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Al Pacino Is Giving His Best Performances on the Small Screen, and He Has Been for Years

It's no fluke that one of the greatest living screen actors is finding his best roles — and doing his best work — on television.

Al Pacino Joe Paterno cropped

Marcell Rév/HBO

A cinematic tragedy in three sentences:

  • Al Pacino hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1993.
  • Al Pacino hasn’t appeared in a “fresh” feature film that’s grossed more than $5 million in over 10 years. (“Ocean’s Thirteen”)
  • Al Pacino hasn’t starred in a “fresh” feature film that’s grossed more than $5 million in over 15 years. (“Insomnia”)

But don’t worry. This tragedy has a happy twist: In that same time, the iconic star of stage and screen has been delivering impeccable performances filled with nuance and depth to the masses; performances, it could be argued, that are far more focused, affecting, and intricate than the bombastic turn in “Scent of Woman” that won him an Oscar.

Pacino has been absolutely killing it on television.

Yes, television. The medium once thought far inferior to its big screen brother has been embraced by one of its favored sons for decades. From the start of the peak TV era, Pacino has been on board. He went where the best work was, sure, but he didn’t phone it in for an easy trophy or two. He delivered some of his best work — ever.

You can almost see Hollywood’s priorities shift in Pacino’s resume. In 1995, he was in “Heat,” two years later, he had “Donnie Brasco,” two years after that he was back with Michael Mann for “The Insider,” and in 2002 he boosted Christopher Nolan’s budding profile by starring in “Insomnia.”

Then the bottom dropped out of the mid-budget movie business. While the big screen offered him such dismissible pap as “The Recruit,” “88 Minutes,” “Righteous Kill,” “Jack and Jill” and let’s not forget “Gigli,” Pacino found stimulating scenes to dig into via HBO. First came “Angels in America,” which won him the SAG Award, Golden Globe, and the Emmy. He swept all three awards again with “You Don’t Know Jack” in 2010, and snagged nominations in each for “Phil Spector” in 2013.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by HBO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5879354i) Al Pacino Angels In America - 2003 Director: Mike Nichols Hbo USA Television

To be fair, plenty of voters are swayed by a big name on the ballot, and TV Academy, HFPA, and SAG members aren’t immune. Plenty of movie stars who made the move to television saw more than their fair share of praise simply because the attention their names brought to the medium. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a contingent of viewers who wouldn’t stack up Pacino’s turn as Roy Cohn with any performance that year — big screen or small. He saw nearly unanimous support for his take on Jack Kevorkian, and even when “Phil Spector” disappointed, his portrayal of Phil Spector did not.

Now, Pacino is back with another HBO film, another real-life figure, and another transformative performance. “Paterno” tracks a hellish week in the life of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Directed by Barry Levinson (his second film with Pacino, after “You Don’t Know Jack”), the fast and furious feature captures the rising tumult on campus as sexual allegations against Jerry Sandusky surface and a cover-up is carefully revealed. How involved was JoePa? How much did he know? And what did he choose to do about it?

There’s no trial in “Paterno,” but a case is methodically built, and Pacino is an essential part of the resulting conviction. Most of what you see is an old man lost to time. Early on, before the shit really hits the fan, Pacino instills a short-fused irritability in Paterno. He’s trying to watch the football game; he doesn’t have time to read the report. Even when it starts to dawn on Paterno just how serious the situation is, that disregard becomes a defense. He’s not the same cranky old man. There’s motivation to his immobility.

At first, he’s dismissive because he feels he can be. There’s a superiority in Paterno that vanishes by the time he’s fired. Those early scenes showcase how he’s been behaving for decades, before the scandal, and why his blinders approach to coaching was part of the problem: He can’t ignore the ramifications of his past like he did the kids’ complaints. Both mistakes have fused together into a full-blown fiasco, and when it hits Paterno that he’s in the middle of it, Pacino then shifts. He’s not contemptuous, but coming around — and not just to the situation, but also the mistakes of his past. His son pushing him to read the indictment (filled with specifics about Sandusky’s history of child abuse) and his daughter asking him, “Did you ask about the kid, and they just never followed up?” — these pleas affect him more than he acknowledges in the moment. Pacino builds it into the character as he progresses.

From time to time, his righteous side creeps out, but it’s all under the guise of a forgetful old man who only wanted to coach a game. Though the script never confirms it, Pacino makes it clear Paterno knows what he did. He remembers more than he lets on, and his behavior is more calculated than it appears. The film moves as quickly as Pacino doesn’t, and herein lies at least one secret to the thespian’s small screen success.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (5793880h)Helen Mirren, Al PacinoPhil Spector - 2013

There are a number of commonalities between Pacino’s TV performances that all circle around the same point: This is a restrained, laser-focused, and altogether quieter Al Pacino. He finds nuance in small moments and simple lines. He’s got confidence that his gaze can tell us everything we need to know about the character, and he’s right. In other words, he’s back in Michael Corleone territory instead of wandering the halls with Lt. Col. Frank Slade.

Why? Aside from doing right by his characters — as he’s both directed to do and experienced enough to understand on his own (obviously) — television requires more close-ups. The transition to widescreen, HDTVs has expanded framings overall, but it’s still a medium that likes to work up close. Some of the most groundbreaking cinematography in modern TV has come from directors and DPs trying to get closer to what’s in frame. (Think about “Breaking Bad’s” many clever GoPro shots.)

Pacino, whether he knows the reasons why or is told the width of his frames, recognizes how to convey incredible meaning within his limited windows. He glances away, as if embarrassed by us watching, or he allows his entire face to sag in defeat at the utterance of a few damning words.

On television, Pacino as Paterno is playing to a more intimate setting. He’s not shouting to the far corners of the auditorium or trying to fill a four-story screen with his presence. His performances are for our living rooms and laptops. They can benefit from subtitles because he’s whispering or trailing off with his dialogue, and both are purposeful choices to inform the character. (Again, Paterno does not want conflict. He wants to coach, sans interference.)

In “Paterno,” “Angels,” “Jack,” and “Phil,” Pacino is playing to his strengths. Perhaps the best roles for a man his age have migrated to television. Maybe he’s inspired by the material more than the medium. Or hell, it could simply be that HBO knows how to properly develop a project around one of Hollywood’s elite actors. No matter what, it bodes well for the future.

Next on Pacino’s docket: another return to the small screen, this time via Netflix. His hotly anticipated reunion with Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro has people in a frenzy over the paparazzi shots (and budget) alone. It looks like a hit, even if we’ll never know the numbers.

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