“I think maybe I’ve leaned too much on the clandestine thing,” Al Pacino concedes, a bit ruefully. “It was a phase I was going through.” It’s a phase he’s not entirely out of yet, at least stylistically. Tonight, for instance, sitting at my East Village kitchen table, he’s dressed entirely in black. Black shoes, slacks, shirt, a billowy jacket that looks as if it’s been fabricated from black covert-ops parachute silk.
It suits him, the color of darkness. It matches his dark eyes and the dark circles under them, eyes that in his best roles were always on some covert mission of their own. Indeed, the black parachute look is perfectly suited to the bailout role he’s played the past six years: Al Pacino, fugitive movie star, clandestine prince of players, the Hamlet of Hollywood.
Al’s “clandestine thing”: I have to admit that after I was able to figure it out I sort of liked it, even admired it. But it can drive Hollywood types crazy, particularly his Hamlet-like indecision about which film projects to commit to, if any.
“Pacino is a schmuck. His career went into the toilet,” an evidently embittered Oliver Stone was quoted in People as saying recently—apparently still aggrieved by Pacino’s decision (more than ten years ago) to drop out of Born on the Fourth of July.(Pacino says he dropped out because the original director of the project, William Friedkin, dropped out.) And then there’s producer Elliott Kastner, who filed suit against Al for allegedly breaching his promise to appear in a project called Carlito’s Way (for a reported $4 million fee) after more than a year had been spent developing it. Hollywood is filled with stories of Oscar-winning roles and films Pacino was offered and then rejected. And with curiosity over the ones he’s actually done. Like Revolution, the only feature film he made in the six years between Scarface in 1983 and his return to the screen this fall in Sea of Love.
And so Pacino—arguably the most naturally gifted of the great post-Brando quartet of American actors that includes Hoffman, De Niro, and Nicholson— has become a major enigma. What has he been doing in those six years? Part of the answer, at least, is The Clandestine Thing.
I got my first glimpse of it the first time I met Al. That was early in 1988 when he had a small private screening of The Local Stigmatic. It’s a fifty-minute-long film of a Heathcote Williams one-act play, which Pacino financed and filmed in 1985 and which he’s been tinkering with ever since. In fact, although Stigmatic features one of the most brilliant Pacino performances on film, it’s one you’ll probably never see, because he’ll never let go of it, never stop editing and re-editing it. I’ve seen two more versions of it since that first screening, and though there have been changes in cross-fades, though flash-forwards have come and gone, the cobra-like menacing charm of Graham, the character he plays, remains riveting. Graham’s a thuggish Cockney dog-track bettor who engineers the vicious beating and scarring of an aging actor merely, it seems, because he’s famous. (“Fame is the first disgrace,” Graham hisses to his partner in crime. Why? “Because God knows who you are.”)
It’s a strange, dense, mesmerizing work, and perhaps because of its peculiar self-referentiality it’s become Pacino’s obsession, this film, his white whale. In fact, he’s been working on it, thinking about it, for almost his entire acting life, from the time, twenty years ago, when he first did Stigmatic in an Actors Studio workshop. In the four years since it was shot in 1985, he’s been showing edited and reedited versions of it to covert groups of friends and confidants. He’s screened it for Harold Pinter in London (it was Pinter who first brought it across the Atlantic). He’s going to show it to Stanley Cavell’s class at Harvard, maybe one night only at MOMA. Each time, he gauges the audience’s reaction, then goes back into the editing room.
Among those standing around giving their reactions at that first Stigmatic screening I saw was Diane Keaton, Pacino’s more or less steady companion for the past couple of years.
“I’m glad those flash-forwards are gone now,” she said with affectionate asperity.
“But it still needs something, don’t you think?” Al began. “I mean, in the beginning …”
After gauging everyone’s reaction, Al took me aside and asked me what I’d thought of one of his clandestine stage appearances I’d happened to catch. This was an unpublicized workshop reading of a two-act play he’d done at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, to which I’d been tipped off a few weeks before.
That night up in New Haven was an eye-opening experience. It was an on-book reading of a Dennis McIntyre play called National Anthems, “on-book” meaning that the three actors (including the bewitching Jessica Harper) stalked around the minimally furnished stage with scripts in hand exploring their roles as they read them for a small subscription audience. Now, National Anthems is the kind of play you’d ordinarily have to put a gun to my head to get me to sit through: an impassioned drama about a suburban-Detroit fireman (Al) seizing on a yuppie couple to act out the psychodrama of his nervous breakdown. (Come to think of it, even a gun might not have gotten me there.) But Pacino brought a manic edge of black-comic electricity to the lines that turned it into something compelling to watch. You could almost see his shrewd actor’s intelligence seizing on a comic possibility in the midst of reading a line, and by the time he got to the end flipping it inside out like a glove, with a final flick of inflection. (Pacino’s stage work, most recently in Mamet’s American Buffalo and Rabe’s Pavlo Hummel, has consistently won him more critical praise and awards than his films. Although he’s been nominated five times for Oscars, he hasn’t won one.)
At that first Stigmatic screening, I naïvely asked Al if he’d ever do a full-scale production of National Anthems.
