Ask any of your friends to do an Al Pacino impression these days and it will likely involve a lot of shouting and a fair amount of spittle – but Big Al wasn’t always known for RANDOMLY BELOWING LINES OF DIALOGUE.
The Pacino of the 1970s cut a figure of seething, dignified, restraint, impressing with classic turns in films like Serpico and The Godfather Parts I & II.
When he raised his voice in films like Dog Day Afternoon to yell things like “Attica!” it meant something. It was powerful. It had purpose.
Yet, somewhere along the way, Pacino lost sight of that. Like a teacher who employs the tactic of bellowing at a room of unruly kids one too many times, it’s lost it’s effect.
In fact, it’s gone beyond parody, whether it’s your mate’s shouty impression, or one of the many supercuts featuring every movie involving Al Pacino and shouting. And there are a lot.
It’s clear to see where Pacino’s penchant for ranting and raving hit an all-time low – 1997’s The Devils’ Advocate. It’s a film that saw Pacino attempt to compensate for Keanu Reeves’ distinctive brand of non-acting by shouting pretty much constantly. For nearly two hours. His throat must have been red-raw.
But while it’s easy enough to highlight the notable low points of Pacino’s new-found style, it’s harder to work out where it started. After all, he wasn’t always shouting through his movies, so what changed?
The most common answer involves the Oscars and his 1992 movie Scent of a Woman.
Playing the role of the retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, Pacino pretty much bellowed his way through the entire film and the critics absolutely loved it.
In Pacino’s defence, it was a role that arguably called for this kind of bombastic performance.
A blind alcoholic seeking to end his life, it made sense for the troubled Slade, a former military man, to bark the majority of his lines with deranged glee.
The problem was that the Academy completely agreed and gave Pacino what remains his one and only Oscar for Best Actor.
From there, Pacino had free reign to unleash his trademark random shouting as he saw fit and, for a while, it worked well.
The years that followed saw him wow in Carlito’s Way, Heat, Donnie Brasco and Any Given Sunday.
These movies littered with examples of Pacino’s deranged shouting style, often with little to no real purpose, yet somehow these strange outbursts went largely ignored by fans.
For example, everyone remembers Pacino bellowing “GREAT ASS” in Heat, but has it impacted anyone’s enjoyment of the final film? The answer is no.
It’s only in more recent years, when the quality of projects picked by Pacino began to dip, that it began to become something of a problematic approach and one noticed by fans desperate to find something to fix their attention on during lamentable movies like Righteous Kill.
But was Scent of a Woman really the beginning? Some point to the 1989 erotic thriller Sea of Love as the true starting point while Glengarry Glen Ross saw Pacino build on that with a kind of almost automatic style of regular, mid-monologue, outbursts of sound.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in his pronunciation of the letter “s” which became more outlandish and pronounced as time took hold, culminating in The Insider.
There will be those who argue the role of “Big Boy” Caprice in Warren Beatty’s big and brash Dick Tracy adaptation was where things really kicked off, but there are mitigating circumstances to consider with that particular picture.
It was a movie short on details but big on colour and exaggerated characterisation. It
needed a similarly colourful performance – particularly with the dense and, most likely prohibitive, prosthetics involved.
Then again, maybe Pacino has always had it in his locker, it’s just become more prominent with age.
As a fan of the theatre and legend of the stage, Pacino knows only too well of the importance of projection, which may have informed his acting choices on the screen too.
An avid Shakespeare fan, his 1996 documentary Looking for Richard, highlighted the high esteem he held the Bard in and how much of an influence he had on his work – Glengarry Glen Ross was originally a play by David Mamet, for example.
Age and a possible smoking habit may have also played their part into turning his voice into something of a growling rumble but that remains speculative at best.
Whatever the case, it seems as though the years running from 1990 to 1992 were the key years for the development of the Pacino shouting approach.
Big Al may have softened to more of a low growl, with some unusual hand gestures thrown in for good measure but whether it’s loud, soft or quietly dignified, one thing remains definite: Pacino’s legend will live on beyond debates over his vocal style.