This year Al Pacino may pick up his third career Emmy Award as Best Movie/Mini Actor for the HBO telefilm “Paterno.” He plays the title role of disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose successful 45-year career ended after his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was revealed to have been a child molester. Pacino previously won the same prize for “Angels in America” in 2004 and “You Don’t Know Jack” in 2010, and he was nominated once more for “Phil Spector” in 2013. But of course, most of Pacino’s career has been in film and not television. In honor of his latest small-screen achievement, let’s take a look back at some of his best big-screen performances. Tour through our photo gallery above of Pacino’s 25 greatest films above, ranked from worst to best.
Pacino is an Academy Award winner for his cinematic work, but it took him 20 years and eight nominations to finally cash in his Oscar I.O.U. for “Scent of a Woman” (Best Actor in 1992). Prior to that he competed for “The Godfather” (Best Supporting Actor, 1972), “Serpico” (Best Actor, 1973), “The Godfather, Part II” (Best Actor in 1974), “Dog Day Afternoon” (Best Actor, 1975), “… And Justice for All” (Best Actor, 1979), “Dick Tracy” (Best Supporting Actor, 1990), and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (Best Supporting Actor, 1992), but he didn’t win any of those bids. Surprisingly, his 1992 bids for “Scent of a Woman” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” were the last two he has received from the academy, despite additional critically acclaimed performances in “Heat” (1995), “Donnie Brasco” (1997), “The Insider” (1999) and “Insomnia” (2002).
Take a look through our gallery of Pacino’s greatest films, including a few for which he should’ve received Oscar nominations.
25. ‘Bobby Deerfield’ (1977)
In Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Deerfield,” Pacino plays a Formula One race car driver whose need for speed is curbed after a fiery crash kills a teammate and paralyzes a competitor. While visiting his fellow driver in the hospital, he falls in love with Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller), a young woman dying of cancer who seems to get more beautiful the worse her disease gets. Cinematographer Henri Decae gorgeously captures the European countryside and thrilling auto races, while Dave Grusin’s score keeps things nice and weepy. This A-list melodrama brought Pacino a Golden Globe bid as Best Film Drama Actor, but the Academy didn’t take notice.
24. ‘Author! Author!’ (1982)
It’s a testament to Pacino’s abilities as an actor that he’s able to make writing look interesting. In Arthur Hiller’s “Author! Author!,” he plays Ivan Travalian, a playwright struggling to rework the second act of his latest Broadway opus while trying to clean up the mess of his personal life. There’s nothing terribly original about Israel Horovitz’s screenplay, but Pacino does sink his teeth into the role of a man trying desperately to balance his work with his ever-expanding family. Pacino competed as Best Movie Comedy/Musical Actor for the film, yet was snubbed at the Oscars.
23. ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ (2007)
The concluding chapter of Steven Soderbergh’s ultra-cool trilogy is elevated by Pacino’s performance as Willy Bank, a casino owner who double-crosses a member of the titular team of con men. When Rueben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) is coerced by Bank into signing over his stake in the ownership of a Las Vegas casino, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) assembles his team to sabotage the opening of the luxury gambling palace. There’s not much substance here, but the all-star cast has a blast, and director Soderbergh keeps things light and breezy, making for a stylish, humorous entertainment.
22. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (2004)
Pacino has long had a love for Shakespeare (his 1996 documentary “Looking for Richard” finds the actor ruminating on the playwright’s legacy through an in-depth analysis of “Richard III”), so it’s not surprising that he’d give one of his best performances in Michael Radford’s big screen adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice.” He plays Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh from a merchant (Jeremy Irons) who defaults on a loan. Pacino manages to preserve the fire and fury of Shylock without giving into any of the anti-Semitic stereotypes that have made the character so problematic in the past, while Radford creates a handsome production on a limited budget.
21. ‘Frankie and Johnny’ (1991)
Garry Marshall’s sweet-natured romantic comedy “Frankie and Johnny” provides Pacino with a change of pace from his usual repertoire. He plays Johnny, an ex-con fresh out of prison who gets a job as a short-order cook in a small diner. He meets Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer), an emotionally scarred waitress, and a tender romance develops despite her reservations about getting into another relationship after dating so many abusive men. Terrence McNally adapted the script from his own play, expanding the story beyond the confines of the original two person, one location stage production. Pfeiffer received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Film Comedy/Musical Actress, though Pacino was overlooked.
20. ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)
Before there was “Paterno,” Pacino played another long-suffering coach, albeit one whose life wasn’t mired in quiet as much scandal. Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” is a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional professional football team. Pacino stars as Tony D’Amato, head coach of the Miami Sharks, who butts heads with the new team owner (Cameron Diaz) after she takes the team over from her father. Stone turns this sports drama into an epic saga of the life-and-death struggles of modern day gladiators, with an A-list supporting cast including Dennis Quaid as an aging quarterback and Jamie Foxx as a superstar new player whose arrogance creates friction within the team.
19. ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ (1997)
With his devilish grin and striking black eyes, is there any actor other than Pacino who could convincingly play Satan? In Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” Lucifer takes the guise of a powerful Manhattan lawyer named after “Paradise Lost” author John Milton. He invites a young attorney named Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) to move from Florida to join his prestigious New York law firm. But of course, the Devil wants a little something in return. Hackford indulges in the camp qualities of Andrew Neiderman’s novel, filling the screen with operatic images and allowing Pacino to have one hell of a good time with the role.
18. ‘Sea of Love’ (1989)
In Harold Becker’s psycho-sexual thriller, Pacino plays Frank Keller, a detective who teams up with Det. Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) to track down a serial killer who finds victims through newspaper singles columns. They place an ad of their own in the paper, with Frank taking the women on dates and Sherman – posing as a waiter – collecting their fingerprints off of wine glasses. Trouble is, Frank falls in love with one of his dates (Ellen Barkin), who may or may not be the killer. Though the plot proceeds as expected, the film is sexy as hell, and Pacino and Barkin have an undeniable chemistry. Though he received a Golden Globe nomination, Pacino missed out at the Oscars.
17. ‘The Godfather, Part III’ (1990)
How do you top the first two “Godfather” films? If “Part III” is any indication, you can’t. The concluding chapter of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy finds crime boss Michael Corleone (Pacino) reflecting on the wreckage of his life, a good man turned into a monster by power and greed. Though it’s perhaps best known for Sofia Coppola’s Razzie Award-winning turn as Michael’s daughter Mary (further proof that there are reasons for nepotism laws), there’s no denying the power of Corleone’s arc. Viewed almost 30 years later, “Part III” isn’t nearly the dog it’s remembered as, but it also fails to stand up to its mighty predecessors. The film did manage to snag seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Pacino was omitted, despite contending at the Golden Globes.
16. ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990)
Before the age of the weekly comic book movie, “Dick Tracy” was quite a novel idea. Warren Beatty’s big screen adaptation of the classic cartoon strip about a yellow trench coat-wearing detective (Beatty) hunting down an array of bizarre bad guys captures the bright colors and deep shadows of Chester Gould’s animated world. Pacino reaped a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Big Boy Caprice, the crime boss making Tracy’s life complicated, while Madonna gives one of her best onscreen performances as Breathless Malone, a nightclub singer who has eyes on our hero. The film won three Oscars: Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Song (“Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”.
15. “…and Justice for All’ (1979)
In Norman Jewison’s “…and Justice for All,” Pacino brings his famous manic passion to the role of an honest lawyer fighting a corrupt system. He plays Arthur Kirkland, a young attorney forced to defend a guilty judge (John Forsythe) while struggling to defend other innocent clients held up by technicalities. Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin’s Oscar-nominated screenplay provides Pacino with several standout moments, including the famous courtroom speech where he shouts, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” The film brought Pacino another Oscar nomination as Best Actor, which he lost to Dustin Hoffman (“Kramer vs. Kramer”).
14. ‘Scarecrow’ (1973)
The pairing of Pacino and Gene Hackman is just too good to pass up, and in “Scarecrow,” director Jerry Schatzberg provides them with an actor’s showcase. It centers on Max (Hackman), a short-tempered ex-con who becomes friends with a homeless ex-sailor (Pacino). The two hit the road together, traveling East to start a business in Pittsburgh. Vilmos Zsigmond’s moody cinematography casts Pacino and Hackman in a world of shadows and fog, and the two play exceptionally well off of each other in this rather grim entertainment. Though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film was ignored at the Oscars, even for its two stars. That same year, however, Pacino reaped a Best Actor nomination for “Serpico,” so you can’t feel too bad for him.
