual in a big world, Pacino takes hold of his characters’ outsized egos and blows everything up as large as possible. Scale had always been his friend (the machine gun that Tony Montana wields in Scarface is only his “little friend” because the man himself possesses such a gigantic persona), but now his friction-filled voice became the medium to express an overbearing need for connection. In Scent of a Woman (1992), he marks time with the occasional “hoo-ah” as he drags Chris O’Donnell through New York. In Frankie and Johnny (1991), he invites himself into Michelle Pfeiffer’s life, refusing to leave. He offers less and imposes more, trading propriety for a loud personality that finds more connection in objects than human relationships.

If it wasn’t visible in the rocklike formations that developed under Pacino’s eyes, it became clear in his amplified voice that the deferred rage of characters from his youth had spilled into the extravagant tumult of middle age. The actor who came up depicting the inner lives of haunted men could now scream, and guffaw, and shout, and bloviate. Yet he always carried the past with him: The edifice of each performance rested on the foundation of his earlier quietness. The only reason one could find a film with a so-called Bad Pacino was because he had at some point seemed so “good.”

Three recent films in the Quad’s series show Pacino taking on roles where that past is made present again. David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn (2014) catalogs the little moments of an elder locksmith’s life as he tries to start anew. In The Humbling (2014), Pacino plays a suicidal actor who seems to have lost the magic he once had, while in You Don’t Know Jack (2010) he slips into the complicated persona of the so-called “suicide doctor” Jack Kervorkian, known for aiding those looking to eject from the world. The debts extracted from time and the precarious embrace of death haunt this unlikely trio. In biopics and stories of aging artists, Pacino has cloaked himself in history. But that attire, even when quietly flashy, is also solemn. The past may be his home, a place where he can go back and again desire for things to be different. That is the great gift given to him by cinema: He can reconfigure history in movies. My father lost his battles against his employer, and he eventually lost his job. Like the closing shot of Serpico, the change that came with the termination of his livelihood was quiet. There was no stirring monologue about the injustices of the world. What remained was the perpetual search for work. Unlike Pacino, he could not retreat to an earlier era.

It was more than half my lifetime ago when I first saw a film starring Pacino. I now have aches I never felt before, just as I have memories of an earlier life that materialize when I don’t expect it. Those memories are tethered as much to significant personal events as they are linked to my own viewing experiences, creating the sense that life has been lived less through the movies than alongside them. If I forget the plot when I try to recall one of Pacino’s movies, if all that is left is an impression, that mark was made by a relationship with a persona printed at first on celluloid, and now digitally. I, of course, didn’t know Pacino; I couldn’t know him. But he has remained there in my mind, working to unveil some truth, to turn the inside out and the outside in.