“We’re working on it,” he said vaguely. “Maybe try out some changes down the line. But,” he added, brightening, “that’s the kind of thing I really like to do” (meaning the semi-covert workshops and readings). “You know, we did a thing Off Off Broadway last year, kind of a workshop of a piece called Chinese Coffee.” He smiled beatifically at the ultimate coup for the clandestine actor: “Nobody saw it.”
Sherman Oaks, California: Nobody’s seen Al Pacino in a long time, not in a good movie. He’s one of those stars whose magnitude has been sustained by the VCR revolution. There’s a whole couch potato cult around Scarface, for instance. Salvadoran death squad partisans love Pacino’s Commie-killin’ coke king, Tony Montana, if you believe Oliver Stone. And one recently convicted Long Island drug kingpin loved Tony Montana too much for his own good. He actually used the name Tony Montana, and somewhat foolishly laundered his profits through enterprises called Montana Cleaners and the Montana Sporting Goods Store.
But tonight in a shopping-center cinema off Van Nuys Boulevard in the very heart of the Valley, a theater full of young sunburned suburbanites will see an early test screening (with focus group to follow) of Sea of Love, the big new romantic thriller in which Pacino plays a homicide detective who falls for a murder suspect (Ellen Barkin in an astonishingly steamy performance).
It’s Pacino’s return to popular moviemaking, the public inception of his new, post-clandestine phase. In addition to Sea of Love, he’s done an uncharacteristically lighthearted thing: an uncredited cameo in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, playing a bad guy known as “Big Boy,” the Joker in the film. “What’s big about him,” explained Al one night in L.A., where he was shooting Dick Tracy, ”is that he’s the world’s largest dwarf.” We were standing on a sidewalk on Sunset Boulevard and he pulled out a Polaroid of himself in Big Boy makeup, looking like a malevolent cross between Pee-wee Herman and Richard III. “He’s greedy,” said Al, grinning. “Very, very greedy.” Talking about his Big Boy role always seemed to put him in a cheerful mood. In fact, as I was looking at the Polaroid I heard the sound of weird cackling laughter echoing all around me. It wasn’t Al, and it wasn’t anyone else on the sidewalk, judging by the looks we got. It turned out to be a small black ball Al was concealing in his palm, which, when activated, emitted the eerie Nicholson-like cackling laughter of The Joker.
In addition to Sea of Love and Dick Tracy, expected out next year, he also said yes to Francis Coppola after Coppola told him he’d come up with a brand-new concept for a third Godfather film. Diane Keaton will play opposite him, as Michael Corleone’s now estranged wife. (The brand-new concept reportedly is based on the Catiline conspiracy exposed by Cicero in pre-imperial Rome. Rudy Giuliani as Cicero against Michael Corleone’s Catilina?) He knows he has to do more films, if only to finance the editing-room rentals for Stigmatic, but it’s more than that. It’s part of a concerted effort to escape the “pale cast of thought” (one of his favorite phrases from Hamlet) which blighted his ability to do films in the clandestine phase.
“He’s not beautiful anymore,” says Richard Price, who wrote the sharp-edged Sea of Love script. “Here he’s got years on his face, he’s got weight in his face, gravity.”
Still, the pale cast of covert ops shadows him even at this coming-out screening. He told me that he might be present at the Sherman Oaks shopping-mall cinema, but that I might not recognize him: “I might be in disguise.”
He’s only half joking. He’s used disguise in the past, he says, to give him a cloak of anonymity at public performances. And the notion of disguise is one that holds a definite fascination for him. The Indian-chief disguise with which the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean ended his life is a favorite subject of Al’s, as, in fact, is just about every element of Kean’s bizarre life and fate.
“Kean was the first acting superstar. You know, Byron called him the sun’s bright child. Someone said watching him act was like watching bolts of lightning cross the stage. But he had a tragic life; he couldn’t cope with fame,” Al told me. “It’s funny, at first he couldn’t get work—he had these dark features, and he was considered too short. But he dethroned Kemble with his first Shakespearean performance at Drury Lane. Actors were scared to share the stage with him. But then there was a big scandal—he got involved with an alderman’s wife. He came to America, where they destroyed the theater he was supposed to appear in. So he retreated up to Canada, where he joined a tribe of Indians.”
“He joined a tribe of Indians?”
“Yes, and they made him an Indian chief and when he came back and was interviewed he wouldn’t speak to anyone unless he was in Indian garb. I always thought you could do a great movie of him beginning with him giving an interview as an Indian chief.”
“I have a feeling,” I said, “this might be a secret fantasy of yours, to run off, change your identity, and come back as a kind of anonymous . . . ”
“It’s very . . . there’s a feeling that you experience when you put on glasses and a mustache and you blend in. I remember going to a concert in New York in a disguise and feeling so . . . I felt so free in a way. I was excited by it.”
“What was your disguise?”
“I dressed like Dustin Hoffman,” he said, flashing a killer grin.
It’s a funny line, but there’s a double edge to it. Doubly intended, I think, but perhaps only half so. Hoffman is the actor whose career has most closely paralleled Pacino’s—up to a point. They entered the Actors Studio the same semester. And their physical resemblance has been the subject of a doubly nasty wisecrack by Pauline Kael, who in a review of Serpico said that Pacino, in his beard for the role, was “indistinguishable from Dustin Hoffman.” To which Pacino responded, with uncharacteristic testiness: “Was that after she had the shot glass removed from her throat?”
