As I was sitting in a comfortable seat in the Avalon Theatre in the Fallsview Casino and Hotel in Niagara Falls on a warm, clear June evening, I had to ask myself a few times over the course of two hours if I was really watching what I was seeing on the stage in front of me.
There on the stage was legendary actor Al Pacino, speaking with wild animation and humor and passion about his forty plus career as one of the world’s preeminent stage and screen actors.
The event was called An Evening With Al Pacino (the event in other cities is called Al Pacino – One Night Only, but since he was playing the Avalon Theatre two nights in a row the title was in need of a slight adjustment) and it began with the esteemed, albeit dry and academic, NYU film professor Richard Brown (who is a good friend of Pacino’s) taking the stage to briefly introduce Pacino and a five minute montage of Pacino’s long list of classic films. It was then time for the lights to dim and for Pacino to take centre stage.
The crowd, which ranged from the classic casino crowd to hip hoppers wearing Scarface T-shirts to serious film enthusiasts, thunderously applauded Pacino who was genuinely moved by the love he was being shown. He then took one of the leather wing chairs on the stage and Richard Brown took the other as what turned out to be a barely in control moderator of the evening.
Al Pacino, who is now 71 years old, was wearing a black silk suit over a black silk shirt, his hair was long and held back off his face by a bandana wrapped around his head. Richard Brown told him that the biggest cheer came up when the film Scarface and his character Tony Montana was mentioned, another cheer erupts and then Pacino launched into a remarkable couple hours of stories and remembrances and snippets of performances the likes of which I have never seen before.
As a long, very long time admirer of Al Pacino’s, I know that for the first several years of his career he would not even give interviews, then he would give the odd one here and there with big outlets like Playboy and Vanity Fair, then a few years later he would agree to appear at press conferences during press junkets.
Around the time of Scent of a Woman, he began to open up a bit but nothing like what we were all watching this evening. This Al Pacino was like a cool, hip grandfather holding court at a party and keeping everyone riveted with stories, personal stories about himself as a young man, a young actor who was filled with doubts about his own abilities and who suffered a ton of rejection before he became successful. It was like we were watching this brilliant actor revealing the man behind Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Frank Serpico and the numerous other iconic characters he has created or essayed since first being widely exposed in The Godfather in 1972–almost like he owed it to us.
Throughout the evening he would jump to his feet and take centre stage and reenact high and low points from his stage career. He would pace up and down the stage and entertain the audience with behind the scenes stories from the shooting of The Godfather and Scarface, but mainly what came through was his unbridled passion for being on the stage and performing for a live audience–only in this extremely rare instance Pacino was not playing a character he created but rather just being himself, the actor giving us a glimpse of the personality many of us have wondered about over the years when watching his myriad of diverse characterizations on the big screen. He would really light up and become even more physically animated when describing his love of reading and performing Shakespeare on stage and on film (he is currently nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in The Merchant of Venice on stage).
While he was there as a moderator, Richard Brown barely inserted himself into the conversation at all. Pacino was absorbing and feeding off the energy and enthusiasm of the audience and would pause for input from Brown only here and there. Clearly the evening had a structure starting out, but that structure fell away in favor on an unrehearsed, spontaneous series of moments. During one such moment Pacino let it out of the bag that one of the future projects he is working on now is playing legendary music producer and now convicted murderer Phil Spector in a film being written by Pacino’s friend David Mamet. Pacino discussed with us his new film as actor and director called Wilde’s Salome, a movie about a filmmaker making a film of Oscar Wilde’s eccentric play Salome (which will debut at the next Venice Film Festival)–he then asked his crew if they had some footage of the film available–moments later we were treated to a three minute assembly of footage from the fascinating looking film.
The evening ended on a thrilling dramatic note when Richard Brown left the stage, the lights dimmed and Al Pacino stood centre stage and treated us all to a dramatic reading, a monologue from the Eugene O’Neill play The Iceman Cometh. He explained that it was a speech he loved and one he would often use when auditioning for parts as a young actor. This summed up a magically surreal evening–here was a globally famous movie star who is a rare example of an American movie icon who returned to the stage regularly throughout his movie career to do Shakespeare standing on the stage of a theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario–a stage that was surrounded by slot machines and gaming tables and fast food outlets across the street from one of the grandest of the Seven Wonders of the World. It took me back to a time when I was a kid and, because I was tall, was able to sneak into a double feature at a second run theatre in Toronto showing Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon–I wondered who that guy really was I was watching on screen–and on this June evening in Niagara Falls, I got to see a bit of the real Al Pacino.