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Book Review - Al Pacino: In Coversation with Lawrence Grobel

by David Cornelius

A notorious recluse and interview-dodger, Al Pacino has spent his decades of fame as something of an enigma. We have a sense of Pacino the actor, not the man - but even then, it’s a sense formed entirely from watching him play other people.

This is intentional. Pacino enjoys his shyness, and he’d rather you concentrate on his work. Knowing too much about Al Pacino the man might send the audience’s minds off target. Consider this passage from Lawrence Grobel’s new collection of interviews and articles about the acting legend, “Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel:”

Once you know things about an actor, as you’re watching his work, you start to read into it. I read a book on Montgomery Clift and then saw him in “A Place in the Sun,” which was fascinating. But I was fascinated with the guy I read about, and I wasn’t in the picture, in his performance as much. I wasn’t listening to the violin being played, I was looking at the violinist. That’s what concerns me and always has.

From this, we can understand why the likelihood of seeing an Al Pacino autobiography or authorized biography on bookstore shelves is slim at best. Even here, Grobel’s compilation, Pacino is quick to turn talk away from his personal life and toward his works.

“Al Pacino” collects expanded versions of a handful of previously published interviews, which were held between 1979 and 2005; so much ground is covered in these interviews that the book becomes the closest thing fans will probably ever get to an official biography. Grobel, long hailed as a master interviewer, had also become a close friend of Pacino’s over the years, so that as we go from one interview to the next, we can see Pacino opening up more and more, talking less to a journalist and more to an old pal. Later interviews are so casual that they’re done via cell phone, just chats to help the actor kill time during rush hour, or during brisk walks around town, or in between rousing games of Pacino’s favorite pasttime, paddle tennis.

By collecting such varied interviews from varied time frames, we get a true sense of how Pacino has evolved both personally and professionally. Grobel runs the risk of monotony by putting some of the pieces so close together, as they often cover the same territory, asking the same questions. But while, say, Pacino’s take on “Scarface” (still his favorite role) doesn’t change much over the years, there’s a lot of growth in the actor’s view of “The Godfather Part III;” interviewed in 1990, on the eve of the film’s release, he’s optimistic, but years later, he’s counting the ways the film went wrong.

This, more than anything, is what makes “Al Pacino” valuable. It captures the actor in the moment. The 1979 piece finds him preparing for the release of “Cruising,” and so we can see how he dealt with that movie’s controversy at that time, as opposed to looking back twenty-plus years later through the haze of memory. We can see how Pacino felt such works as “Scarface” and “Godfather III” would go over, and we can compare how his various hits and flops affected him both immediately and over time. (Pacino and Grobel love to keep returning to “Bobby Deerfield” as a key focus of discussion - it was the actor’s first failure after a string of successes that included the “Godfather” pictures, “Serpico,” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” and the sudden u-turn obviously affected Pacino.) And while Grobel is a bit too polite in terms of Pacino’s filmography, always finding a silver lining in even the stormiest cloud, it’s nice to see Pacino get honest and talk about why certain movies just didn’t click.

For fans looking for something more personal, don’t worry. Grobel is quite adept at getting Pacino to open up; most of his past is covered in the 1979 interview, although the book is peppered with New York anecdotes throughout. And as Pacino matured, he also felt more comfortable discussing his private life with Grobel, even though Grobel seems to make the “why haven’t you been married yet?” question a sticking point.

There’s also a chance to catch a glimpse of Pacino the scatterbrain. We’ve seen jokes on “Saturday Night Live” about the star’s behavioral quirks, and if “Al Pacino” is to be believed, those jokes may not be too far off the mark. An early interview makes mention of a box full of half-eaten cookies Pacino leaves in his kitchen - he eats part of one, the absent-mindedly reaches for another, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire box of half-cookies. He’s constantly saying he didn’t say something that he just said a minute ago. And in one particularly eyebrow-raising tale, Pacino tells of how, after buying a BMW, he began to regret the purchase. He parked the car on the street, it was gone by the time he came back out, and he figured, well, that’s just fine, he didn’t want the damn thing anyway.

Pacino describes himself as a man who will pass days reciting Shakespeare to himself, losing track of time by getting wrapped up in the words of the Bard. This is a man with a passion (he detests the term “obsession”) for Shakespeare, and it shows throughout this set of interviews. He’s at his most energetic when discussing theater (especially, but not only, Shakespeare), and Grobel’s book comes to life most during these passages. Pacino’s passion is infectious.

The decision to turn the book into a commercial for a DVD box set of Pacino’s independent theater-film work (including “Looking For Richard” and “The Local Stigmatic,” a film produced by Pacino in the 1980s yet unreleased until now - Pacino just wanted his own private film) is quite iffy, as we do get Pacino discussing in great depth his part in this smaller, quirkier fare - but at the expense of having the whole thing come across as a cheap shill job. Grobel brings up the box set repeatedly (and makes no mention of why the set was heavily discussed in 2004 and 2005 yet still not released until 2006) and even includes it in the photo inset. Why the shillery? Surely curious readers would seek out the DVDs after reading the book. The constant sales pitch grows tiresome quickly.

It’s the price we must pay, I suppose, to get to hear one of Hollywood’s quietest legends speak up on his grand career, his hits and misses, and all those half-eaten cookies.

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originally posted: 11/03/06 13:09:44
last updated: 11/10/06 01:39:20
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