More to the point, perhaps, than any physical resemblance is that Hoffman shares a reputation with Pacino for Hamlet-like dithering over which roles to commit to. Except that in recent years, at least, Hoffman’s Method madness and eccentric choices (transvestism and autism) have been smashingly vindicated while Pacino’s film decision-making has brought forth only Revolution (which, by the way, he thinks was not a failure, only “unfinished because of time pressure”; he even talks wistfully of going to Warner Bros, and asking them for the raw footage so that he can take it into the editing room and recut it to fulfill the “silent-movie epic” vision of it he and director Hugh Hudson had).
If Al was in disguise at the Sherman Oaks test, it was a good one; I couldn’t spot him as I settled down into the midst of a full house of Valley persons, who applauded when his name appeared in the opening credits.
When his face appeared, though, it was a different-looking Pacino, not a disguise, but a noticeable change.
“He’s not beautiful anymore,” says Richard Price, who wrote the sharp-edged Sea of Love script. “He doesn’t have that urban street beauty he had. In everything he did in the past, even Dog Day Afternoon, there was this sort of wild-eyed gorgeousness. As Michael Corleone it was a cold, sinister kind of beauty, elegant ice. Here he’s got years on his face, he’s got weight in his face, gravity.”
Pacino plays homicide cop Frank Keller with a hangdog, hung-over, and haunted look. He’s had twenty years on the force, and suddenly he’s eligible for his pension and facing mortality for the first time. You can see the skull beneath his skin, and so, suddenly, can he. An embittered romantic, he’s working on a case in which three men who have placed personal ads in a singles sheet have been found shot dead in their beds, one of them with the eerie, mournful oldies ballad “Sea of Love” stuck on the turntable. Frank and another detective (John Goodman) decide to concoct a personals ad themselves in hopes of smoking out the woman they believe is doing the killing. One of the women who show up for the marathon series of investigative “dates” is Ellen Barkin. Needless to say, they get involved, and the deeper they get, the more she looks like the killer.
It’s a terrific thriller premise, but what raises it above the genre is the doomed elegiac note of that somber “Sea of Love” song, a note of desperation reflected in Pacino’s performance: he’s not just investigating a lonely-hearts murderer, he’s investigating the death inside his own heart.
At the Sherman Oaks screening the audience of Valley guys and gals seemed to be with it all the way, gasping at the thriller-plot twists, laughing appreciatively at some of the trademark Pacino wise-guy wisecracks Price has tailored for him.
But the morning after, on the phone, Al sounded down.
“They got high cards,” he said of the audience-response forms. “The cards were high but…”
Based on comments made in the focus group after the screening, the producers want to make the film move faster in the beginning, cut eight to ten minutes. Which could mean cutting one or two early character-development scenes that establish Frank’s mid-life crisis. Including one of Al’s favorite scenes: a desperate, lonely two A.M. phone call he makes to his ex-wife in her new husband’s bed. I can see why he wants it in; it’s the most explicitly actorish scene in the film, but I try to tell him I think his character radiates desperation in the way he carries himself—he doesn’t need the explicit dialogue to underscore what’s there in the body language and the eyes.
“You think so?” he wondered dubiously, and moved on to a couple of other scenes he’s worried or self-critical about. Did he succeed in bringing this one off? Should he think about suggesting reshooting or re-editing that one? He’s probably one of the few actors who like the dread test-screening focus-group process, because it gives him the kind of opportunity to rethink his work that he usually gets only onstage during the course of a long run.
Nor are his second thoughts merely dithering. It was in fact a brilliant last-minute rethink of his whole persona in the opening shots of Dog Day Afternoon that was responsible for his most amazing performance.
It’s a deceptively simple scene, his first in the film, in which he gets out of his car, preparing to enter a bank, and carrying a gun concealed in a flower box. He’s playing Sonny, a would-be bank robber who needs the cash to pay for a sex-change operation for his male lover. Sonny bungles the holdup attempt, precipitating a prototypical live TV hostage siege/media event. For a brief floodlit instant, power and stardom are thrust upon him. (In fact, all Pacino’s best performances are about the paradoxes of power. In Dog Day the powerless briefly take power; in Godfather II Michael Corleone becomes a helpless prisoner of his own power.)
The Dog Day role is pretty extreme material (though based on a real incident), the kind of thing where one false note could be fatal to a performance. But Pacino’s choices in it are so inspired that it’s almost impossible to imagine any of it done any other way.
And yet, Al says, his first day’s scenes were all false notes. After watching the dailies he ran out and told the producer, Martin Bregman, that he had to do the whole opening over again.
“When I saw it on the screen,” he says of the dailies, “I thought, There’s no one up there. I had spent all the time working on the story with Sidney Lumet and Frank Pierson and I’d forgotten to become a character. I was watching someone searching for a character, but there wasn’t a person up there.”
The key to getting the character, he says, was taking something away.
“In the dailies I came into the bank wearing glasses. And I thought, No. He wouldn’t be wearing glasses.” Instead he decided his character was the kind of guy who ordinarily would wear glasses, but who on the day of the big heist forgets them at home. Why? “Because he wants to be caught. Subconsciously he wants to be caught. He wants to be there.”
