'This Isn't All about Me, Is It?'

Article excerpt

Byline: Lee Siegel

Broadway keeps pulling Pacino back in.

"I love the idea of risk," Al Pacino says. "What I don't like is suicide." A few days later, he tells me a story about taking the first great risk of his film career, the scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots a rival gangster and corrupt police captain in a Bronx restaurant.

"I'm sure I didn't plan to throw the gun away the way I did in The Godfather after the shooting of Sollozzo," Pacino says. "He flicks the gun that way when he drops it, he just flicks it. 'It's not a part of me, I'm done, I'm done.'" Pacino pauses, as if he is, once again, the 32-year-old actor in his first truly major motion picture, knowing the studio wants to replace him, trying to find his way into the enigmatic character. "There was a combination of things in that gesture," he says. He pauses again. "It's almost like, 'Get it away from me'--or not even that." Another pause. "It was ambivalent."

I first meet Pacino at the large midtown Manhattan apartment that he sublets and uses as an office. He's about to appear in a Broadway revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, a modern-day fable of lost souls and failed words, set in the small office of a group of real-estate con men.

The theater keeps pulling him back in from Hollywood, the way a Mafia family and blood ties keep pulling Michael Corleone back in every time he tries to go straight. In Pacino's case, however, the theater is how he goes straight.

At 72, Pacino has the kind of face that if you see it in an old painting from a distance, you think it is the face of a stonemason, but when you get closer you realize that it belongs to the Duke of Mantua. He has the simultaneously polished and rough appearance of a humbly born aristocrat. The color often rises in his cheeks, battling stubble and goatee. I kept recalling a phrase I read once in a novel: "bathed in high feeling." Pacino is always bathed in high feeling. Yet he is also detached, removed, even as he cautiously warms to the conversation.

Pacino refers often to painting as a metaphor for acting, and he talks as though he were painting like Jackson Pollock. He walks around the conversation as if around a canvas on the floor: dabbing, jabbing, dripping, pouring, reflecting, beginning again. "I can be contradictory, vague," he says. "It's part of the struggle to find the words." Later, he says, "When we talk, I try to keep it simple." The seeming contradictions, the vagueness, the constant revisions are attempts to get at some elemental truth, beyond words. It is just like his various interpretations of what is going through Michael's mind when he throws away that gun.

Al Pacino does reality to perfection. During the 1970s, in films like The Godfather Parts I and II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon--not to mention later films like Scarface, Sea of Love, The Godfather Part III ("If I had anything I didn't like in that film," Pacino says, "it would be my haircut"), Scent of a Woman, Heat, Donnie Brasco, Insomnia--Pacino didn't just bring naturalism in acting to a new level of authenticity. He acted the roles as if he was also writing them. He invented new American types as vivid as Captain Ahab or Jay Gatsby: the son cursed with inherited corruption (The Godfather); the wounded sentinel driven by a heroic compulsion (Serpico); the injured outlaw cut from within by obscure fragments of love and rage (Dog Day Afternoon). His mythic simplicity has redefined American acting.

Even as he was blazing on screen in the 1970s, Pacino returned to his beloved stage, winning a Tony award for his role in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. He tells me that "the very idea of being an aerialist is very significantly connected to getting out there on the stage. You're at risk, and you have the appropriate feelings connected with that type of thing." But in truth, Pacino performs in film with feelings appropriate to flying on a trapeze over a stage. …