After Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel was published I asked Al what he thought about it. It was awkward for both of us. Usually when one writes a book about someone, one isn't having lunch with that person every Sunday, as I do with Al when he's in Los Angeles. I often wonder what Truman Capote, John Huston, or James A. Michener would have thought of the books I did about them, but none of them were still around when the books came out. So when Al said, "I don't know what to say about it," I understood. Then he added, "I'm glad it's coming out because it doesn't feel like a gossipy book, it's got some substance, it's got a reality to it. We have such a long relationship; I know you so well. There comes a point where you hope in all of our conversations that certain things come off that people can enjoy. I want it to be interesting."
I asked him what he thought about seeing his foreword in print. Since Al has avoided even writing blurbs for friends' books, I was curious how he felt about having actually given a nod to this one. "I'm not a writer," he said. "It's hard for me to write a sentence. So it was difficult. But I like to go into things that are difficult now. I used to shy away from such things, but you forced me into doing it, and I had fun with it. It was like learning to ride a bike. You feel good about it. I haven't gotten that with ice skating yet."
I then asked him if he'd like to do another formal interview for the paperback edition of the book. He wasn't sure. "Let's hope it turns around and I'll start questioning you," he laughed. "That would be full circle, wouldn't it? I'm looking forward to it. I'll have a talk show in the future and you can come on as a guest."
On June 7, 2007 the American Film Institute honored Pacino at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood with its 35th annual Life Achievement Award. Pacino joined good company, as past honorees included such cinema giants as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Willy Wilder, John Huston, David Lean, Martin Scorsese, James Cagney, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro. I asked Al if he wanted me to write something for him, knowing that he usually ignores whatever speech he has and prefers to wing it. He took a look at the few quips I suggested he use from Oscar Wilde and decided he'd just let the night go where it went and he'd respond accordingly. That can be risky, especially when you're following seventeen famous people who have prepared speeches in your honor.
- Robin Williams opened with his usual hilarious riff , poking fun of the frequent comparison between Pacino and De Niro: "If you put Robert De Niro in a dryer, you get Al Pacino."
- Sean Connery, who was honored by AFI the year before, followed, saying "Al, we never worked together...which was my loss."
- Then Jamie Foxx spoke about playing chess with Pacino on the set of Any Given Sunday and how he let Pacino win, because "you don't beat your heroes."
- Oliver Stone, who wrote Scarface, fretted that of all his work, he will most likely be remembered as the guy who wrote Tony Montana's famous line: "Say hello to my leetle friend."
- Leelee Sobieski, who costarred with Pacino in 88 Minutes, said "He can make you melt and feel completely vulnerable...and at the same time, he welcomes you in. He inspires an entire generation."
- Scent of a Woman costars Chris O'Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar spoke of how important it was for them to have worked with Pacino. "A tango is a sensual experience," Anwar said. "Doing a tango with Al Pacino--I've never recovered."
- 90 year-old Kirk Douglas received a standing ovation when he walked on stage and spoke lovingly of seeing Pacino in the play The Indian Wants the Bronx, telling him he was going to be a star and then leading the audience in a shout-out of "Hoo-ah!"
- Ed Harris spoke about working with Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross.
- Winona Ryder came on and admitted that she had no idea how serious Pacino was when he asked her to play Lady Anne in Looking for Richard. "Al Pacino wooed me...and he won me...and he utterly seduced me with his insane passion and enthusiasm for the process...and I would give my kingdom! My kingdom! to be wooed by [Al] again."
- Jeffrey Wright was impressed with Pacino's insistence on rehearsals for their scenes together in Angels in America.
- Meryl Streep was filmed acknowledging Pacino's brilliance as an actor, and Heat and The Insider director Michael Mann added, "What Al does ceases to become acting after a while, it becomes mutating."
- Then comedian George Lopez stole the show by appearing in a white suit and red silk shirt, cursing up a storm as Tony Montana. Jon Avnet came on to say how lucky he was to have directed Pacino in 88 Minutes and the upcoming Righteous Kill with Al and De Niro.
- Samuel L. Jackson joked about being cast as "the black guy" in Sea of Love.
- Andy Garcia, who appeared in Godfather III, said, "Al inspired me to act and, more importantly, to dream. The depth of your artistry is why we are here. You're Van Gogh. You're Modigliani. You're a great poet...and a clown. You continue to inspire actors."
- Then Sean Penn, Al's costar in Carlito's Way, introduced Pacino.
When Al stood before the high-paying audience (dinner tickets cost $3,000--$4,000) he joked, "Usually at this time you're supposed to have something to say. But...well, I don't have a character to play. But I do have a question: Why aren't I in rehab?" He spoke without notes, without a prompter, and just said whatever came to his mind: he thanked his friend and mentor Charlie Laughton, who was there, wheelchair bound, with his wife Penny; he thanked Marty Bregman for forcing him to go to Hollywood and do The Godfather; he thanked his agent Rick Nicita. He said how he wished he could be as witty as Robin Williams. He reminisced about how Lee Strasberg took him into the Actors Studio after his audition by saying, "You see, we take all kinds here." And he said with a great smile on his face, "I'm still standing!"
There was, as they say, a lot of love in the room. Jamie Foxx spoke about acting with Pacino and being the recipient of the spray that came off Pacino's lips as he shouted at him: "Some of that juiciness flew off his mouth and landed on my lips...I took that DNA inside me, and the next thing you know, I won an Oscar."