13. ‘Carlito’s Way’ (1993)
10 years after “Scarface,” Pacino reunited with director Brian De Palma for another modern day mob epic, a sort of spiritual cousin to their previous collaboration. He plays Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican ex-con trying to start life anew on the outside. He pledges to stay out of drugs and crime, even starting a romance with a beautiful ballet dancer (Penelope Anne Miller). But he gets pulled back into the muck thanks to his boneheaded lawyer (Sean Penn). Though lacking the campiness and raw power of “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way” is still a stylish, entertaining thriller with a killer climax set in NYC’s Penn Station. Penn and Miller both received Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, yet Pacino was overlooked at both the Globes and the Academy.
12. ‘The Panic in Needle Park’ (1971)
Pacino became a star with Jerry Schatzberg’s searing drama about the perils of drug addiction. He plays Bobby, a heroin addict and hustler who spends his days in “Needle Park,” a hangout for junkies. He meets Helen (Kitty Winn), and the two begin a tender romance that spirals out of control after he gets her hooked on drugs. Almost 50 years after its release, “The Panic in Needle Park” is still a powerful examination of how our demons can sometimes conquer us. Winn won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, while Pacino’s performance was sadly ignored. Still, the film brought the young actor to the attention of moviegoers, leading to the role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972).
11. ‘Donnie Brasco’ (1997)
Pacino is so synonymous with mob movies that it’s almost difficult to see him in anything else. In Mike Newell’s “Donnie Brasco,” he gives one of his most affecting performances as Lefty Ruggiero, an aging hit-man who becomes a mentor to a young jewel thief named Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp). Only trouble is, Brasco is actually Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent sent uncover to infiltrate the Mafia. Dying of cancer, estranged from his drug-addicted son, Lefty takes Donnie under his wing, making the eventual betrayal all the more devastating. Surprisingly, Pacino was omitted from the Best Actor lineup at the Oscars; perhaps voters felt he had been sufficiently rewarded five years earlier for “Scent of a Woman.”
10. ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (1992)
“Glengarry Glen Ross” could probably best be described as the movie that launched a thousand audition monologues. James Foley’s big screen adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about real estate salesmen is filled with so many great performances that it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite. There’s Pacino in an Oscar-nominated turn as Ricky Roma, the office’s top “closer.” Then there’s Jack Lemmon as Shelley “The Machine” Levene, a once successful salesman who’s desperate to save his job. And let’s not forget Alec Baldwin as Blake, the motivator sent by corporate to put some fire under the employee’s asses with the threat of termination. Surprisingly, Pacino was the only member of the A-list cast to receive an Oscar nomination. Though he lost his Supporting Actor bid for this film, he did pick up a Best Actor trophy later that night (the first of his career) for “Scent of a Woman.”
9. ‘Insomnia’ (2002)
Putting Pacino opposite Robin Williams in a movie could be a recipe for some epic scenery-chewing, yet Christopher Nolan gets subtle performances from the normally bombastic thespians. A remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller, the film centers on Will Dormer (Pacino), a Los Angeles homicide detective who’s dispatched to a northern Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a local teenage girl. Distraught over an impending Internal Affairs investigation and unable to sleep from the never-setting sun, Dormer finds himself increasingly beguiled by the girl’s killer (Williams), a hyper-intelligent, psychotic crime novelist. “Insomnia” is that rare remake that doesn’t seek to copy the original, instead finding new ways to frighten the hell out of us.
8. ‘Scent of a Woman’ (1992)
Pacino finally won an Oscar after seven unsuccessful bids for Martin Brest’s heartwarming character study. He plays Lt. Col. Frank Slade, a former Army officer who was forced to retire after being blinded in an accident. Alone, drunk, and bitter, he hires a prep school student (Chris O’Donnell) as an assistant and whisks him away to New York over Thanksgiving, where both will learn some valuable life lessons. Though it’s 156 minute runtime could’ve benefited from some extra trimming, Pacino is magnetic as a deeply flawed character who (of course) rises to the occasion in a rousing finale. 1992 was a good year for Pacino: in addition to his Oscar win, he also competed as Best Supporting Actor for “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
7. ‘Scarface’ (1983)
Does any movie typify the cocaine-fueled, self-indulgent, greed-is-good attitude of the 1980s better than “Scarface”? Brian De Palma’s stylish, flashy, and bloody gangster epic is driven by Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who comes to Miami and takes over a drug cartel. His teeth gnashing, his eyes glaring, the film finds Pacino dialed all the way up to 11, chewing the art deco scenery faster than his machine gun can rattle off bullets. Set to the beat of Giorgio Moroder’s techno score, “Scarface” is an operatic look at how power corrupts all men. Though Pacino reaped a Golden Globe nomination as Best Film Drama Actor, he was ignored at the Oscars.
