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Pacino’s pound of flesh

I have been watching Al Pacino movies for days now. Movie after Pacino movie. I’m getting to a stage where I can’t tell one from the other. They all involve good guys turned bad or bad guys turned good, or guys constantly wavering on the moral compass so you just can’t tell. In five movies on the trot he is shot: Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Serpico, Carlito’s Way and Insomnia. In two of them, he manages to die at the beginning and end. I wake up in the middle of the night and watch Heat. He doesn’t get killed, but he sees off Robert De Niro. I’m beginning to feel like the cop he plays in Insomnia who loses his mind through lack of sleep and too much conscience.

His voice seems to get louder in his later films. As Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, the movie that really made him, you could barely hear his voice. Pacino, so young and grave, did the “method” — he didn’t act so much as inhabit his characters. He expressed himself in the tiniest gestures. He showed ambiguity with consummate economy, saying one thing with his voice and something completely different with his eyes.

In The Merchant of Venice he plays Shylock, yet another man emptied of hope and defeated by life. His Shylock could be another Carlito or Corleone: a monster, but possibly the most moral man in Shakespeare’s Venice, a man who keeps his word or, as his Tony Montana says in Scarface, “All I have in this world is my balls and my word — and I don’t break ’em for no one, you understand?”

After quitting the movies in despair for four years in the late 1980s (after the epic flop Revolution), Pacino has had an incredibly successful two decades. People often complain that he is hammy, a parody of his former self, but he is huge box office. In the 1990s he won his first Oscar (after six nominations) for the soppy Scent of a Woman, and scored critical successes with Heat, The Insider and Donnie Brascoe.

I’m not looking forward to meeting Pacino. I suppose he scares me. The press officer tells me I should have seen the hardnuts lining up for The Merchant of Venice premiere. Another press officer brings in a cappuccino for Pacino before he arrives, then replaces it a few minutes later because it might be cold.

Pacino schlumps into the room, almost as broad as he is wide, belly sagging, face weathered but perfectly intact. He is dressed totally in black and looks like a gorgeous tramp. He flew into London from Los Angeles the day before and hasn’t caught up on his sleep. (Actually, he says he hasn’t slept decently since making Insomnia.)

The Merchant of Venice means a lot to him. Pacino loves his Shakespeare. Having directed the documentary Looking for Richard (a lovely, funny film that tries to make sense of Shakespeare and his stage version of Richard III), this is his first straight Shakespeare movie.

I ask him if he thinks of Shylock as a hero or a villain. Pacino ums and ahs, and tells me, well, this guy has suffered such loss and taken so much shit from so many people — and then he apologises for being inarticulate. “I get all sluggish when I talk about it.”

Straight answer, I say, you’ve got two seconds, hero or villain. “Because I see good and bad in all of us, I can’t answer that question. I have to say a good-bad man.” He’ll probably read this quote one day, change his mind and decide Shylock is a bad-good man. He says he often reads things he has said and thinks he didn’t quite mean that. It’s not that the words have been distorted, it’s simply that he didn’t quite articulate what he meant.

As he struggles to make up his mind, I ask him about another character: Scarface‘s Tony Montana.

Pacino thinks. “Well, it depends on what side of the street you are walking on,” he says. Two seconds, I say. He grins. “You know, I’m going to say hero. Anybody who says ‘go shove it’ when somebody’s got a chainsaw that is about to take your head off, I think pretty much that is a hero in anybody’s language.”

The new cappuccino arrives. He doesn’t drink these days, or take drugs, or smoke. But he does coffee big time. Friends call him Al Cappuccino. “For you?” the waiter says. “I believe it is for me,” Pacino says. He’s incredibly polite. I’ve stopped feeling scared.

I tell him how depressing I found it watching his movies en masse. He says I’m not the first person to have said that. Does the pessimism of the films reflect his world view? “Well,” he says. “In the end you’re just playing a role.”

The stories are legion of how he got lost in his roles — how when he was playing a lawyer and a friend told him he was having conveyancing problems, he asked to see his contract; how he fell with his eyes open, just as a blind man would, when acting in Scent of a Woman.

But what about when he was playing those psychos? Surely if you were method-acting a monster, you became a monster? No, he says quietly. They are not monsters. “You don’t look at it like that. It’s passion and emotions and it’s in all of us.” You have to look for the human in all the characters you play, he says.

Does he like guns? “I’m not crazy about the guns. I got to tell ya, that’s not my thing.”

Is he as hard in real life as he is in movies? He looks at me as if I’m bonkers. “I couldn’t possibly be. I couldn’t possibly be.” You know, he says, he never planned any of this. “Did you know I started out as a stand-up comic?” He looks embarrassed. “People don’t believe me when I tell them.

“That’s how I saw myself, in comedy, and I didn’t know I would do this with my life. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do.”

If you look back to say, Dog Day Afternoon, he says, you can see the physical comedian in him. “That’s where humour lives for me. In the body.”

In some more recent roles, such as Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate, he has hammed it up to great effect. His critics suggest that he’s also hammed it up in his serious roles. He looks a little hurt when I mention it. “You can’t call Shylock hammy,” he protests. No, I say, but there are certain films … “Yes, certain roles you go too far,” he concedes. “But part of what you hope to do is not censor yourself and then find a way to pull back, and sometimes you don’t censor yourself and you get caught off guard.”

He says it’s the director’s job to rein him in, and they don’t always. “Sometimes it seems that directors just say, ‘Give me more Pacino, more Pacino’.”

Back in the 1970s, when method acting took him over, he took to drink. He found filmmaking and life exhausting. After The Godfather he became so famous so quickly, he couldn’t cope. When did he realise he had a problem?

“When it replaced work. Drinking became more attractive than working … I just enjoyed who I became when I was drinking, so that was something hard to break. I became much quieter, and funny. I must say, that kind of thing came out.”

And when he was sober? “Well, I was looking for a drink.” He hasn’t drunk alcohol for 20-plus years. “I can’t say I’ve been sober though. I don’t like that word. What does it mean? ‘Sober! He’s very sober’,” he says to himself with contempt.

He’s right, sober is an inappropriate word for him. At 64, he’s still known as a man who operates better at night than in the day. He has had numerous famous girlfriends, numerous unfamous girlfriends, and he has never married. He has a daughter of 15, and four-year-old twins with a different mother, Beverly D’Angelo, from whom he is separated. “I’m single and I don’t particularly like it … You understand after a while why people stay together because of children.” He sounds so innocent, so regretful.

Pacino says he finds everything so much easier these days — life, movies, being himself. In the early days, he almost lost his soul to his work. Yes, he says, he is still attracted to those complex baddie-goodies and goody-baddies, but he hasn’t got a clue why. “When I try to explain anything, I always end up trying to be right usually, but not truthful necessarily.”

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