The next day I spoke to Al. "That was some night," he said. "You know, for an awards show, it was pretty entertaining. When you have Robin Williams getting up and doing his thing, and George Lopez doing Tony Montana, that was way out there."
The following week, on June 15, Pacino agreed to spend an hour on Larry King Live to promote his DVD collection, which was finally being released. He had joked in Time magazine that it might be fun to appear on the TV show Dancing with the Stars-just a flip remark he had made to a reporter who dutifully put it in the magazine. So Larry King asked his audience to e-mail or call in on whether or not they'd like to see Al Pacino on that show. It freaked Al out. "I wasn't serious, and now they're making this big thing out of it. Can you imagine me doing something like that? I could never. I'm way too shy. And now I feel like heading for the hills, because I know King is going to be asking me about it."
But Al didn't have to worry-Larry King has never been known as a probing interviewer, and the Dancing with the Stars question came towards the end of Pacino's appearance. The majority of viewers (88%) would have liked to see Pacino dancing, but Al assured them that it wasn't very likely. King asked Pacino about the AFI tribute, which Al found "humbling." He wondered whether Pacino felt that he was born to act, and Al said he thought he was. He spoke of his insecurities, his preference not to do many interviews, and how he doesn't like to read scripts. When King asked him if he ever had a fear of failure, Pacino answered no. He admitted that he acted better when working opposite a really good actor, and that when he worked with Brando it wasn't hard to believe that Brando was the Godfather. "He's the greatest American character actor we've ever had," Pacino said. He said he laughed a lot with Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, and had fun with the ensemble crew of Ocean's Thirteen. He was asked where he got the "Hoo-ah" for his character in Scent of a Woman and said that he picked it up from the lieutenant colonel who taught him how to assemble a .45 gun. The way to play blind, he said, is not to focus on anything. When Larry King asked him if he'd ever like to work with Woody Allen, Pacino said he would, but doubted that would ever happen. There was an e-mail question: "What comes to mind when you think of your mother?" It wasn't a question Pacino was about to answer in a television interview, so he deflected it by saying, "She died young. It's hard to say. She's why I'm here." When asked about what it was like having twins, he said, "It's a new day every day."
When Ocean's Thirteen came out, it quickly became number one at the box office, which pleased Pacino but didn't make him want to see it. He was concentrating on putting finishing touches on Salomaybe and getting himself prepped for Righteous Kill. He had worked for over a year on Salomaybe, and brought me along for the journey. He asked if I would be in it, as the "biographer." Basically, he wanted me to prod him on camera, asking him questions about why he was interested in turning Oscar Wilde's 1892 one-act play into a docudrama. When we talked about it off-camera, he said, "Every once in a while-once a decade-something comes along that intrigues me, that allows me to ponder over it and challenges me to try and bring it out. It's the challenge which delights me. Salome is very difficult to convey on film, but that's what keeps me going, what keeps my heart pumping, what clears the valves."
When I asked if it would be similar to Looking for Richard, he answered, "I'm drawn to that style of movie. I actually have two movies here: Salomaybe, which is similar in docudrama style to Looking for Richard; and Salome, which is the actual movie of the play. They're different subjects, but done in the same time. Salomaybe is an interpretation that follows a person trying to make a movie out of a masterpiece like Salome. In other words, trying to make a dollar out of ninety-nine cents."
What was it about Oscar Wilde, I wondered, which so captured his imagination?
"I'm drawn to the struggles he had as an artist," Al said. "The time he was going through a hundred years ago. There's a civility in him, a sensitivity, a wonderful largess that I'm drawn to. Salome is his greatest play. It has universal themes, it's powerful and relevant. It's about who we are. There's a gorgeous tapestry of feeling. That's why Strauss made a great opera about it, because music soothes it. It's got poetry that goes past the images and takes them through to feelings. It's what we struggle with all the time. And audiences are attentive to it; they get caught in it like it's a web of life. The words resound. You're drawn to them. I've felt it on stage-how audiences find their way to it. It's controversial, like Wilde was, but no one ever leaves the theater. It holds your attention. That's the key to a great play. We bring our own prejudices, but Wilde was on target when he wrote it. This is the real thing. You never come up empty, no matter how far you dig. It has a deep subconscious logic. That's why people stay with it. Not all embrace it, but I hope to serve it, and to serve the performance of Jessica Chastain as Salome. She's done a great screen performance-I just hope I can put a movie around it that can support what she's done."
I already knew the answer to whether or not he could pull it off because I had not only gone along with him-we traveled to Dublin, London, and Paris where Wilde was born, educated, lived, was arrested, imprisoned, and died-but had seen the results. Since he asked me to "play" a biographer, I figured I might as well actually be one, so I kept a journal and wound up with enough words to fill a book, which hopefully will be published as Salomaybe, Baby! The Obsession of Alfredo James Pacino when the movie comes out.
Little did I know, so many years ago, when I first knocked on Al Pacino's apartment door in Manhattan that it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and that I would become, in essence, his Boswell. But somehow, it feels right. I enjoy hanging with Al, and I've been lucky that there is enough interest in him that allows me to do it and continue to pay the bills. He said in the foreword to the Al Pacino book that we know each other very well, and that's true. It's also true that we have forgiven each other many times. I just hope he feels that way after he reads the next book.
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