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A Guide to the Fiercely Divine
by Andy York

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Out of all of the great actors in movie history, who's the best? Who would you choose? There are so many great actors in the history of film that I don't know if it's truly possible to pick the absolute best. There's no doubt that this guy would merit consideration though. Very few actors have achieved the level of greatness that Al Pacino has. You could argue that no other actor has been so vivid in their ability to display emotion on screen. That's why I label my guide to Al Pacino "A Guide to the Fiercely Divine". Al Pacino has ascended to a level of divinity in film history. His work will never be forgotten or cease to be cherished. That said, as beautiful of a film career as the man has had, there's very little that could be called beautiful in even his best of characters. The best performances that Al Pacino has given have been as characters that are deeply troubled. This is my list as to what are the best films in the career of Al Pacino.

Serpico

I might venture to say this is an overrated movie. The real life story is no doubt worthy of its fame, but I don't know if this is the classic it's cracked up to be. What I would say about Serpico is that it helped establish Al Pacino as a force in the 1970's acting scene. Several times through out film history you'll see an actor give an excellent performance in a big movie only to fade through a series of bad choices. Films like this one helped keep Al Pacino in an elite status. Serpico is a story of a cop who fights against corruption to the point where his life is threatened. It's a great story, but the film does veer off the track a few times. I can't say the same about Pacino though. As much as people talk about how great actors like Pacino and Robert De Niro are, sometimes I think they forget just how different they were for American audiences. Even though America had experienced the genius of Marlon Brando, Pacino was apart of a massive change in American film that fully ushered in the birth of the modern actor. Serpico, a flawed film to be sure, has its place in the change.

Dog Day Afternoon

At the beginning of the column I asked the question "Who is the greatest actor of all time?" Well, as impossible of question as that is to answer, equally might be the question of the greatest performance of all time. I wrote about a year ago in a column that Marlon Brando's brilliance in A Streetcar Named Desire occupied that distinction. When thinking of the greatest performances of all time some of Al Pacino's work simply must come into the discussion. Though when people like me make these lists there's always going to be omissions. When I think about Pacino's performance as a man who gets trapped by the police inside a bank he was robbing in attempt to pay for his gay lover's sex change, I feel a little guilty for not at least giving a mention to his turn in this movie. Seriously, just look at the description I gave of the movie. You have a character that is in charge of a very aggressive crime, but the motivation is of an amazingly sensitive cause. That's a very tricky road for an actor to go down. Not only does Al Pacino
succeed in playing a very tough role, he delivers one of the greatest performances in film history.

...And Justice for All

I have never met a person who has seen this movie. That's really sad! Not only because it's an excellent movie, but the special edition just came out on DVD. If you claim to love movies you have no excuse to have not seen And Justice for All. I've never seen a movie dissect how messed up the American justice system is better than this film. And Justice of All shows the ridiculous side of how rules trump humanity and how our laws can become simply a game amongst those who align themselves as the players. We see the rape of our rights and courts through Al Pacino's character. He's a simple public defender who can't help but stand idly by as innocent people are sent to prison while the guilty are set free. This is simply a brilliant movie that you must watch! You would think more people would have seen this considering how much this famous line is quoted - "I'm outta order? You're outta order! This whole court is outta order!!!"

Scarface

Okay, if Serpico is overrated then I don't know what to call Scarface. This is not one of the great movies of all time. I wouldn't even call it one of the best mob movies. As much hype and love as this movie receives it falls far below movies like Mean Streets, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction or The Departed. Yet, like Serpico, there's one true spot of excellence to be found in this movie. Al Pacino's performance as Tony Montana, a man with a very strong Cuban accent, is as mimicked by simple movie lovers as Billy Bob Thorton in Sling Blade or John Wayne in anything. When an actor can create something that is remembered so fondly twenty five years after its release, well, you have to at least give it some props. The film itself may be severely flawed, but Al Pacino does a very good job at trying to make up for it.

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross isn't Al Pacino's film alone. Jack Lemmon said of his cast mates that they equaled the best ensemble cast he'd ever worked with. Now, simply looking at the amazing actors Jack Lemmon worked with in his career, that's extremely high praise. Even without Jack Lemmon's statement, the brilliance of the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross has almost no limits. Along with Pacino and Lemmon, the film stars Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin and Alan Arkin. As I'm writing this, I'm trying to think of a better ensemble cast in any movie. There's a lot of greats ones, but maybe none that's quite better. Part of the brilliance has to be credited to the unbelievable script by David Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross tells the story of real estate salesmen that are given the ultimatum of make more sales or be fired or as Alec Baldwin puts it, f@ck or walk! You take the acting talent in this film and mix it with a very tense story that's a recipe for absolute awesomeness! Every actor in this film is great and that goes for Pacino especially.

