ByCraig Whyel, writer at
Film & TV news, previews and commentary
Craig Whyel

It's hard to believe that Al Pacino is approaching his 75th birthday. With countless acting nominations and awards over the decades, it’s relatively easy to pick his most best-known and or critically-acclaimed performances.

Here is list of five performances that touched on his greatness but were just a bit different in the attention they received:

Panic in Needle Park (1971) was Pacino’s second film. He played Bobby, a street-wise drug dealer who falls for a young lady and they both become addicted to heroin and begin a massive downward spiral.

As Bobby, he was a charming live wire, showing early signs of trademark volatility. He could easily alternate between the charming boyfriend and the street thug slash junkie who understood the harsh realities of his existence.

Such range was unique for a young actor and showed a large dosage of his enormous potential.

If the film and his performance didn’t fare better, it was because it was a stark story steeped in a difficult subject matter; and the casts were largely unknown (at the time).

In Serpico (1973), he took on the role of real-life undercover New York City Police detective, Frank Serpico, an eccentric lawman who confronted police corruption.

As Serpico earned Pacino an Academy Award nomination (Jack Lemmon won for Save the Tiger) and the film was considered a financial success, his outstanding work came on the heels of his performance in The Godfather (1972) and the groundswell of recent (at the time) attention that resulted in Frank Serpico’s involvement in a major anti-corruption initiative that resulted in arrests and changes in the N.Y.P.D. With the impact came a wealth of media attention.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment for Pacino’s work in the film came from none other than Frank Serpico himself who told the New York Daily News that “Pacino played me better than I did.”

Author! Author! (1982) was a light comedy. Pacino played Ivan Travalian, a stressed-out of his head playwright whose wife (Tuesday Weld) abandons him and her brood of four kids. Meanwhile, the backers of his play want heavy rewrites and his new actress girlfriend (Dyan Cannon) wants to move in but isn’t in to being around the kids.

The critic’s hated it.

The main complaints revolved around their not finding Pacino funny. They further felt that the kids were too over-the-top.

They were wrong.

Pacino has never been overly comedic and the kids were lacking experience because of their age. It might have been more deftly handled in the hands of performers who regularly handled the genre.

It was not a great film by many standards but the great joy of the film was watching Pacino worked with the kids. He seemed patient while they repeatedly upstaged him and he seemed to genuinely enjoy working with them.

Maybe he wasn’t funny but he should a sweetness that had, to date, only been seen in small dosages.

Glengarry Glenross (1992). Pacino played Rick Roma, a super-slick real estate sales agent in the film version of cussing-machine David Mamet’s play. He was part of a powerhouse cast that included Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce and Jack Lemmon.

He managed to play things close, keeping things cool and smooth, persuading a client (Pryce) to part with money then hip when effortlessly sliding into a con alongside a fellow agent (Lemmon) and, finally, ripping into a hapless office manager (Spacey).

It was pure brilliance but most of the media and critics seem far more infatuated by Pacino’s “who-ha” turn in Scent of a Woman, an over the top performance of a suicidal blind man.

His work in both films earned him an extremely rare double Oscar nomination in 1992. He lost the Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven and won Best Actor honors for Scent of a Woman.

For my money, his work as Ricky Roma was easily the better of the two performances.

As real-life gangster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggierio in Donny Brasco (1996), he played an aging loser. While Lefty was rife with the toughness that is a hallmark of a Pacino performance, he also conveyed a high degree of vulnerability.

Ruggierio was a man whose life was in pieces. His wife was a stranger, his (off-screen) young adult son was an addict who died of an overdose and his place in the echelon of a crime family was tentative.

In addition to the highly-complex character who was billed in a co-starring role but really was more of a supporting part to force of nature, Johnny Depp as Donny Brasco.

For me, the best Pacino work was in the film took place in the hospital scene where, as Lefty, he just learned that his son wouldn’t survive the above-mentioned drug overdose. With anger and emotion just at the surface, he had, as a tough guy, had to keep things in check. It was masterful.

I believe that Pacino is great in every performance he gives. I’m not against his better-known performances; I just believe that these five parts deserve more attention for their greatness.

Feel free to share your favorite Al Pacino film roles in the comments section.

Lots of swearing discretion is advised.

An aging loser
An aging loser

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