He stayed up all night thinking about it, “helped by drinking a half-gallon of white wine,” he says, and the next day on the set told Lumet about his forgotten-glasses idea (which of course would mean reshooting all the subsequent bespectacled scenes they had in the can). What made his choice so inspired and successful is that this gave him a vaguely nearsighted squint, which endowed him with an aura not merely of incompetence but of Holy Fool innocence.
Although he can be relentlessly self-critical, when Pacino decides he sees something that’s right in his dailies, he’ll take up the sword and fight for it. He was almost fired from the first Godfather when the producers told Coppola they “didn’t see anything at all” in the rushes of Pacino’s early scenes as Michael Corleone. They weren’t seeing the heroic dimension his character had to have, they thought. But Pacino believed that “Michael has to start out ambivalent, almost unsure of himself and his place. He’s caught between his Old World family and the postwar American Dream” (represented by his Wasp sweetheart, Keaton). He had to start out that way to make his later transformation into his father’s son have the dramatic impact it did. “They [the producers] looked at the dailies, and they wanted to recast the part,” he says.
“You mean fire you?”
“Right. But Francis hung in there for me.”
And in one of the final scenes in Godfather II, it was another last-minute prop decision that put the chill on the “elegant ice” inside Michael Corleone, who’s had to kill everything human inside himself for the sake of the abstract honor of the Family and now is about to shut the door for the last time on his wife. It’s the climax of his transformation into the terminal frigidity of an emotional Absolute Zero. At the last minute Pacino decided he needed something extra.
He decided what he needed was a beautiful camel’s-hair overcoat. There was something about the formal, funereal casualness of it.
“I got lucky there, because at the last minute I picked that coat and it helped. That touch removes Michael in a way, it’s something distant, and the formality felt good.”
It will be interesting to see how he unfreezes Michael Corleone in Godfather III. I suggested we need to see Michael defeated to make him human again. Maybe his wife, Kay, bitter over not getting custody of the kids, betrays him to Rudy Giuliani’s grand jury.
“I haven’t really heard in detail what Francis wants to do,” he said, “but they do have the kids in common—that could bring them together.”
Curiously, when Pacino talks about his decision to come out of his clandestine phase, he talks about it in terms of becoming more like Michael Corleone, someone who can execute cold-blooded plans. Someone unlike himself.
“I’ve always thought of Michael as the kind of guy who will do it. Know what I mean? He’ll go out and do it,” Al tells me, and then adds, ‘‘I’ve got to get you to read Peer Gynt.”
“Why Peer Gynt?”
“I don’t want to force you to, but I carry it around with me like Hamlet—it’s a kind of key to . . . ”
And the reason Michael Corleone makes him think of Peer Gynt?
“It’s that scene where Peer’s running away from something or other,” he says. (Peer’s always slipping out of commitments, promises of marriage and the like.) “And Peer sees a young character who’s escaping the draft, and he watches while this guy takes a hatchet and chops off one of his fingers, to get out. And Peer Gynt is looking at him and says something like ‘I’ve always thought of doing something like that, but to do it! To do it!’ ”
File this under the heading Like, I mean, is that psychic or what? I’m having breakfast in my hotel room the morning after I arrive in L. A. to talk to Al while he’s finishing his Dick Tracy work for Warren Beatty.
(“I love working for Warren,” he says. “He even asked me, ‘Al, have you ever said “Action” while the camera’s rolling?’ I said no. Warren said, ‘You’ll say “Action” for me in this picture.’ ”
“Did you?” I asked.
Then I asked Al to say the word “Action” for me. He did so, but only with extreme reluctance, almost as if the word itself were poison. “You know, one of my favorite things Brando ever said is that when they call out ‘Action’ it doesn’t mean you have to do anything.”)
Anyway, I was trying to figure out where to suggest we meet after the day’s work on the set was done. Al was staying at Diane Keaton’s place in the Hollywood Hills (his own place is on the Hudson in New York, near Snedens Landing), but he preferred to talk elsewhere. While he’d been generous with interview sessions (“You can keep interviewing me until you feel like saying ‘I’m sick of Al Pacino,’” he told me), he was also fairly self-conscious about the process, and I was always trying to think of places to talk that wouldn’t be distracting, wouldn’t add to that self-consciousness.
Anyway, it crossed my mind that the Hamburger Hamlet would be a good choice for a couple of reasons: first, I thought nobody in the industry went there, and second, it would be an excuse for a bad pun about Al as an actor being America’s Hamburger Hamlet. You know, his legendary indecisiveness, the reluctance to even say the word Action. Maybe too much of a stretch, I thought, but then Al called and asked if I’d decided on a place to meet. “What about that place on Sunset, the Hamburger Hamlet?” he suggested.
So here we are in a booth in the back of the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset. Al’s dressed in black, he’s drinking black coffee and telling a sad but funny story about how he sabotaged a reading of the Nunnery Scene in Hamlet with Meryl Streep —and with it his last best chance to play the Prince.
This was back in 1979, about the beginning of the clandestine phase, and Al tells the story ruefully, knowing it illustrates the comic self-destructiveness to which he took the purism of his method.
Joe Papp had brought together Pacino, Streep, Chris Walken, Raul Julia—the elite of that generation of New York stage-based film actors—to explore a New York Shakespeare Festival Hamlet production.
But Al had definite ideas about how he wanted to structure the process.
