From Street Corner to Center Stage
American stage and screen acting dynamo Al Pacino turns 77 today and 50 years in the public eye has brought him a long way. As recounted in Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel, on the occasion of a 2005 American Cinematheque tribute to the Oscar® and two-time Emmy® and Tony® winner, “James Caan remembered how, during The Godfather, Pacino was the ‘weird guy in the corner. I think we all knew at the time that this guy in the corner was mushrooming into probably one of the greatest talents of all time in our industry.’” Revisiting Pacino’s portrayal of New York heroin addict Bobby, his first starring film role, in the grim but mesmerizing The Panic in Needle Park (1971, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapting a novel by James Mills, and co-starring Kitty Winn), The Village Voice’s J Hoberman in 2009 went one better, dubbing him “a force of nature. Chewing gum and chain-smoking Kools, this mop-topped motormouth is as wired as Robert DeNiro's Johnny Boy [as in Mean Streets] and as cute as Woody Allen's Alvy Singer [as in Annie Hall].” Pacino told Grobel in 1979: “I was drunk when I saw the first screening, but I was surprised at my bounciness, that I was all over the place. I did say, though, ‘That’s a talented actor, but he needs work. Help. And he needs to work. And learn. But there’s talent there.’ In one scene we were supposed to be dealing on the corner, and there was a guy actually dealing heroin right there. I looked at him and he looked at me, and I got real confused….I don’t like to go on about myself – I feel sometimes that it’s not me that has something to offer, but, hopefully, my talent.” Following a series of early career triumphs – two Godfather sagas, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, all of which earned him Academy Award® nominations – came an intriguing love story about an internationally renowned but emotionally internalized race-car driver, courtesy of director Sydney Pollack and an Alvin Sargent script adapted from an Erich Maria Remarque book). Grobel asked Pacino: “You and the character you play are both celebrities obsessed by your professions, not easily communicative, and you don’t readily relate to outsiders. Would you agree with your co-star and former lover Marthe Keller that of all your roles, Bobby Deerfield (1977) is the one closest to you?” And Pacino responded: “It was probably closest to me at the time. Sometimes characters you play help you work things out in real life. It was a move away from anything I had done before….Coming at that time in my life, it was very important for me personally. It certainly wasn’t a career triumph.” Both Pacino and Pollack would subsequently reflect that their working relationship was not in synch, yet neither regretted the overall effort, and 40 years later the film offers more pleasures and rewards than frustrations. “I was after the other side of narcissism,” Pacino confided. “That something that happens to a superstar who is left and is idolized, a kind of loneliness I was after, narcissistic detachment, depression. That’s what it was about – about breaking that depression, that self-absorption, opening like a flower. In my own life I have not gone into or resolved many things. Many things I’ve avoided. That is what Bobby Deerfield is about – knowing when to duck, when to move, when to hide, when to go in, when to roll with the punches. That is what I call my way of survival. I’ve had a lot of selfish incidents in my life. One day I just turned around and said, I am a selfish bastard, and I don’t have to be.” Decades of ongoing committed work, cycling across stages, movie screens and home screens, followed – roaring successes and stumbling near-misses alike, but all marked by an evolving sense of discovery and yes, generosity of spirit. So Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of The Panic in Needle Park and Bobby Deerfield definitely contribute to the total picture of a beloved birthday honoree who’s since ceased to be the weird guy in the corner.