Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Hamming is a stock-in-trade for Al Pacino. One of the greatest actors of Hollywood history is hopelessly addicted to ‘bantam weight hamming.’ He is over the top and is a bad team player on both screen and stage. His pathological urge to dominate is repelling. He has been accused of bringing his star presence in the way of his acting. . Why is it, then, that he has not ended up as a caricature of his mannerisms? In fact, he continues as a great saga of captivating screen presence. Answer lies in his phenomenal range and absolute mastery over tuning into the desired note.
Pacino is a stylish actor. He communicates with flourishes. In most of his roles, his style has been explosive and of maximum rather than minimum communication. His Oscar winning performance as blind and bitter Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of Woman (Hoo haah) had him use ten sentences where one would have done. He will convey menace, exasperation, longing or simple dumb blankness with his eyes for that little bit longer than necessary. Overkill is a legitimate but futile allegation when it is hurled at Al-Pacino. He is a complete actor not in spite of this overkill but, in many cases, because of it.

He knows the meaning of artifice in art. He makes reality look beautiful by heightening the drama. Cinema is not a reproduction of reality. It is taking the reality and turning it into a spectacle- a narrative. In other words, it is a manufactured experience. This is so not only with cinema but also with other art forms. Matisse can convey the human ecstasy with vermilion bodies in Dance. Picasso is most realistic in portraying horrors or war in ‘Guernica’ with its extreme rendering . Grandiosity of opera is an adjective in itself. Poetry has been called art of ‘sweet excesses’. Excess is a key ingredient of any aesthetic experience. Mastering this art of excess is virtuosity and Al Pacino is a true virtuoso.
He is acutely aware of the power of expression and does not shy away from accentuating that. For example, in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ he made director Sidney Lumet re-shoot the opening scenes as he realized that his character should be shot without glasses. A character that usually wears glasses but forgets on the day when he is going to rob the bank. A fidgety, squinty cast Pacino portrayed the bumbling robber with raw feelings. His showy mannerism were genuine enough to compel Pauline Kael to comment ‘Sonny’s anxiety is so pure that there is no appeal for sympathy – no star kitsch to separate us from the nakedness of the feeling on the screen.’ This about is about the performance that is often marked by the detractors as the beginning of Pacino’s fall into hamming. Similarly, in Scarface, his most successful movie, he is seething with restless energy. Veteran critic Ebert has this to say for the magnum opus “here he plays Tony Montana on an operatic scale, as a man who wants more and more and is finally killed by his own excess. …. it is a correct acting choice, showing a man who has become heedless of everything except his need. If Pacino goes over the top in "Scarface," and he does, that's because the character leads him there; over the top is where Tony Montana lives.”
His flourishes are his ware. He has the traction and wherewithal of operating in top gear and stay there for longer duration. This is his strength not his undoing.
He along with Robert De Niro is considered the inheritor of the method acting mantle from Brando. Here we have the twin peaks of acting in star appeal pantheon.. Some influential commentators like Corliss of Time magazine have taken clear sides in the famous rivalry of the two stars. Corliss goes for the understated style of De Niro. He writes “For going on four decades, they've been the odd couple of Method movie stars: implosive vs. explosive, compressed energy and showboating showmanship. Robert De Niro caught our eye and kept it by being watchful, a figure of static electricity, a hoarder of his characters' motives. He did more by seeming to do nothing. Al Pacino was the total opposite: he laid it all on the table. Then he sliced it up, gobbled it down and spat it out. Before leaving the room, he'd scream at the table, smash it to pieces and use one of the splinters to pick his teeth.” Here he is reviewing’ Righteous Kill’ their flop outing together. May be there is something to it but Great actors have their own rules and when level of talent is of the level of De Niro and Al Pacino, it is pointless to say the static rage is better than explosive rage. Picasso created masterpieces with his form related leaps and Matisse was achieving similarly potent results with chromatic audacity. Both were creating great art. Those who look for contained explosion should go back to silent menace of Godfather and Tony winning You Don't Know Jack.
I will conclude with the summation by Roger Ebert “What a complete actor this man is. He can play big or small, loud or soft, tireless or exhausted, always as if it's the only note he has. ….Pacino has an extraordinary range of styles, and a pitch-perfect ability to evoke them. There is no such thing as "the Al Pacino performance," because there are too many different kinds of them.” Yes his formidable talent and range make him a player of sustained flourish. One thing I completely agree is his inability to be a team player. His histrionics octave needs the screen to himself. ‘Righteous Kill’ floundered on this. At the same time keeping them apart for most of the movie saved ‘Heat’. He is a rare commodity- a precision artist of volatile material.

-Dhiraj Singh

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