“See, I wanted to read Hamlet over a five-week period with this group. Just read it. Meet whenever we could, sitting around a table reading it. And then, after five weeks, have a formal reading. And then see what the next step would be.”
And before even reading the first lines of dialogue, “I wanted to talk about how Hamlet talked to his father before he was the ghost. What his relationship to Ophelia was before the play. It would be a ‘relationship’ Hamlet, about the family . . . ”
Things were going fine at this glacial pace as far as Al was concerned, until Meryl Streep delivered a line from the Nunnery Scene standing up. Al couldn’t handle it.
“Meryl came in and said [as Ophelia], ‘My lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to re-deliver.’ And I say, ‘I never gave you aught.’ And she says, ‘My lord. . .’ and I said, ‘. . . Meryl.’
“Everything stopped. Joe Papp said, ‘All right, Al, what is it?’ I said, ‘I think we should still be at the table. I think it’s too soon to get up. I mean, Meryl’s calling me “My lord.” I’m not ready for that.’
“And that’s why the play didn’t get done. Joe Papp said, ‘Oh, these Method actors,’ and that was the end of that.”
“It’s a tragedy there hasn’t been more for Al Pacino,” says one of Pacino’s close associates.
He laughs now at how fanatical it sounds, how blighted by “the pale cast of thought” he’d become.
“I was going through a phase then,” he says. “I remember reading about how the Lunts would spend three months just working on props. And I had this whole thing about the play never opening. Just always rehearsing and calling the audience to watch rehearsals. I went to East Berlin to Brecht’s theater to watch the Berliner Ensemble. You know the story about one of their rehearsals. The actors didn’t come on time. They wandered in, got up onstage and started laughing with each other, and then they had some coffee. One guy got on a box and jumped off and jumped back on. Then they sat and they talked a little bit and they left.”
“That was it?”
“That was it. That stayed with me, that thing.”
“You loved that?”
“I loved that. I really loved that. And after you jump up and down off the box for several months you say, ‘Now let’s tackle that first scene.’ ”
It’s a little crazy; it’s inconvenient; some might call it self-indulgent or even self-destructive. But it’s impossible to understand Al Pacino, particularly the Pacino of the clandestine period, without understanding how deeply he’s still committed to a somewhat extreme theoretical position—his revolt against what he calls “technique dictated by the clock.”
He brought it up again and again, sometimes as a lament, sometimes as a dream of how he’d like to work if he could have his way. The key is the idea of “maybe never opening,” of working on a performance of a play until it’s ready, and then opening, or maybe never scheduling an opening at all, just inviting people to watch the process from reading to workshop to rehearsals. Process over product, or the process as the product.
“This is a kind of Utopia for me—I don’t think that it’ll ever happen,” he conceded one afternoon at the Stage Delicatessen in New York’s theater district, right after showing me the latest crossfade he’d edited into the endlessly evolving film of Stigmatic. ”But I dream about it: no clock. They say that you must put these restrictions on yourself in order to get the thing done. I just don’t agree. I think it can be done without that. That you can trust the faculty in yourself that says I’m ready to do it at this time, because there’s not much more I can do, so I’ll reveal it now.”
This philosophical position caused some practical contention during the beginning of Pacino’s New York run of American Buffalo, when he kept extending previews, postponing an official opening. But for Pacino, the Buffalo experience clinched the belief that he had discovered something important. Once I asked him if he had anything like a personal motto that summed up his philosophy of life. And he quoted for me something he claimed one of the Flying Wallendas had said: ‘‘Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.” Stage work is the wire for me, he said.
But in doing Buffalo in 1983-84 he found what sounds like the wire within the wire: the experiential thrill of doing a role long enough, often enough, to feel it take on a life of its own and dictate its own evolution, as if what was going on was no longer acting but metamorphosis.
“Al, learn your lines, dolling.”
It’s something he insists you discover only from “doing things for a long time.” He did Buffalo in New Haven, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, London.
“When we first did it I was very physical, I moved a lot in certain scenes. Then I found myself finally in Boston at one point and I realized I hadn’t moved at all. I just stayed in one spot the whole time. Now, there’s no way I could have gotten to that if someone had just told me, ‘Don’t move anymore.’ It was only through the constant doing of it.”
His obsession with this idea cannot be overestimated. It colors his interpretation of his character “Teach” in Mamet’s gritty, obscene Buffalo, for instance. On the surface the story is about three petty crooks plotting a break-in and burglary. Some might see it as an allegory of Watergate and the petty crooks in the White House, all in the same corrupt biz. But Al believes it’s about his process-versus-product notion.
“Why do you think Mamet called your character in Buffalo Teach?” I asked him. “What is it we’re supposed to learn from Teach?”
“What we learn, I think, is that what we think we want is not what we really want. You think Teach wants to really knock off that place. But what he really wants is to scheme and talk about it, which actually doing it would ruin.”
“He wants to workshop the crime?” I said a bit maliciously.
He became defensive.
“It’s not like I never do anything,” he replied. In fact, he’s now thinking of choosing a new play to do (with an official opening and all).
