Thursday, 7 August 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1997: Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco

Al Pacino did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco.

Donnie Brasco's is an effective film about a F.B.I agent, Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp), who goes deep undercover to infiltrate the mob as the titular Donnie Brasco.

Al Pacino plays the secondary lead of the film Lefty who is the first wiseguy to approach Donnie. Although the later career of Al Pacino has not been filled with great films he still managed, from time to time, to bring that same creative spark he had in his seventies heyday. Thankfully Donnie Brasco is one of these cases as he plays Lefty Ruggiero a mobster who is part of a New York crime family. Pacino is certainly no stranger to playing mobsters but Lefty is far cry from Michael Corleone. Lefty has a fairly high up position in the mob and he's certainly been in it for a long time. Lefty though is basically stuck in the position that he has and the only place he can go is basically to the grave either sooner or later. It's really interesting to see Pacino, who has spent so much of his career playing either boisterous or brilliant gangsters, play a mobster who really is not meant for great things in fact he seems to be having a hard enough time just living an okay life.

This performance could almost looked at a companion performance to Philip Baker Hall's performance in Hard Eight. Both play aging men with mob history who decide to take young men under their wing and give them the knowledge they have from the lessons they've learned. The major difference is that Lefty is not nearly as smart as Hall's Sydney from Hard Eight which in turn allows the other major difference which is that Lefty is still in the mob. Pacino is quite good in the early scenes as he first approaches Donnie and begins showing him the ropes of the mob organization. Pacino is quite excellent in the way he portrays the manner of Lefty as he pulls Donnie in while simultaneously threatening to act as though he is the boss. Pacino's performance brings a certain awkwardness to Lefty's method. Pacino shows that in Lefty's case that he has to actively try to act tough, and smart because in reality Lefty isn't really cut out for his life.  

As the film proceeds forward and Lefty brings Donnie into the fold of the mob Pacino and Depp develop a rather interesting chemistry with one another. Depp, who is particularly understated here, is playing two sides one being the young gangster who wants to learn as much as he can the other side being the undercover agent who is simply infiltrating the mob to acquire as much information as he can derive by going along with Lefty. Pacino is terrific in his portrayal of Lefty manner around Donnie. On one hand Pacino gives that attempted menace of sorts with Lefty, and is quite brilliantly sad as he shows Lefty always trying and failing to act the part of a mob higher up. Pacino nicely portrays Lefty much more in his element when he is mentoring Donnie on a few things. Pacino brings a more natural Lefty in the open as Lefty seems to be able to offer something from his mob years, and that in some way by telling Donnie his knowledge his whole life seems to be a little less at a complete dead end.

Pacino's performance works best in the especially emotionally vulnerable moments as Lefty reveals to Donnie that he is quite aware of the fact that he has nowhere to go. Pacino manages to be very moving in the role despite the fact that Lefty is a killer who technically even boasts about the number of men that he has killed. What Pacino does so well though is show that when you get right down to it that Lefty is nothing more than a lonely old man who wanted to be something but sees that he is almost nothing. Pacino brings such an honest warmth in the scenes where he reaches out to Donnie in some sort of attempt to find something worthwhile in his life, which is unfortunately also a lie. One of my favorite moments in his performance is when, using a tip from Donnie, Lefty tries to set something of his own, something small but it would be his. Pacino brings such a pride and honest happiness as Lefty seems to see something that could be his own, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it is quickly taken from him.

Al Pacino's portrayal of Lefty is the best part of Donnie Brasco as a film causing my only major complaint to be that Pacino is the secondary lead and the strongest scenes in the film are the ones with Lefty with there being an unfortunately  period in the film where Pacino's appearances become rare. Al Pacino creates such a particularly unique portrait of a gangster who rarely are front and center. Guys like Lefty are often the ones in the background or probably ones who are suddenly killed with little explanation given in other gangster films. Pacino and the film manage to realize one of these guys fully as a person. Pacino gives a very good performance as he simply gives such a genuine depiction of this guy in every scene that he is in. Pacino in doing so does not just show us some random killer, but rather gives a particularly tragic portrait of man who has nothing in his life, and the one shining thing in his life in a surrogate son is also really just another cruel joke being played on him by fate.


GM said...

How do you like him in Godfather Part III?

Anonymous said...

What would you give Depp? I think this is a good performance by him.

Also, I'd like to have your thoughts on Edward Norton as an actor. Do you think the reason he's not getting plum roles any more is more of a F Murray Abraham/Adrien Brody scenario (bad film choices/slumming it) or more of a 1960s Brando thing(being difficult to work with on set)


Mark said...

Louis, what are your top 10 performances from actors that directed themselves. Also, what are in your opinion the 10 best actor-directors?

Louis Morgan said...

GM: I like him in it even if I feel he too often feels alone in that there is barely anyone for him to interact with the way he did in the previous films. It's a good performance but easily his weakest portrayal of Michael.


Depp - 4

I'd say Norton was sunk by his ego.



1. Orson Welles - Touch of Evil
2. Laurence Olivier - Hamlet
3. Laurence Olivier - Richard III
4. Clint Eastwood - Unforgiven
5. Kenneth Branagh - Hamlet
6. Robert Duvall - The Apostle
7. Charlie Chaplin - City Lights
8. Laurence Olivier - Henry V
9. Tommy Lee Jones - The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
10. Albert Brooks - Defending Your Life

Top Ten Actors Turned Directors (So No John Huston):

1. Charlie Chaplin
2. Orson Welles
3. Clint Eastwood
4. Charles Laughton
5. Mel Gibson
6. Ben Affleck
7. Robert Redford
8. Laurence Olivier
9. Woody Allen
10. Albert Brooks

Tanvir Bashar said...

Which actors wud u say r pacinos contemporaries

Louis Morgan said...

De Niro and Hoffman.

Tanvir Bashar said...

Wat bout nicholson

Louis Morgan said...

Yeah throw in Nicholson as well.