An Evening with Al Pacino

Ruth Eckerd Hall was advertising it as “Pacino: One Night Only” back during the latter part of last year; an evening of conversation, film clips and Q&A with the acting legend. It would be an “Inside the Actors Studio” type-setting, an interview with Al Pacino hosted by Steve Persall, the film critic for the St. Petersburg Times. We quickly purchased tickets and anxiously looked forward (at least I anxiously looked forward, my wife just waited) for the date to arrive. Then one Sunday morning in early November, I was reading the New York Times and there I see an ad in the Arts and Leisure section announcing Al Pacino will be performing on Broadway beginning November 13th and running through February 2011, in William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice!” Hmm, it was during this period, Pacino was scheduled to appear at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. How can he be in two places at the same time?  Even an acting legend cannot perform that kind of magic. Soon the dreaded letter arrived from Ruth Eckerd Hall; Pacino’s appearance was postponed due to other commitments and will be rescheduled for a later date to be announced. It stayed that way for almost six months until we received notification that a new date had finally been set, May 31st. Oorah!

There are few people who deserve the status of legend.  In a time when the media deems every reality TV cast member a star or long time TV sit-com star, like say Betty White, a legend, true legends are indeed rare. Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bette Davis and the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor are legends. Betty White, not so much (I am not picking on Betty White, she certainly has endured, as much as I am on the silly “Entertainment Tonight” style media that uses the terminology so indiscriminately). Al Pacino fits the category of a true legend. Continue reading

The Panic in Needle Park (1971) Jerry Schatzberg

 

“The Panic in Needle Park” is raw unnerved New York filmmaking from the 1970’s. Its locations reek with the underbelly of city life, the subways, dirty streets, and the infamous Sherman Park aka Needle Park. Al Pacino in his first leading role is on fire, gum chewing, chain-smoking and wired. This is Pacino, pre-Godfather, unadulterated and hungry.  

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, a well-known photographer, who spent the early part of his career taking portraits of Bob Dylan, including the cover of his “Blonde on Blonde” album, Faye Dunaway, The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Schatzberg would go on to direct other downbeat works like rarely seen “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” and “Scarecrow.”

 “Panic” opened in 1971 and died a quick death at the box office. It remained mysteriously missing from the world of video for 36 years until finally released on DVD in 2007. The 1970’s was a time when filmmakers made statements, provoked and were passionate about what they did. You could make a small art film and not worry about the commercial viability, at least not completely.

The film is a disturbingly beautiful piece of work. An uncompromising bleak vision as filmed by Schatzberg whose use of improvisation and cinema verite style filmmaking puts you right there on the grimy streets with the protagonists. Unlike most drug themed films from this period “Panic” does not cater to the counter-cultures glorification of drug use, part of the reason it did not do well at the box office, as portrayed in such films as “The Trip”, “Psych Out”, “Wild in the Streets”, “Easy Rider” and “Head.” That said, the day after “Panic” opened in New York City another hard-core film about drug addicts opened also, this time the location is on the west coast, the little known “Dusty and Sweets McGee.” Continue reading

Serpico (1973) Sidney Lumet

Heroes are in short supply these days. A recent article in the New York Times made me take another look at one real life hero from my own younger days.  Sidney Lumet’s 1973 work, “Serpico”, based on Peter Maas’ bestselling non-fiction book of New York City detective Frank Serpico, who along with fellow officer David Durk, confronted wide spread police corruption placing their lives on the line in the face of a closed culture that best considered to leave things status quo.  Maas’ book focuses on Serpico’s story reducing Durk to a supporting player, though one suspects he had to be more involved that the film lets on. In the film, Anthony Roberts portray Bob Blair supposedly Durk, under a fictional name.     

Serpico is a young Italian-American who seems is alone in his position as an honest cop. Surrounded by a closed society, the blue wall, that consents to police officers getting a free lunch, literary, receiving payoffs to look the other way, and extorting money from criminal elements allowing to “do their business” without interference from the law.

