The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
LOS ANGELES -- Any kid can play a war hero. But it takes a real man to play a busted-down real estate salesman. Al Pacino has been preparing for years for a role like Ricky Roma, one of the losers in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and as Ricky looks around the shabby office that represents his world, you can see the anger in his tired eyes. Perhaps that rage was once the fire of zeal, joy, dedication. Now it simply reflects his refusal to be counted out.
Pacino and his fellow actors, director James Foley and screenwriter David Mamet have made one of the great movies about success. They play weary and hopeless salesman in a telephone boiler-room operation, trying to convince prospects they'll win prizes just by looking at a model home. They can't move their worthless property; they work on commissions, and aren't earning any, but it's worse than that: They're about to be fired from these jobs that pay them nothing. Only losers like this can understand success. Winners think it's easy. Winners are inside. A loser is outside, where he can see the whole picture - can see how success is defined not by who gets it, but by who doesn't.
The movie is based on Mamet's play, first produced in 1985 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, in the middle of the get-rich-quick years. Studios considered it unfilmable (who wants to see a movie about an office full of guys who can't sell real estate?). Now it comes out at the right time, when the bubble has burst, and times are bad.
The cast rehearsed for weeks before filming begin, and it feels like they did: They know their characters and their sad terrain, and they are completely at home with Mamet's iron-edged dialogue, which uses obscenities for punctuation. Mamet's style, developed in the 1970s in the little theaters of Chicago, is famous now; the incomplete sentences, the exchanges in which no one says what they mean, and of course, the four-letter words, dozens of them, hundreds, until you can hardly hear them anymore. Some of the dialogue passages in this movie are like music, they play so well, point and counterpoint, with four-letter words as the refrain at the end of every line.
Alec Baldwin plays the slick hot-shot from downtown who arrives in the office to give the boys a pep talk: There's a new sales contest, and the winner gets the Cadillac. There is no second prize. Everybody else gets fired. Kevin Spacey is the office manager, who plays by the rules because he is frightened to play any other way. Jack Lemmon is the old salesman who used to be on top, but hasn't had a sale in months. Pacino and Ed Harris and Alan Arkin are the other salesmen, each one with his story, his complaint, his utter contempt for the vile fate that has put him in this stinking job.
The cast seems as if it has been working together for years, I said to Pacino, one morning not long ago. We were out in Santa Monica, in sunshine a million miles removed from the dark, rainy nights of the movie.
"He's sort of actor-proof, Mamet. That's why actors love to play him," Pacino said. "He's an actor himself; he understands transitions, the way dialogue can show you going from one thing to another. He can do it in words, and he can also do it in timing. If I were a musician, he would be the kind of composer I would want to play."
It's going to be hard to show scenes from this movie on TV, I said. They'll have to bleep every other word. Sometimes maybe two out of three.
"I can't even think of this play without those words. They're part of that world. He takes those words and he juxtaposes them in such a way that they have a sound and an existence unto themselves. They evoke the reality. Which is basically what playwriting does. That's why the word is so important in live theater and not as much in movies. The movies use a picture to create a world. The theater uses a word."
Pacino is one of those actors who returns to the stage from time to time; he went through a matinee idol stage when he made some mistakes, like the soppy romance "Bobby Deerfield," which led people to ask, what in God's name is Al Pacino doing floating in that hot air balloon and kissing that girl? But he got back to the hard realism that he does best, and when "Glengarry Glen Ross" opened on Broadway with Joe Mantegna, Mamet's favorite actor, in the Ricky Roma role, Pacino was across the ocean in London, starring in Mamet's "American Buffalo."
"For David," Pacino said, "you've got to learn the dialogue. Then you have to learn the acting. We went on rehearsing `American Buffalo' long after we opened. We would still sit and talk about the relationships. Because otherwise, there's a tendency to just get caught in the language. He's so seductive with his words that there's a tendency to just say them, to let the words carry themselves. Mamet insists on every single word being said as written. I heard that he even rehearses with a metronome, so you feel the rhythm. But once you know the words cold, then you're free to go into it and do whatever you want. You've found the pauses."
This play seems timely now, I said, with the presidential campaign under way, and everybody gloomy about the economy. These guys can't sell this real estate because nobody feels like buying anything. Maybe this is the best time it could have come out.
"I don't know about that. I don't think it matters with this play. I don't think David wrote it with any particular political conditions in mind. I look at it more in the abstract, as a cacophony of sounds; it feels very much like jazz. I don't get that feeling that he wants the movie to have its finger on the pulse of our times. Maybe it's there. It's all in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it?"
Well, it's not just about selling real estate. The characters have a kind of nobility, I think; they continue to try, after it seems hopeless.
"They struggle, they survive, they keep going. Ricky is heroic, in a way. And that's something I found attractive in the character. He's got that kind of facility; he thinks on his feet; that has a facile way of dealing with these situations that look like they're gonna destroy him. He looks at failure and keeps on talking. To play that, it's kinda of fun, because I'm not like that in my life. I don't have that kind of facility, that adaptability, that quick-thinking. Ricky has an interesting mind to play."
You haven't had a lot of failures . . .
Have you? Compared to most people?
"Failure's relative, isn't it? I've always felt, even early on, if I lose the freedom to fail, something's not right about that. It's how you treat failure, too. There's something to learn from it. I've had movies that have failed colossally, so you kind of analyze your failures: What kind of failure was it? A failure because it's misunderstood by others? A failure because you misunderstood it yourself?" At the top of his game
I guess I was thinking of permanent failure that would derail your career. You're still at the top of your game after a lot of years. You've had some movies that were not as successful as you hoped they would be, but you've never looked like the salesman who didn't win the Cadillac. That's what I mean by failure.
