Al Pacino's 10 Most Notable Films

Ryan Loftis By Ryan Loftis, 27th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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A look at acting legend Al Pacino's 10 most notable films.


His career has had its ups and downs, but there's no denying Al Pacino is an acting legend. The British film magazine Empire ranked Pacino fourth on its list of the top 100 movie stars of all time in October 1997. Pacino received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment" at the 2001 Golden Globes, the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, and the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor the United States government can give artists and art patrons, in 2011. In recognition of Pacino's 75th birthday on April 25, here are his 10 most notable films.

The Godfather (1972)

The big-screen adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel about a Mafia family, the Corleones, is generally considered among the greatest American movies ever made. Pacino earned his first Oscar nomination for playing youngest son Michael, and the movie won three Oscars, including Best Picture. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked The Godfather third on its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time in 1998 and second on its 10th anniversary list in 2007, while Empire magazine ranked the film first on its list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Adjusted for inflation, The Godfather ranks 23rd on the list of the highest-grossing movies in history with $655 million.

Pacino's breakthrough role didn't come easily. First, Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola had to fight Paramount's reluctance to cast the unknown actor as Michael. After testing for the role three times, a frustrated Pacino stopped taking Coppola's calls. Even when Pacino finally got the part, there was a problem: He'd already signed on to act in The Gang That Shouldn't Shoot Straight, and neither the movie's studio or producer would release him. It was only when a young actor named Robert DeNiro was found to replace him that Pacino was allowed to do The Godfather. Pacino said it wasn't until he filmed the "Sollozzo scene," during which Michael killed two people in a restaurant, that his job became secure.

Serpico (1973)

Pacino won his first Golden Globe and received his second Oscar nomination for playing Frank Serpico, the real-life cop whose efforts in exposing corruption in the New York Police Department came at a high professional price. He may not have won the Oscar, but Pacino considers his performance in this movie one of his greatest acting achievements. The real Serpico was impressed, too, telling the New York Daily News, "Pacino played Serpico better than I did." Pacino's Serpico was ranked 40th on the AFI's list of the top 50 movie heroes.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Reprising his role as Michael Corleone earned Pacino his third Oscar nomination in three years. He also earned $600,000 for his work, a major increase from the $35,000 he was paid for the first movie. The Godfather: Part II won six Oscars and became the first sequel to win Best Picture (it wouldn't happen again until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won in 2004). Largely believed to be the greatest sequel ever made, Part II was ranked 32nd on the AFI's 100 greatest movies list in both 1998 and 2007. In June 2013, parts one and two of The Godfather tied for second place on Entertainment Weekly's list of the greatest movies of all time. Pacino's performance in Part II was ranked 20th on Premiere magazine's list of the 100 greatest performances of all time, but that year's Best Actor Oscar went to Art Carney for playing an elderly widow traveling across the country with his pet cat in Harry and Tonto.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Pacino earned his fourth Oscar nomination in as many years for another role based on a real-life figure - in this case, John Wojtowicz, who held up a Brooklyn bank in August 1972 to get money to pay for his lover's sex-change operation and ended up creating a hostage situation. Premiere magazine ranked Pacino's performance as Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon fourth on its list of the 100 greatest performances of all time. The movie earned a total of six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Sidney Lumet, and won for Best Original Screenplay.

Cruising (1980)

This thriller starring Pacino as a cop going undercover in New York's S&M scene to catch a serial killer targeting gay men outraged many in the homosexual community. Believing Cruising would be "the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen," Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell encouraged his readers to "give (director William) Friedkin and his production a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood." Methods of protest included sounding whistles and sirens during filming; using reflections to shine spots of light on scenes and ruin takes; and comparing the movie to Birth of a Nation. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein asked United Artists not to bring the movie to her city, and two weeks after it opened she sent the studio a $130,450 for extra police protection made necessary by its arrival. "I didn't set out to upset people," Friedkin said in 2007. "I set out to make a film set in a milieu I had never seen depicted."

Scarface (1983)

Tony Montana, Cuban ex-con turned ruthless Miami drug lord, is arguably Pacino's most famous role. Roger Ebert wrote that Scarface "rises or falls with Al Pacino's performance, which is aggressive, over the top, teeth-gnashing, arm-waving, cocaine-snorting, scenery chewing - and brilliant, some say, while others find it unforgivably flamboyant." Ebert was in the former category. "What were Pacino's detractors hoping for? Something internal and realistic? Low key? The Tony Montana character is above all a performance artist, a man who exists in order to gloriously be himself. . . If Pacino goes over the top in Scarface, and he does, that's because the character leads him there; over the top is where Tony Montana lives."