 

An oddball within the police department, not just for his honesty and refusing to accept favors, but also in his rather bohemian lifestyle, at least bohemian for a police department filled with “straights” versus a “hippie” mentality. Serpico lives in the Village; he reads biographies of artists like Isadora Duncan. His girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) is a dancer with a seemingly waspish background. Serpico is the antithesis of your typical police officer wearing long hair and a beard in a time when the style was considered radical.   

We first see Serpico graduating from the police academy with his proud immigrant parents at his side. As a rookie, Serpico just observes his fellow officers, saying nothing preserving his own code of ethics though every other cop seems to be accepting favors, even if it is just donuts from a local coffee shop. When he eventually expresses his objections to his superiors, he is placated by superiors who promise an investigation but do nothing. He soon builds a reputation as someone who cannot be “trusted” because he’s honest. He is transferred from one precinct to another. No one wants him around; the honest cop cannot be relied upon. His continuous accusations are met with false promises that there will be an investigation. His life is in danger; the threats come from his fellow officers, not from the criminal elements he faces in the streets every day.

Realizing the department will not clean up itself, Serpico and Blair leak the story to a major newspaper and the internal corruption becomes front-page news. Frank becomes a star witness in Mayor’s commission to investigate corruption within the police department.  Transferred to a narcotics squad in Brooklyn, it all come to a tragic eruption when during a drug bust, two fellow officer’s stand by and watch Serpico be shot in the face. The film concludes with Serpico sitting at a pier with his dog as the final words on the screen tell us he is now living somewhere in Switzerland.

Al Pacino gives a tense but controlled performance as Serpico, an intelligent and idealistic man who refuses to accept the status quo. At this early stage in his career, Pacino gave us some of his best work in a series of films that could not be sustained for long, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “The Godfather 1& 2”, “Scarecrow” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, it was one heck of a ride.  “Serpico” also gives us a rarity in American film, a heroic Italian-American instead of the usual portrayal of Italian-Americans as underworld figures or stereotyped as lower-class goomba’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx. Still the film plays down Frank’s Italian-Americanism, we do not see much of Frank’s background, his parents are shown only when he graduates from the academy and in the hospital when he is shot, other than that, Frank lifestyle is free of ethnicity. He moved out of the old neighborhood and into the more bohemian Greenwich Village, his girlfriends are non-ethnic and or artistic types.

Sidney Lumet has a feel for New York rivaled by only a few other directors (Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen are others that come to mind) and during his career Lumet has had a special affinity for looking at corruption and the relationships between good cops and bad cops within the New York City police department. He has address this subject in at least four movies, “Prince of the City”, “Night Falls on Manhattan”, “Q&A” and “Serpico” with varying degrees of success.

More than 35 years later “Serpico” remains a powerful and unsettling film. It’s not perfect, ii is marred specifically by an annoying soundtrack, and unlike, “All the President’s Men” a film made a few year later, by having to have use fictitious names for most of it real life characters. The film also gives the impression that practically the entire police department, except for two or three individuals, were corrupt, a fact that is hard to believe. That said the corruption that did exist at that time had to be wide spread enough that the true life Knapp Commission, formed by then Mayor John Lindsay did investigate police corruption and reform soon followed.

****1/2

Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel

    “Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel” is probably as close, as we will ever get to an autobiography from Al Pacino. This series of interviews taken over a thirty-year period covers Pacino’s youth and his career including his thoughts and ideas on the life of an actor. Pacino comes across as a dedicated actor who is still in love with the theater. He discusses how he creates, prepares and researches for a role. He talks in detail about the movies he been in, fame and even goes on in depth about the films he’s directed and how he finds them hard to let go.

    . He discusses his being famously reluctant for doing interviews and he tells a story about reading a biography of Montgomery Clift and then watching “A Place in the Sun” and how he became so fascinated with the guy he read about that he was distracted from his performance and the film itself. And that what he is trying to preserve. Keeping the character pure by not revealing too much about yourself.

    For those looking for the latest Entertainment Tonight type gossip they will be highly disappointed. For those looking for a serious actor discussing the craft of acting and the life of an actor, well then you came to the right place.

    A must read.