"These days, you make a movie, and it's like a race. I very much understand the whole thing about finishing a race, no matter where you come in. The idea of stopping before you've run your time, that's a hard thing to live with. But if you can say, 'I went all the way and I ran the race and I didn't finish in the time I'd hoped for, but I got a time I finished in,' you can cope with it; you can understand it better. But it's when you leave a movie undone, or you didn't give it your all. That's failure. Once you've given it your all, it's on to the next thing, I think."
Looking at your career as a whole, are you fairly satisfied that you've given it your all?
"Let's take a look at it."
Let's start with "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971), I said. It was Pacino's first important film role, and he was brilliant as a New York heroin addict who tries to hold his disintegrating life together.
"It came at a strange time, that movie, didn't it? Andy Warhol's `Trash' came out at the same time and was supposed to be the definitive drug film at that time."
Not as definitive as "Panic in Needle Park."
"I liked that picture, too. I hadn't seen it for many, many years and somebody told me to take it a look at it again and see it, and the shots were quite a job. That girl, Kitty Wynn, she made another movie afterward, and then just stopped. And she was so good." The role of a lifetime
And then the next year, 1972, was "The Godfather," which gave Pacino a lifetime role as Michael Corleone.
"I didn't think I was right for that part, for Michael. But Francis (Coppola) wanted me, and it's a part of the director's vision who he casts in the role. So I'm always interested in a role, however unlikely, if the director wants me - I at least want to know what he sees.
"A lot of actors choose parts by the scripts, but I don't trust reading the scripts that much. I try to get some friends together and read a script aloud. Sometimes I read scripts and record them and play them back to see if there's a movie. It's very evocative; it's like a first cut because you hear 'She walked to the door,' and you visualize all these things. 'She opens the door' . . . because you read the stage directions, too.
"Also, of course, all the reasons you have for doing a movie will vary with the way your life is going. There was a time when a made a some movies because - I don't know - I felt I needed to work. And I didn't think about the material as much. But sometimes I've thought about the material a lot and thought I was doing the right thing, and it didn't work out."
There was a period in the late 1970s when he seemed trying to turn away from the gritty power of his early films - including "Serpico" (1973) and "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) and became a more conventional leading man. And another period, after the failure of "Revolution" (1985), when he simply laid low for four years, doing stage work, reading scripts, not making movies, maybe hearing people wonder whatever happened to him, before he came roaring back with the high-energy thriller "Sea of Love" (1989), a brilliant comic role in "Dick Tracy" (1990), the delicate romance of "Frankie and Johnnie" (1991) and "The Godfather, Part III" (1991) - and now this strong work in "Glengarry."
"Well, I've always walked that track between being what you would call a movie star actor and a stage actor. I was primarily a guy who started on the stage, who did many plays and was going to continue doing that, and then movies happened.
"Certainly the movies were always in the air for me. I come from the era when actors thought it was a big deal to be in the movies - I'm sure they still do - and I remember my experience in 'Me, Natalie' (1969), which was the first movie I ever made. I had a walk-on, with Patty Duke (the film's star), in fact, and I remember being shocked and confused that they could devote a full day from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening doing this little four-line part. It's so funny when people who are not used to making movies get into it. You just can't believe how insufferably boring it is. Waiting around and doing these lines over and over and finally having to go in and loop the lines and dub them. Eventually, I learned how to pace myself and work in the movies and adjust to the schedule."
And then you became a movie star.
"That happened with 'The Godfather' - for everybody who was in it, I guess." The road not taken
If you didn't think you were right for Michael Corleone, who should you have played?
"I thought the part to play was the other one, Sonny Corleone. It seemed more actable. Michael was difficult. There was the way he was before he came to power, and then the transition as he came into the family business. I thought that would be hard to pull off. Because you're trying to create a character the audience can relate to, and yet at the same time, he has to remain an enigma. How do you do that? I didn't know. I guess Francis did."
How did he do it?
"Everything depended on the patriarch, on Marlon Brando. That was the character who hooked you - because, first of all, Brando was playing it. That already was a tremendous plus. And the character had those quirks that made him accessible. He was somebody you would want to know. And then you met the other characters through him. He was the entry into the picture."
Pacino said he might have worked with Brando again, in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." He talked with Coppola, but they didn't agree on a role, and now, after seeing the documentary "Hearts of Darkness," about the hell of the production experience, he's almost glad they didn't connect. Instead, that was the year he made " . . . and Justice for All" (1979). Maybe, in retrospect, not a better choice. But there was an equally good role in Brian DePalma's "Scarface" (1983), which never found the audiences it deserved, but contains perhaps Pacino's best performance.
"I really liked 'Scarface.' To this day, it's perceived by everyone as a film that didn't do well. And yet it's been one of the most popular films I've ever made - at least, with the people who saw it. They're always bringing it up."
In "New Jack City," "Scarface" was the movie the drug dealer took as his bible.
"I think that was accurate. I think it struck a nerve with a lot of different kinds of people." After "Glengarry Glen Ross," Pacino has a lot of plans.
"I've got 'Scent of a Woman' opening in December, directed by Marty Brest. Bo Goldman wrote it. I play a retired, blind lieutenant colonel, and it's about the relationship he has with this prep schoolboy on a sojourn in New York. It's a completely different role for me. And then I've got the two plays I'm doing. And I have this movie, 'Carlito's Way,' about an aging Puerto Rican gangster. Brian De Palma and Marty Bregman are going to do it. The same two guys who did "Scarface."
"That'll keep me out of trouble for a while."
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