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THE BIG PICTURE | PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

How The Mighty Have Fallen

Pacino and De Niro are embarrassing, if enriching, themselves with film choices.

April 22, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Ithought Francis Ford Coppola was being cranky last fall when he badmouthed Al Pacino and Robert De Niro -- the stars of Coppola's immortal "Godfather" films -- for taking parts for the money and losing their passion for doing great work. "I met both Pacino and De Niro when they were really on the come," Coppola told GQ magazine. "Now Pacino is very rich, maybe because he never spends any money; he just puts it in his mattress. . . . They all live off the fat of the land."

Coppola was right on the money. The two icons of '70s New Hollywood, heroes to a generation of young actors and filmmakers, have become parodies of themselves, making payday movies and turning in performances that are hollow echoes of the electrically charged work they did in such films as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver."

Of the dozen or so movies that opened in Los Angeles on Friday, only one had a lead actor Oscar winner in the starring role -- and it was the worst in the bunch, which is really saying something, considering the competition included a scarefest called "Zombie Strippers" (with adult film star Jenna Jameson!) and a gruesome murder-mystery about a gang of psycho medical students called "Pathology."

"88 Minutes," a hapless thriller, stars Pacino as a hotshot forensic psychiatrist stalked by a mysterious killer. The critics have had a field day -- when I last looked, it was the lowest-rated movie of the year on Metacritic.com. While the critics pounced on Jon Avnet for his inept pacing -- despite its title, the film actually runs for a seemingly endless 107 minutes -- it's Pacino who got a real drubbing.

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis zeroed in on what might be Pacino's most glaring failing, his vanity, describing the actor as having "a dusky orange tan that suggests a charbroiled George Hamilton and an elevated poof of hair that appears to have been engineered to put Mr. Pacino within vertical range of his female costars." Throughout the film, Pacino, who turns 68 on Friday, is surrounded by nubile young actresses who play students lusting after or enamored by him. One of the film's bizarre moments occurs when Pacino and a comely student rush back to his apartment, where, in the midst of their desperate efforts to locate the killer, she takes off her blouse and tosses it on his stairs.

It's not as if this film were a rare misstep in an otherwise unblemished career. Pacino has made a string of bad films lately, including the famously awful "Gigli," "The Recruit" and "Two for the Money," where he hams it up as an unscrupulous football oddsmaker. If anyone has made more movies for the money than Pacino, it would be De Niro, who has largely abandoned serious dramatic work for a spate of forgettable horror and crime thrillers (try sitting through "Hide and Seek" or "Godsend") and lowbrow comedy high jinks like "Meet the Fockers" and "Analyze That."

De Niro's most recent film, "What Just Happened?," an inside-the-movie-biz comedy, got such an abysmal reception at Sundance that it limped out of the festival without a sale (it's expected to close the Cannes Film Festival this year). De Niro cut his longtime ties with CAA last week, defecting to Endeavor, inspiring a venomous response purportedly from one CAA agent that was e-mailed all over town. Claiming that De Niro asks for a $1-million production fee on his pictures to help fund his Tribeca empire in New York, it minces few words, saying, "Bobby held us responsible for his own greed, his own avarice and his own megalomania. And it's just like the studios now ask us: Why should we pay this guy -- who doesn't open a movie -- the payoff to his production company, just so he can add his name as a producer?"

The e-mail makes a subtler point about De Niro's career choices, pointing out that he could've "gone the [Jack] Nicholson route -- very selective, very particular, protect the brand -- or go out sending himself up in tripe like 'Analyze This,' which made money but turned him into that 'old psycho guy.' "

Not every aging actor in Hollywood has to embarrass himself. While Pacino and De Niro grab the dough, working for hacks and nonentities, Nicholson, with rare exception, has picked his spots, doing movies with Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne and Sean Penn. Clint Eastwood, who's even older than Nicholson, has remained an iconic figure by working with the best director of all -- himself. (It's been almost 20 years since he acted in a movie he didn't direct.)

Other older actors, like Gene Hackman and Warren Beatty, have preferred to drop out of sight rather than embarrass themselves. After the debacle of "Town and Country," Beatty has devoted himself to raising his kids and giving interviews about “Bonnie and Clyde.” Michael Caine, who once chased paychecks himself, has turned himself into a respected character actor, doing such classy fare as "The Prestige," "Children of Men" and "The Quiet American."

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