Relentless in Pursuit of a Character

Book Review: Al Pacino: The Authorized Biography. by Lawrence Grobel, 2006. ISBN 1416912118. Simon & Schuster: London

Anyone who watched his brilliant performances in The Godfather, Heat, Sea of Love, Scarface, The Devil’s Advocate will be all too aware of the immense talent Al Pacino brings to his trade and with which he has wooed movie aficionados for decades. 

In February, while their mother was in the US, I sat down with the children to watch Heat. Each time I see this film it brings home to me just how outstanding an actor Al Pacino is. I can view it in the same way my youngest can Scooby Doo, never tiring of it. I was glad to share it with my kids. Some will think that not PC but that’s okay. Thinking is fine so long as we don’t stop others thinking. I grew up more or less watching what I wanted and I would like it to be the same for them. It broadens the outlook.

Pacino has a string of films notched up. I derived immense joy from all the Godfather movies, in particular the first. Yet I never warmed to the character Michael Corleone, even though the acting by Pacino was broodingly superb. The atmospheric Heat tops the lot in terms of the personal enjoyment I took from it. The power of his performance as the lead cop, Vincent Hanna, pitted against Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro, is nuclear. The self-critical voice rendered from the top of the building when he realised what fellow cops didn’t, how the hunter had become the hunted, still echoes. The dialogue between Hanna and McCauley over coffee after Hanna had been dropped by chopper near a spot where he could get in his own car, pursue McCauley’s and ask him to pull over, carries force in a way that the insane gun battle at the bank finds it hard to match. Pacino fired the warning shot in the coffee shop then the real one at the bank, which saw McCauley’s crew begin to fall apart.

So good is Pacino at his craft that he even managed to varnish what would certainly have been a dull wooden performance from the immensely irritating Robin Williams in Insomnia: the only film I have ever enjoyed Williams in, while still holding to the view that it would have been so much better without him. I am one of those film buffs who firmly believe Robin Williams is a cure for anybody’s insomnia.

Lawrence Grobel conducted interviews with Pacino over the course of a quarter of a century. In this authorised biography he pulls them together. These constitute the book but are complemented by a very worthwhile introduction penned by Grobel. While the two became friends it didn’t prevent Grobel asking the probing question nor Pacino dismissing it if he didn’t want to answer or thought it sailed too close to his relationships which he wanted to keep off limits.  The two were wholly at ease in each others company. 

It was a light read, picked up almost at random from a section in one of the book shelves which houses biographies of actors, singers, sportspeople. I had purchased it a few years back in Dundalk knowing that at some point I would get my head into it. Preparing to catch a North bound train about a year back I stuck it in my bag. I have forgotten the journey or its purpose but not the book.

Thinking it would be one of those books that would require no thinking and that it would hardly matter if by the time page 3 was reached the contents of page 2 would respond to an automatic delete command and vanish from memory, this had a few pleasant surprises.  Celebrity books are frequently trashy, like a Premiership footballer making hay while the sun is still shining on his career. Just churn it out as if it is a penalty kick and no keeper. Not with this. There is so much thinking at play in these pages. Over 25 years in the making it evolves naturally. This book opens many doors but the biggest insight it gives is into the powerful intellect of Pacino, alongside his immersion in the role: what Meryl Streep described as ‘relentless in pursuit of a character.’

How an actor thinks about what he does or how it should be done differently is a feature of this compilation book.  The dimensions of a character, Pacino layers on with painstaking dedication.  A man who does theatre, reads Dostoyevsky and Balzac, whose favourite role is in Godfather II, is not somebody given to the emission of unintelligible grunts.

Al Pacino: The Authorized Biography. by Lawrence Grobel, 2006. ISBN 1416912118. Simon & Schuster: London.


  1. He delved into his role as if he was that person in real life, and, he made you think that he was that person he portrayed. Fantastic and one of a kind.

  2. Pacino wasn't even going to be offered the part originally as Micheal (should of went Martin Sheen) only Francis ford stuck with his instinct and didn't listen to Paramount. It's a movie I never get tired of watching. Although the GF part 3 was very weak...and given the plot about the Mafia and the Vatican working hand in hand could have been a lot stronger.

    I've seen 'Heat' three times and tonight I'll download it again and watch it. It's a pity that Pacino and De Niro didn't work on more movies together. Even though they hardly appeared in the same scenes..I'll put that down to one of lifes great unsolved mysteries.

    I never like Robin Williams from the first time I seen him on UTV I think (could have been CH4) in 'Mork and Mindy..'

    And on that note, I'll say..

    Frankie calling Orson..Nano, nano..

  3. at least my take on Williams is not eccentric!

  4. AM-

    Most check out that Pacino book some time- i am reading Vendetta by John Follain at the momment-its about the Mafia in sicily and the judge
    Falcone killing in 92-its a good read so far-

  5. What'd you think of CARLITO'S WAY? That's probably my favorite Pacino film.

  6. Christopher,

    I don't think I saw that one.