Pacino’s aware, in a good-natured, self-deprecating way, of the extremism of his position. He tells a funny story about the way this Method purism taxed even the patience of the Godfather of the Method, Lee Strasberg. Strasberg played opposite Al twice. First in Godfather II as “Hyman Roth” (Strasberg’s one great screen-acting role, an absolutely unforgettable take on Meyer Lansky, the Jewish Godfather), and then in
. . . And Justice for All. Strasberg had been Pacino’s mentor, his spiritual godfather. He’d taken him into the Actors Studio—treated him like a son, as his longed-for heir, the last, best vindication of his Method.
But by the time he played Al’s grandfather in . . . And Justice for All, Al’s methodological purism exasperated even the Great Teacher. The problem was Al’s theory of learning dialogue. “I’m not a quick learn,” Al concedes, but not because he has a weak memory. He’s against “rote memorization” in principle. Because the more authentic way to learn lines is to first become the character; the closer you get to becoming the character, the closer you’ll get to uttering the character’s intended dialogue “spontaneously.” Because that’s what the character you’ve become would say. You get the picture.
Anyway, I ask Al what kind of artistic advice Strasberg had given him when they were playing opposite each other.
“You know what he said to me?” Al says, grinning. “This was during the shooting of . . . And Justice for All.”
“He said, ‘Al, learn your lines, dolling.’ ”
“It was a good piece of advice,” says Al meditatively, as if it were just dawning on him.
These Method actors . . . Pacino in a way is a kind of ultimate Test Case of the Method. Did he become a great actor because of Strasberg’s training? Or in spite of it? Might he have been a greater actor, or at least a more productive great actor, without it? Stella Adler once said bitterly of Strasberg, her arch-rival acting guru, “It will take fifty years for the American actor to recover from the damage that man did.”
“It’s a tragedy there hasn’t been more for Al Pacino,” says one of Pacino’s close associates. Maybe it’s our tragedy, not his: there’s been more of what he cares about (the absorption in the process of the clandestine phase) and less of what we think we want from him (more product).
Was the Method to blame? Al claims that he’s not strictly a Method actor. That although he was a protégé of Strasberg’s he doesn’t use the most characteristic technique of the Method, “sense memory,” milking personal emotions/traumas of the past to fuel acting emotions. What he does use is the off-script improvisational exercises—Hamlet talking to his father before the murder, to Ophelia before the madness.
But it seems undeniable that something changed after Pacino joined the Actors Studio in the late ’60s (at age twenty-six); he developed a kind of intense self-consciousness about the acting process that didn’t seem to be there before.
In fact, it’s fascinating to listen to Al talk about the origins of his acting career because it sounds as if he started out as a “spouter,” not a doubter. Al says that “spouter” was the name given to child actors in Kean’s time. They’d come in and spout great chunks of Shakespeare plays as after-dinner entertainment for adults. Kean started off as a spouter, and so, it seems, did Al. He was a born mimic. When he was a child of three or four his mother would take him to the movies and he’d come back home to their place in the South Bronx and recite the parts all by himself. Then he’d take his show on the road to his father’s house in East Harlem (his parents divorced when he was two). There he learned histrionic demonstrativeness in order to get it across to his two deaf aunts. His performances were a smash, although sometimes even he wasn’t entirely sure why.
“I remember my favorite was doing Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, that scene where he’s tearing up the house looking for a bottle. There I was, six years old, doing it and I couldn’t understand why the adults were laughing.”
By the time he was eleven or twelve he was so confident of his acting destiny that neighborhood kids took to calling him “The Actor,” and he’d sign autographs for them under the name he planned to be famous as: Sonny Scott.
“Sonny Scott?” I asked him. Why Sonny Scott?
It was still a time, he said, “when if your name ended in a vowel you always thought of changing it if you were going into the movies.”
When Pacino tells stories about his early, pre-Strasberg years as a performer, he sounds as if he were talking about a different person; he acts like a different person: you hear the unpremeditated exuberance of a natural mimic, the instinctive entertainer; he speaks freely, almost effusively, rather than choosing words as carefully as a tightrope walker testing his footing, as he does when he talks about his later work.
The kind of work he did starting out as a teenage dropout from Manhattan’s Performing Arts high school is surprising: children’s theater, satirical revues, stand-up comedy. In fact, that’s how he began on the boards: Al Pacino, stand-up comic. He and his acting-coach buddy, Charlie Laughton, would practically live at the Automat, sipping the cheap soup and soaking up material from the human zoo on display there to replay in revue sketches at Village Off Off Broadway venues like the Caffe Cino.
Zoo is the operative word here: a lot of the early sketch material he recalled for me seemed to come directly from the wild life of his unconscious, cloaked in the shapes of animals. There was, for instance, a heartbreaking routine about the mechanical bear in the Playland amusement-park target-shooting game. Over the phone one evening he imitated for me the moaning sounds the bear made as he was forced to act out being wounded over and over again. And then there’s his astonishing Man-with-a-Python sketch, which Freudians might have a field day with.
The python sketch, he says, is based on a Sid Caesar joke that he started acting out for his mother when he was in his early teens and that he then expanded into a twenty-minute routine he wrote and directed for Village coffeehouse stages.
“It was about a guy who had a huge python snake . . . and his trick was he could get this snake to just crawl up his body and then through vibrations he would send it back down and into the cage . . . And of course it’s a complete fraud—he can’t control it—but he has to perform this trick on live television and he does all the things about getting it up, and he even says, ‘I’ll just let it get up a little further,’ till finally he’s screaming, ’Get it off!’ ”
Well, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a python is just a python, and in light of what he tells me later, I think the performance anxiety here is really theatrical, not sexual. It’s about the separation between his own identity and his performing self (Mr. Python), a separation which ultimately became a real problem for him.
