It’s hard to believe that Al Pacino just turned 70 years old. For nearly 40 years, we’ve watched him on screen, hearing his youthful, innocence-charged voice turn into an authoritative and throaty rasp which could come from the Devil himself (and, in one of his films, actually did). His filmography traces a path through American cinema and, in some ways, through our own cinematic lives.
10. Donnie Brasco
The irony may not have occurred to him, but Pacino’s portrayal of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, a low-level mobster who takes the titular character as his protégé, seems akin to what Fredo Corleone would have been if he’d grown old in the mob. However, the resemblance doesn’t overshadow his performance.
Pacino’s role as real-life honest cop Frank Serpico was named as the 40th “greatest” film hero on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list. Given some of the villain roles he’s played in his career, I suppose this is as good a penance as any.
Heralded as the first time Pacino and fellow luminary Robert DeNiro ever shared scenes in the same movie together, this proved to be an action movie classic and a hit for director Michael Mann.
7. …And Justice For All
Subject to many misquotes over the years, the line this movie is best known for is actually “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!” But, that describes the court system, not the movie.
6. The Insider
Reunited with director Michael Mann, Pacino again tackles a real-life figure, this time 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, who faces challenges to his sense of ethics in his attempt to expose the tobacco industry.
5. Scent of a Woman
For all of the classic films that Pacino has been, it’s inconceivable that it took him 20 years to win his first Academy Award. He seems to have earned it here; after all, he manages to make even Chris O’Donnell look good.
The film that made sure that, even if we weren’t native New Yorkers, we knew what Attica was, Pacino plays a bank robber trying to steal enough money to pay for his wife’s surgery. The fact that his wife is a preoperative transsexual doesn’t matter to him, so it doesn’t matter to us either.
A scrawny Italian man would seem to be an unlikely candidate to be an icon to rappers everywhere. Nonetheless, with his depiction of cocaine kingpin Tony Montana, Pacino created an iconic character whose little friend we’re always happy to say hello to.
Continuing the story of the ascendant mob boss Michael Corleone and his ill-fated attempts to go legitimate, Pacino invites the audience to stare into the heart of darkness and simultaneously sympathize and sharply recoil.
Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone may have been the title character, but this is Michael Corleone’s tale through and through. Watching Pacino fight the fate of his family only to ultimately succumb to it is alternately wrenching and chilling. Screen villainy never looked so dapper and deceptively innocent.
Even into his seventh decade, Al Pacino continues to produce work that shows he’s more than willing to battle his cohort Robert DeNiro for best actor of his generation. If we’re all lucky, the battle will continue into the far future.