Revolution in the head? – Al Pacino and the 1980s

Say hello to our little friend. Al Pacino as Scarface is one of the iconic images in 1980s cinema, yet the decade would see Pacino make only five films – and at one point give up screen acting altogether.

Ashley Clark

Scarface (1983)

Scarface (1983)

It’s an indelible series of images. In the closing moments of Brian De Palma’s bombastic thriller Scarface (1983), drug-fuelled Cuban crime lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is under attack. Swathes of vengeful hoods gather outside this tetchy, truculent mini-monster’s door, eager to put a definitive stop to his criminal empire. Covered in a thin sheen of sweat, with eyes bulging and black lapels stained with cocaine, Montana crouches in front of his bank of surveillance monitors, readies his AK-47, and bellows that unforgettable phrase: “Say hello to my little friend!”

However, the magnitude and endurance of Pacino’s most iconic screen creation has arguably overshadowed the fact that the 1980s was a tricky, challenging decade for the actor. He would only complete five feature films – a surprisingly small return for a screen star in his prime – and few of these would draw the positive notices that greeted the majority of his 1970s output. By contrast, his contemporary and Godfather Part II co-star Robert De Niro would appear in 14 films, and though it would be a mistake to equate quality with quantity, the discrepancy is striking.

Let’s take a look back at decade of intriguing choices, qualified failures and surprising detours.

The turn of the 80s (1980-82)

Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980)

Both Pacino and De Niro had come of age as actors in the New Hollywood era, when directors took unprecedented artistic risks. This trend was to peter out in the 80s, although both actors kicked off the decade working with New Hollywood auteurs. De Niro had an Oscar-winning role as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), while Pacino teamed up with William Friedkin for an altogether pricklier proposition: Cruising (1980).

Pacino plays cop Steve Burns, assigned to go undercover in New York’s leather bars to hunt down a killer targeting the gay S&M community. The film was a cause célèbre, heavily cut by the MPAA, and pilloried by activist groups for its alleged homophobia. Amid the controversy was Pacino’s fierce, unsettling turn as a man increasingly out of his depth and disturbed by rumblings of sexual confusion.

Pacino’s next role was less controversial, but equally unusual territory for him: comedy-drama Author! Author! (1982), in which he starred as a Broadway playwright attempting to negotiate his chaotic family life (including wife, mistress, five kids). The film was a commercial and critical flop, and is rarely discussed or seen these days. However, Pacino secured a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts.

The icon (1983)

Scarface (1983)

Scarface (1983)

Tony Montana was Al Pacino’s showiest, most histrionic screen creation in a 14-year film career which had begun with a small role in Fred Coe’s little-seen Me, Natalie (1969). His Montana was a wildly entertaining performance, overflowing with physical tics and topped by that irresistibly chewy, hammy accent. It’s a testament to this intense actor’s versatility that it’s so difficult to square this Pacino with the one who essayed the cold, calculating Michael Corleone in the first two Godfather films (in 1972 and 1974). Yet they are two sides of the same coin: driven outsiders in search of the American dream who take the route of power, money and control, albeit with different approaches: one plays the long game; the other is in a hurry.

The Godfather maintains the higher critical standing of the two films, but Montana has permeated popular culture to an even larger degree than Corleone. The Scarface character is beloved in hip-hop circles, is continually referenced across all forms of media, and has come to epitomise the excess of the decade in a similar manner to Gordon “Greed is good” Gekko in Scarface writer Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).

The turning point (1985-88)

Revolution (1985)

Revolution (1985)

The decade’s turning point for Pacino came with Hugh Hudson’s American War of Independence drama Revolution (1985). The actor gave a soulful, restrained performance as a reluctant everyman drawn into revolutionary action, but the film flopped at the box office and was battered by critics. Pacino was so stung by the reaction (much of which focused on his odd, halting – though well-researched – period accent) that he temporarily stepped away from film acting altogether.

Hudson later released a recalibrated version of the film (available as a BFI DVD/Blu-ray) with added Pacino voiceover, though it remains deeply odd to see him knocking around with a young Sid Owen (later Eastenders’ perma-gormless Ricky Butcher), who plays his son, and odder still to see his character’s boat being swamped by a crew of belligerent patriots led by Annie Lennox.

Pacino returned to the stage, where he had begun his career. He also spent time working on a personal passion project – a film of Heathcote Williams’ play The Local Stigmatic, which was eventually completed in 1990. “I don’t think people relate to that kind of private work,” Pacino told the LA Times in 1989, “because acting is such a visible profession that if you’re not real visible in it, they assume you’re not working.”

It was never released theatrically, but emerged on a 1997 box set. It’s an intriguing, dense and verbose work, and a must if you’ve ever wanted to hear this most New York of actors deliver a monologue in a Cockney accent. In 1988, Pacino found himself the subject of a wicked, though affectionate, parody in The Comic Strip’s film The Strike! (1988), in which a Hollywood studio makes a film of the strike and casts Pacino (played by Peter Richardson) as Arthur Scargill.

The comeback (1989)

Sea of Love (1989)

Sea of Love (1989)

Four years after Revolution, Harold Becker’s thriller Sea of Love marked Pacino’s big-screen return. In a tender, winningly low-key performance which foreshadows the world-weary likes of the eponymous figures of Carlito’s Way (1993) and Donnie Brasco (1997), he plays Frank Keller, an alcoholic, lovelorn cop nearing retirement. Keller soon becomes dangerously attracted to the female suspect of a string of local murders.

Sea of Love makes for an intriguing decade bookend with Cruising – the skeletons of both stories are similar: troubled, sweaty-eyed New York cop with obsessive tendencies gets into a situation beyond his control. Yet, unlike the fevered, ambiguous coda of Cruising, Sea of Love dared to end on an upbeat note, with its protagonist on the wagon and with a potential romance to look forward to. In this respect, it echoed Pacino’s resurgence as a cinematic force in the following decade: within three years he would pick up his first Oscar for his touching (but pleasingly berserk) portrayal of blind ex-army man Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman (1992).

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