Scent of a Woman

If you look at some of the roles that have earned icons of film their Oscars, it sometimes can be a little
underwhelming. Whether it be Paul Newman finally winning for The Color of Money or Henry Fonda dying before he could taste Oscar success with On Golden Pond, so many times when the ultimate award is given to the deserving icon it feels a little off. Generally, it's a conciliation prize for the many times the actor or actress should've won, but didn't. Al Pacino has given many Oscar worthy performances in his career, but has only been rewarded once. That might be unfortunate, but at least the performance he did finally win for he fully deserved the award. Playing a harsh military man whose immense love of the finer things in life is forced down into living in a few confined rooms because of his blindness and some family goodwill is a tough role. I don't know if I've ever seen someone display in a movie the horror of going from being a fully capable person to being disabled so strongly. Al Pacino plays a man in Scent of a Woman that has an absolute love of life, but it's a love that he's barely able to enjoy because of having no sight. The character's already a man with a rough personality, but to add on to it, he's bitter about the life taken from him. Al Pacino has given better performances in his career than he does in this movie, but this one still has a strong measure of greatness all to its own.

Heat

Much like you'll never see a discussion of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird without both names being mentioned, you can't really discuss the careers of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro without mentioning the other. Previously to this movie, the two had only been in The Godfather Part II together, but even then they never shared a scene. Though both men's careers had been linked through their enormous talent and the fact they become the icons they are virtually at the same time, they had never really worked together. So, when you throw the two together in a film with Pacino being a cop and De Niro being the crook he must stop, you could imagine it might be a little lame. Well, luckily Heat had one of the best directors of our time planning on delivering his masterpiece. Michael Mann may be unrivaled in the history of film in his ability to make gritty, macho and raw stories, but at the same time leaving space for a character's feelings and motivations. Both, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have characters that love and loathe their professions. They hate the limit being on either side of law has on their personal lives, but that hate can't overcome the rush they get from doing what they do best. Each man sees this in the other and respects him for it, but at the same time one must break the law and the other must stop him. I can't think of a movie that teams two icons of film better than Heat. Never will we probably ever see why Pacino and De Niro are the immortals they are more fully than in Heat.

The Devil's Advocate

Out of the ten films I've selected for the guide, The Devil's Advocate is the lesser of the bunch. The thing is that with each guide I like to have one film that isn't so much a staple of the subject's career, but that's just a good movie. Now, with an actor of Pacino's
level I had several choices. I could've chosen Donnie Brasco, Carlito's Way, The Insider or even Ocean's Thirteen. I chose The Devil's Advocate because I feel, maybe more so than any of his films, this movie shows why Al Pacino is not only a great actor, but a great movie star. Al Pacino's role is one that normally is best played by an actor with a big personality. Playing the devil requires you to convince the audience that you're completely sinister. Al Pacino in this movie is vulgar, creepy, aggressive and, yes, very sinister. It's a total "star" performance. When Al Pacino plays the devil he doesn't have to dig deep or go all "method" or anything. He just shows the persona that has made him a legend. Playing the devil, Al Pacino is at his fierce best. The Devil's Advocate may not be the best movie in this column, but it's still essential for seeing why Pacino is Pacino.

The Godfather Parts I&II

No matter how much brilliance Pacino has given us since these two movies were released in the early 1970's, he will never surpass where he got his start. The first Godfather film, along with being a top ten classic, made Al Pacino. In his performance as the son of a Mafia crime boss Al Pacino became an acting heavyweight. The second film would not only establish that it was a status he would never let go of, it gave Al Pacino THE performance of his career. The entire "star" that Pacino is, it's due to these two films. He may have expanded and pushed his star with other roles, but it's these two films that will forever define him as an actor and a movie star. In both Godfather films, Pacino is fierce, ferocious, aggressive, bold, forceful and whatever other adjective you want to use, he's simply genius. Very few actors can say they've given one performance as good as the ones given by Pacino in either of the first two Godfather films. Now, you can't just watch these two movies as for what's the best of Al Pacino, but it's where his star begins and ends. He started with these giants of film history and they're what he'll always be most remembered for. If you haven't seen them, you're missing two of the best movies that will ever be made, but you also have never truly seen Al Pacino.

**********************

So, let's see, I've done guides to Martin Scorsese, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Akira Kurosawa, Tom Cruise and now Al Pacino. That's a pretty good list, but it could be better. I'll have to work on that. Well, the next three editions of Out of the Past all come in May. The last time I had three columns in one month I ran three top ten lists. Well, I've said before that I think originality is overrated, but I'm not going to be so lame as to rip myself off. No, I will keep it a little unoriginal though. On May 23rd Steven Spielberg's forth installment in the Indiana Jones series is due out. So, considering not only is he the most successful director of all time, but a pretty great one as well, why not run three columns dedicated to the man's over three decades of genius? So, I hope you like Spielberg because he's all I'll writing about for the next month! Till then...

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Out of the Past
Every other Tuesday

Discussing classic films from City Lights to Apocalypse Now and everything in between and beyond.


Other Columns
Other columns by Andy York:

Top 10 Coolest Movie Characters

Stewart-Mann Western Connection

Academy of Irrelevance

Ride of Terror Showdown

The Greatest Violence

All Columns


Andy York
Andy is a life long movie fanatic. The first movie he saw in the theater was Back to the Future, Part 2 at the age of 3 and he has loved movies ever since.



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Andy York by clicking here.


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