FILM / Inaction Man: Ahead of the opening of Carlito's Way, Giles Smith considers Al Pacino, the film star who does most when he does nothing

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The Independent Culture
Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way opens on Friday and it's your guess in what kind of shape it will find its star, Al Pacino. Roughly speaking, there was his Seventies phase, in which he impressed us. Then there was his Eighties phase, in which he embarrassed us. And now we're in his Nineties phase, in which he has impressed us (Godfather III) except when embarrassing us (Frankie and Johnny). It could go either way.

At least Pacino no longer has to make films that pretend he is taller than he is. Five-foot-seven is the official line, though some say this is a generous estimate. He wore elevator heels in The Godfather (1972), until the director Francis Ford Coppola asked him why he was walking so strangely. More recently, in good humour as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy (1990), he was 'the world's largest dwarf'. Sea of Love - 1989's triumphant comeback movie after four years away from films, and the movie that opened his current phase - actually insisted on his shortness, milking it for laughs by putting him in a chummy bear-hug with the enormous John Goodman in which Pacino all but disappears. But what about Carlito's Way? Will he walk tall?

Alfred James 'Sonny' Pacino will be 54 in April. Movies were only ever meant to pay the bills so that he was free to do theatre. His audition piece for Lee Strasberg at the New York Actors' Studio in the 1960s was from Hamlet and he has always taken himself fearfully seriously as a stage actor, despite little encouragement from outside. (He did Richard III in the 1970s, after which one critic famously wrote that Pacino had played Shakespeare and lost.) Even now, he continues with workshops and small productions in New York. He has never moved to Hollywood, never done the chat shows or courted the flashy side of fame. He lives alone in Sneden's Landing on the Hudson River and he is said to be in touch with the common man and close to the street - or as close to the street as a man can be who, during the filming of Revolution in King's Lynn, sent his driver back and forth to Harrods to buy lobster.

He is dismayingly inarticulate in interviews. A reporter from the Dallas Morning News came back from a meeting with this: 'It seems, it seems, like, uh, there's a . . . there's a kind of a roll here . . . uh, er, again, it, it just happened that way, so, uh, I'm ah, I'm ah . . . if it's a wave, I'm gonna ride it for a while.' In more fluent moments, Pacino tends to complain unconvincingly about the nightmare that is fame - how terrible it is, for example, to have women trying to kiss you in restaurants. Indeed.

He is reputed to be a poor decision- maker - to the degree that choosing between decaffeinated coffee and regular can cost him minutes of brow-clutching tension. 'I'm not a quick 'yes' when it comes to movies,' he has said. 'Why do I finally say 'yes'? I get tired of saying 'no'.' Well, you can read that in his choice of films. He turned down the role of Willard in Heart of Darkness, the lead in Born on the Fourth of July and the part that became Dustin Hoffman's in Kramer vs Kramer. To his credit, he also turned down Pretty Woman. But all in all, his is a film list with a more than commonly striking distinction between the good (The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Sea of Love), the bad (Bobby Deerfield, And Justice for All) and the ugly (Author] Author], Revolution).

He was 30 when he played Michael Corleone in The Godfather, with only two films behind him. Andrew Yule, in A Life on the Wire, a biography of Pacino, says that Paramount wanted Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson until Marlon Brando, already in place at the head of the cast, told the movie company's boss, 'The person who plays Michael should be a man who broods. He shouldn't be the usual kind of leading man. He should be a brooder.' Pacino took it from there. As Pauline Kael wrote of Pacino's Michael: 'He creates a quiet, ominous space around himself.'

He created it again, still more awesomely, in Godfather III, 18 years later. Evidently Pacino is fond of quoting the Brando maxim that, just because somebody shouts 'Action]', it doesn't mean that you have to do anything. So the best Pacino moments are frequently the ones before he actually makes a move, those seconds before some significant action in which you see him readying his nerve, steeling himself. In The Godfather, when he retires to the restaurant bathroom to retrieve from the cistern the gun with which he must murder McCluskey and Sollozzo, his anticipating eyes widen and flash, expressing a resolve conjured out of fear: and it's that moment that stays in the mind rather than the eventual bloodshed.

Similarly in Dog Day Afternoon, a film about a bank heist that develops into a siege, we first see Pacino anxiously looking over at the joint from his shabby car. And in Sea of Love, where Pacino plays a detective who must stage a series of false dates with women over drinks in a bar in order to get their fingerprints from the glasses, it's not the chat-ups that count so much as the little moment before anyone arrives in which he waits alone at the table, drumming his fingers and muttering.

Even so, some associate Pacino chiefly with aggression, both physical and verbal. True, you wouldn't want to be the person charged with preparing a family viewing version of Scarface: 'Don't bleep with me, don't you bleeping bleep with me or I'll blow your bleeping head off, you bleep.' But as he once said, explaining his reluctance to do sex scenes, 'The impending something I always find more interesting than the act itself.'

And he can bring that active suspension to the screen - the giant rounded eyes, the long slope of the facial muscles, now valuably etched by age, and the sense of the mind working away behind. For contrast, think how movies stall when the faces of Costner or Cruise fill the screen. Harrison Ford is one of the only modern leading men whose expression convinces you that he is troubled in advance by a sense of consequence. Pacino has carried this ability with him from the start and right now it looks like a dying art. He is the last inaction hero.

In A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, David Thomson saw the future hovering in a scene from Bobby Deerfield (1977): 'It shows how winsome Pacino might be if he let his charm loose, and how much he needs the internal conflict of guarding against his loveliness and trying to make it baleful.'

This was written in 1980, but it was prescient. In two of his recent movies, Pacino has let the charm bubble up and give him the slip. Opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny, he played a short- order chef, just an ordinary guy who chops celery in a restaurant, a man who smiled all over the place - as if Pacino could ever be plausible as a man without a tic or a mean streak or some terrible hollow in the region of his heart. And Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in last year's Scent of a Woman, for all his abrupt rudeness, his startling lasciviousness and his clutch of suicidal tendencies, was, in the end, just another version of cute. He was blind, too, which meant that Pacino surrendered his biggest asset to play him. It also meant he won his first and only Oscar for the role, the Oscar committee being, confusedly, a sucker for representations of disability.

Directed by De Palma, the man who brought us Scarface, Carlito's Way is unlikely to be cuddly. One other good omen: the Pacino character emerges after a long spell in prison to find himself in the 1970s. It was always Pacino's best decade. And if De Palma has just once or twice shouted 'Action]' only for Pacino to do nothing, then all will be well.

(Photograph omitted)