Scarface failed to finish among 1983's 15 highest-grossing movies, but today it's a truly iconic film. Consider this: By the middle of 2007, more than 2 million people had downloaded the audio file of one of Montana's classic phrases - "Say hello to my little friend!" - for their cell phone. The movie also had an influence on hip-hop artists, as evidenced by a documentary on the Scarface DVD. Empire magazine ranked Montana 27th on its list of the 100 greatest movie characters.

Revolution (1985)

Pacino played a New York trapper who enlists in the Revolutionary War after his son is drafted in this would-be adventure film. Made for $28 million, Revolution opened on Christmas Day 1985 and grossed a pathetic $358,574. It received almost unanimous scorn from critics in both America and Britain and received four Golden Raspberry ("Razzie") Award nominations, including Worst Picture and Worst Actor for Pacino. Pacino wouldn't be seen on the big screen again until 1989's Sea of Love.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Pacino prepared for his role as blind Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in this drama by visiting a Manhattan service agency, the Associated Blind Inc., and speaking with blind people. Some felt his performance was over the top, but Pacino felt he made the right choice in playing the character as crazy. "I paint the way I see it, and some of the colors are a little broader and a little bolder than others," he told The New Yorker in 2014. "Sometimes you take it to the limit, sometimes you may go a little overboard, but that's all part of a vision. I say go with the glow. If an effort is being made to produce something that has appetite and passion and isn't done just to get the golden cup, it isn't a f__ing waste. Yes, there are flaws, but in them are things you'll remember."

With six previous nominations and no wins to his credit, Pacino arrived at the Oscar ceremony on March 29, 1993, a nominee in both the supporting actor (for Glengarry Glen Ross) and lead actor (for Scent of a Woman) categories. He lost Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman but won Best Actor. Pacino took the stage to a standing ovation and quipped, "You broke my streak."

Angels in America (2003)

The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play about AIDS in the 1980s was adapted into a two-part, $60 million HBO miniseries. New York Times columnist Frank Rich hailed it as "the most powerful screen adaptation of a major American play since Elia Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire." The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert wrote, "Note-perfectly written for the screen by its playwright, Tony Kushner, the adaptation is as trenchant, poetic, fantastical, and moving as its source - with the added thrill of an up-close cinematic approach. As it looks back in anger, forgiveness, and still more anger at the Reagan era, HBO's Angels in America unfolds into the most powerful television experience of the year."

Again, Pacino played a real person: Roy Cohn, the counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and a man who denied he had AIDS until the day he died from it in 1986. Gilbert wrote that Pacino had "the movie's showboat role" and delivered "Cohn's absurd self-justification and political braggadocio with soul-spewing conviction, yelling, 'AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have cancer.'" Pacino won an Emmy for the movie, as did co-stars Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker. Angels in America won a total of 11 Emmys, the most ever for a program in a single year (another HBO miniseries, John Adams, broke that record by winning 13 in 2008).

Jack and Jill (2011)

Pacino has appeared in a wide variety of films over the years, but who would have expected him to appear in a comedy starring Adam Sandler as a twin brother and sister? Playing himself, Pacino rapped about Dunkin Donuts coffee and lusted after Sandler in drag. Jack and Jill earned a dismal 3 percent rating on and became the first movie ever to sweep the Razzie Awards, and one of its 10 Razzies went to Pacino for Worst Supporting Actor. The $79 million movie was a failure at the domestic box office, grossing $74.1 million, although it grossed a total of $149.6 million worldwide.


Al Pacino, Oscar, Scarface, The Godfather, The Godfather Part Ii

Meet the author

author avatar Ryan Loftis
I graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree and have been a freelance writer for various print and online publications since then.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
27th Apr 2015 (#)

This is a fairly good list, considering how many movies he has made. I also liked "The Insider" and "The Devil's Advocate."

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author avatar Ryan Loftis
27th Apr 2015 (#)

It was hard to narrow it down to just 10. I really agonized over whether to put "Serpico" or ". . . And Justice for All" on this list.

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