At first, Pacino says, performing was liberating for him. Speaking the dialogue of serious drama, “I felt I could speak for the first time. The characters would say these things that I could never say, things I’ve always wanted to say, and that was very liberating for me. It freed me up, made me feel good.”
Then he discovered a new kind of liberation from acting, something that also seemed therapeutic at first.
“By taking on roles of characters that were unlike me, I began to discover those characters in me.”
As an example he talks about his first breakthrough Off Broadway success, in Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx. “When they first asked me to audition for it, I thought they wanted me for the other guy, the milder of the two. But it turned out they wanted me for Murph, who is the more troubled, explosive character, and in playing it I discovered a kind of explosiveness in me I hadn’t known was there.”
Indeed, that troubled explosive quality became a kind of Pacino trademark. His longtime producer and friend, Martin Bregman, used the word “explosiveness” to describe why audiences found Pacino’s screen presence so riveting. “They see that tension in him and they’re just waiting for it to explode. It’s there in all his best roles.”
At first, the discovery of these more intense emotional characters within him was liberating, Al says. “It gave me license to feel, to feel very angry, very happy.”
But it had a downside too.
I wondered aloud to him at one point if being licensed to feel these things as someone else in a role somehow distorted the way he’d learn to feel them as himself.
“I see your point,” he said. “It could arrest growth. But then, there are a lot of things that do that. Synthetic drugs do that too, don’t they, in a way? But it could, it does, affect your personal life . . . And after a while you have to take more of a look at yourself. I didn’t for a period of time.”
“It sounds like what you’re saying is that in the beginning, acting was therapy for you and then you needed to do a kind of therapy to separate from acting.” “Yes,” he says.
“Did you do psychoanalysis?”
“Well, I did see people from time to time. It can be helpful. You need certain support systems, all kinds of support systems. For some it’s books or the bottle . . . ”
In fact, it was the bottle for him for a time, he says, a time that culminated in a kind of year-long Lost Weekend around 1976. He’d touched on his drinking a couple of times earlier, told me how the combination of drinking and exhaustion had led him to throw a “tantrum” and temporarily drop out of Dog Day Afternoon before the shooting started.
I asked how bad a drinking problem he had.
“At first, drinking was part of the territory, part of the acting culture,” he said. He cited Olivier’s remark that the greatest reward of acting is “the drink after the show.”
But he never saw it as a problem until he found himself at one point “enjoying being out of work more than working. There’s a term in the drinking world which is called ‘reaching one’s bottom.’ I don’t know that I ever got to my bottom—I feel I’ve been deprived of my bottom,” he said, laughing. “But I stopped earlier than that. Still, there’s a pattern in drinking; it can lead to other things, a downward spiral. Anyway, I took access to A.A. for a while—it was for a lot of reasons and I was asked to go there. I didn’t pick up the Program, but I found it very supportive, meaningful. And I did stop drinking. I stopped smoking too.”
But there was more than a drinking crisis behind that yearlong Lost Weekend of ’76, when he just stopped working, stopped everything. There was also a fame crisis, and a death crisis (he’d lost a couple of people very close to him), all of which cumulatively produced something on the order of a deep melancholic spiritual crisis which you can still see on tape— captured, embodied in the character he plays in Bobby Deerfield.
“I might have been closer to that character, what he was going through, than any character I’ve played—that loneliness, that isolation,” he said, “possibly the closest I’ve ever been.”
Deerfield was a commercial failure and it’s hard even to find it on videocassette, but Pacino says that he’s “partial to that movie. It’s one of the few I’ve done that I watch again.”
And it is a remarkable performance, the most nakedly emotional he’s done, his only pure romantic role. He plays a famous racecar driver born in Newark who’s escaped his past, lives in Europe (the only false touch is that Sonny Scott-sounding name, “Bobby Deerfield’’), and falls in love with a beautiful dying woman (Marthe Keller) who forces him to stop escaping from life.
“He’s one of the loneliest people I ever saw,” Pacino said of Deerfield.
“What’s his problem?” I asked.
“I think finally to let go of the narcissism that has him isolated in himself. What fed it, of course, was the racecar-driver thing and being such a superstar.”
To hear him talk about it, something similar had happened to him after the Godfather movies. His movie-star fame was not giving him what he wanted—in fact, it was cutting him off from what he wanted to do, which was return to the stage, to “the wire.” And it was getting in the way of people’s perceptions of him when he did get back onstage. I think he was particularly affected by his experience with Richard III. He did it first in a church with the Theatre Company of Boston in 1973. Several years later, after he became a movie star, he succumbed to pressure—and opportunity—to take it to New York to a big Broadway stage, where, he concedes, it “lost the concept” it had had in the church. He got slaughtered by the critics, who, he believes, looked at his efforts through the distorting lens of his movie-stardom. The stardom was getting in the way of personal relationships too, he says elliptically, “things came to me too easily,” things he didn’t think he’d earned.
“Women?” I asked him.
“People,” he said.
(Pacino refuses to talk about his past relationships or his current one with Diane Keaton. “I’ve always felt that part of my life is private, and I just don’t discuss it.”)
