It feels wrong to write a piece making the case for Al Pacino to win an Oscar. This is Al Pacino we’re talking about. The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Glengarry Glen Ross. Granted, these are not new films, and some of Pacino’s more recent performances have been somewhat questionable: His turns in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (“whoo-ha!”) and Michael Mann’s Heat (“great ass!”) verged on abstract, impressionistic acting à la Nicolas Cage. Yet even those lapses of madness were exciting, interesting and pure Pacino. Like Cage (or, to cite another expert of deconstructive, out-of-this-world acting, Christopher Walken) but with less absurd intensity, Pacino has explored the outer limits of realistic acting, which is, paradoxically perhaps, one way to make a character ever more realistic.
But assuming that career alone doesn’t merit an acting Oscar—even if it clearly does, because how else do you explain Pacino himself winning his only Academy Award for Scent of a Woman?—in this case the performance for which Pacino is nominated is actually one of his greatest. The titular character of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, but the heart of the film belongs to Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. A ruthless union president refusing to cooperate with gangsters, Hoffa could have been portrayed as a grotesque caricature, stubborn to the point of stupidity and of death. But Pacino finds the human being behind the hard shell of Hoffa’s ambition. He plays him as a gregarious, witty, and playful character because the man, unlike the mafia he’s dealing with, isn’t purely driven by selfish, capitalist greed, but rather by genuine integrity and principles. Although he may not be a saint, he truly believes in his own deserved respect and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Pacino, now 79 years old, makes his protagonist appear both experienced and still something of an optimistic idealist, talking openly and loudly about his beliefs and his anger toward the manipulative Kennedys. Hoffa leads with a firm but ludic hand, and with De Niro’s Sheeran as a cold, mechanical, war-traumatized robot by his side, Pacino’s uplifted demeanor is all the more evident and appreciated. His exclamations, which in Heat stemmed from the exhaustion of cop life, here result from boundless confidence.
Even though Hoffa still deals with dark characters, Pacino gives him a heart of gold—a performance in the gangster genre that contrasts completely with the actor’s most famous turns as underground criminals. Hoffa, playing fun uncle to Sheeran’s daughter, couldn’t be further from sexist Tony Montana in Scarface. Both men allow Pacino to be loud and witty, but he manages to do so for opposite effects. Yet perhaps Pacino’s greatest feat as an actor is to never settle for a polarized version of neither his characters nor his own persona. Instead, he willingly explores the complexity of human nature—whether it makes him look heroic, dangerous, smart or thoughtless, all in one film. Even Tony Montana had some good moments, and Hoffa isn’t always such an admirable figure (his determination to get Stephen Graham’s Tony Pro to wear a suit to their meetings borders on mania).
Getting an Oscar for this role would also be a recognition of Pacino’s ability to play the good, the bad, and the ugly. For Pacino is part of cinema history—and The Irishman, by being the meeting of countless New Hollywood legends, contains a key chapter of that history within its 209 minutes. Because of Pacino and De Niro, the friendly bond that ties Hoffa and Sheeran takes the proportions not only of this real-life story and these actors’ interconnected careers, but also and most importantly of film itself as an art form. Scorsese’s choice to have the two characters—and actors—first come into contact 46 minutes into the film via a phone conversation feels purposeful: The gratification of seeing Pacino and De Niro reunited in the same film for the first time in 11 years (since 2008’s Righteous Kill) is both delayed and emphasized. It recalls their co-appearances in Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary The Godfather II, in which they didn’t share a single scene but were brought together by film editing—film magic. Now, it is Scorsese, arguably the most film-history-literate director still working today, who plays with these actors’ personae to give special weight to his characters’ relationship and pay tribute to the craft he has devoted his life to. Someone less familiar with the historical significance of Pacino, De Niro, and Scorsese perhaps wouldn’t get much out of the immersive Irishman, but one dares hope the Academy can appreciate its synecdochic power.
Since his performance resonates so widely beyond the film itself, it is difficult to limit this article to Pacino only. But Scorsese does more than nostalgically refer to the glorious years when he and his cast were making revolutionary and muscular work, and Pacino’s performance helps him transcend simple eulogy. Contrasting with De Niro’s cold-blooded Sheeran, Pacino’s wholesome Hoffa presents Scorsese and the gangster genre with a problem: Is macho masculinity really the best way to be a man (and the best approach to doing business), or does sweetness have benefits? Pacino’s open-hearted, boisterous, and generous Hoffa is at odds with the very film he is in. Gangsters—and especially Scorsese’s gangsters—are typically tough as nails, unemotional, or overemotional (like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas), and cruel for sport. Sheeran himself is the older-man version of this type; the years have hardened him to the point that he has become completely unable to relate normally to regular people, including his own daughter. When retelling the story of his relationship to Hoffa from his retirement home, he clearly doesn’t know how to deal with his inescapable feelings of regret and loneliness. He thought he had trained himself never to feel compassion, only loyalty to his employers, but the reality is that, like Hoffa, he is only human. Instead of reusing old tropes and ideas about masculinity, Scorsese—and Pacino—challenge them.
This reevaluation of one’s way of being in the world echoes Pacino’s only Oscar-winning role. As Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, the actor exhibited the most toxic kind of masculinity, always standing up for himself even if it hurt others. Slade’s conversion to niceness occurs through very 1990s experiences (dancing the tango with a stranger in her early 20s) scored with the typically rousing violins of the eras’ campus dramas. The Irishman, on the other hand, allows Pacino to inhabit a healthier masculinity without making it a forced, uplifting journey toward goodness. It also gives him a chance to reshape his persona yet again, never letting himself settle into one type. It reminds us that when Al Pacino acts, he is doing it not only for his character and his film, but also for all the ones that came before and that we will always remember—and have to grapple with.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.