He talks about the desperation he felt back then, the seriousness with which he viewed his despair, until at one point when he was most desperate, “I looked at a picture of myself when I was younger, when I was going through something. And it was interesting, seeing that picture. It wasn’t life or death I looked like I was getting through.”
It gave him perspective, “that everything’s not all that extraordinary, each crisis. We blow it up and sometimes—I guess that’s what therapy’s all about. You know, pricking the bubble, letting the air out of these things we think are so . . . so they don’t really govern us.”
The kind of therapy that was ultimately most instrumental in bringing him out of his Lost Weekend impasse might be called clandestine Shakespeare therapy. He arranged a sporadic unpublicized series of college readings of his favorite “arias” from Hamlet, Richard III, Othello, and other, non-Bard drama and poetry. He’d call up a college drama department a few days in advance, tell them he wanted to come do a reading; he’d slip into town, get up on a bare stage with a bunch of books and start telling the story of Hamlet, reading the soliloquies, taking the students through those moments he cared most about, and then taking questions about himself and his work.
It got him back into action again, got him out there on a stage reading Shakespeare, doing what he loved most, without the apparatus of fame, the opening, the show, the critics getting in the way.
Ultimately, it led him back to the theater again, back to Broadway in David Rabe’s Pavlo Hummel, a performance that won him a Tony for Best Actor.
His most recent clandestine phase—all those unpublicized readings, the workshops, the decision to abandon product for process for a while—came from a similar impulse, he says, although it was less a desperate measure than a conscious choice this time.
“Stigmatic was the catalyst for that,” he says, the thing that got him out of the dumps, off the Hollywood production line, back on the wire again. “When we get back to New York,” he said at the Hamburger Hamlet one day, “I want to show you these new things I’ve done with Stigmatic since you last saw it. Just a couple of technical editing things, but I think you’ll see the difference.”
New York, the Brill Building: In a cell-like editing room off a back corridor of this hallowed venue where once the great girl-group tunesmiths toiled, Al is conferring with Beth, his new film editor on Stigmatic. She’s threading the big old moviola editing bed, preparing to show him the work she’s done on the two small changes he wanted to show me. They’re trying to get a version ready to show for Stanley Cavell’s class at Harvard and a one-night screening at MOMA, and these technical changes should have been the finishing touches.
But Al arrives this afternoon with a brand-new notion he wants to try out on Beth and me. Maybe, he says, he should film a couple of minutes of him “introducing the piece,” explaining his twenty-year-long involvement with Stigmatic and a little bit about the playwright— “make it a little easier for people to get into it.”
Or: another possibility. “What if we opened with just an epigraph on a title card,” a line he has in mind from another work of the same playwright that will keynote the theme.
“What’s the line?” Beth asks him.
“It goes: ‘Fame is the perversion of the human instinct for validation and attention,’” he says.
“What do you think, Ron?” he asks me.
I suggest if he’s going to use a thematic epigraph, he should take the line from the play “Fame is the first disgrace” because it’s less didactic-sounding. I ask him if he thinks wanting fame or having it is the disgrace, the perversion.
“Having it,” he says.
Later I try out my theory about him and Stigmatic, why it’s become this career-long obsession with him, why he’s spent the last four years working on virtually nothing else. “I think what appeals to you is the central act in the play—an aging actor being beaten to death merely because he’s famous. It expresses the desire that part of you feels to punish yourself for the ‘disgrace,’ the stigma of fame.”
He denies it, pointing out that he started working on the play before he became famous—which fails to explain why he’s been obsessed with it for fifteen years since. His explanation for his preoccupation with Stigmatic is fairly vague—“It was a difficult piece . . . it failed originally. . .I’m sort of campaigning for its recognition.” In fact, I think his recent clandestine phase can be seen as a more positive response to what was once a self-destructive impulse to punish himself for the stigma of fame: now in his covert stage appearances he’s found a creative way to evade its consequences.
On the moviola, Beth shows Al the rough, flickering version of the technical changes he’s asked for. Tells him that in the first one, a new cross-fade, they can either do a “slop” for $200 or go for an “optical” for $1,200. Al says something about needing to make some more movies to finance the ever-evolving editing work on Stigmatic. Money isn’t a real problem, he says, but he likes to use the pressure of financial need to force himself into action, i.e., making films.
Beth asks him what he thinks about the way she recut the second scene.
“I want to sit on it,” he says ruminatively, “maybe see it again.”
I get the feeling nothing’s ever final about Stigmatic. In fact, in the Brill Building elevator afterward, Al wonders out loud whether that second scene could maybe use a flash-forward.
I had thought the flash-forwards might be gone for good after their excision had met with such hearty approval from Miss Keaton a year ago. But Al thinks this scene could use one.
“Just one,” he says.
The saving grace of his obsessiveness, of his intensity about his work, is that he does have a sense of humor about himself.
Back at the beginning of the editing-room conference, as Beth was getting ready to thread Stigmatic through the moviola reels, she mentioned something about a kidney-stone attack she’d suffered, one that hit her shortly after the birth of her first child.
“Afterwards, my doctor told me I’d survived the two greatest pains known to man.”
“Yeah,” said Al, grinning, “but you’ve only begun to work with me on Stigmatic.”