6. ‘Heat’ (1995)
It took over two decades, but somebody finally got Pacino and Robert De Niro to appear onscreen together (though they were both in “The Godfather, Part II,” they had no scenes together). Michael Mann’s “Heat” places these two acting titans on opposite sides of the law in this epic crime thriller. Pacino plays Lt. Vincent Hanna, an LAPD detective tracking a group of professional bank robbers led by a crafty and charismatic thief (De Niro). Meanwhile, both men struggle to find a balance between their personal and professional lives. It all culminates in the famous diner scene, where both men face off against each other over coffee. Though it runs nearly three hours, Mann never lets the tension loosen, while Pacino and De Niro bring surprising layers to archetypal characters. Despite it’s stellar production value and cast, the film was robbed at the Oscars, failing to receive a single nomination. Now that’s criminal.
5. ‘Serpico’ (1973)
The one honest man against the rigged system storyline was almost its own genre in the 1970s, and no film better exemplified that mentality that Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico.” Inspired by a true story, it stars Pacino as Frank Serpico, a New York City detective who blows the whistle on the rampant corruption within the force, only to have his fellow officers turn their backs on him. Filled with the kind of gritty, street-smart naturalism that permeated throughout Lumet’s best work, “Serpico” is that rare crowd pleaser with a razor-sharp edge. Pacino won the Golden Globe as Best Film Drama Actor for his nuanced performance, yet lost the Oscar to Jack Lemmon (“Save the Tiger”).
4. ‘The Insider’ (1999)
Pacino reunited with “Heat” director Michael Mann for this riveting thriller about how journalism exposed the health risks of Big Tobacco. He plays Lowell Bergman, a “60 Minutes” producer fighting CBS to air a segment featuring an interview with former Brown & Williamson research chemist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who spills the beans on the addicting nature of cigarettes. Christopher Plummer gives a memorable supporting performance as legendary journalist Mike Wallace, who conducted the interview with Wigand. Pacino is surprisingly subdued as Bergman, a principled man who stands up for the rights of the free press. In the age of fake news, “The Insider” remains a thought-provoking examination of journalistic integrity. Though Crowe was nominated for Best Actor, both Pacino and Plummer were overlooked at the Oscars. In fact, the film lost all seven of its bids, including Best Picture (“American Beauty” won that award).
3. ‘The Godfather’ (1972)
It’s an interesting comment on American culture that our most profound illustration of the importance of family comes from a film about the Mafia, yet that’s the ultimate takeaway from “The Godfather.” Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Picture-winning masterpiece centers on Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the aging patriarch of a crime syndicate who must transfer power to his reluctant son, Michael (Pacino). As Michael slowly learns the true thickness of blood, his wide-eyed idealism is slowly chipped away at, leading to a shattering conclusion. “The Godfather” became a mega hit, taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola and Mario Puzo). Pacino contended as Best Supporting Actor, yet split the vote with costars James Caan and Robert Duvall, swinging the award to Joel Grey (“Cabaret”).
2. ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975)
“Dog Day Afternoon” is the kind of movie that could easily spin off into unintentionally farce: based on a true story, it revolves around a first-time crook (Pacino) who attempts to rob a bank to pay for his lover’s (Chris Sarandon) sex-change operation. Yet director Sidney Lumet grounds the sensationalistic material with documentary realism, even when spectators and news cameras turn a hostage situation into a three-ring circus. Pacino brings great passion and sympathy to the role of Sonny, a man who’s too kind and considerate to be a criminal. Frank Pierson won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while the film competed for Best Picture and Best Director. Pacino was nominated as Best Actor, yet lost to Jack Nicholson (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).
1. ‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974)
Few sequels can hold a candle to the original; fewer still can surpass them. So it’s no small feat that Francis Ford Coppola was able to followup one Best Picture-winning masterpiece with another. In “The Godfather, Part II,” the director parallels the rise of Michael Corleone (Pacino) with that of his father, Vito (Robert De Niro), in 1920s New York. Power has not been good for the young Corleone: no longer desperate to distance himself from the family business, he’s become morally bankrupt and shark-eyed, capable of killing his own brother (John Cazale) to consolidate his empire. At the end we find him isolated and paranoid, a shell of his former self. It’s one of the great transformations in movie history, and between the two films, Pacino gives the performance of a lifetime. Although the film won six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, Pacino lost Best Actor to Art Carney (“Harry and Tonto”).
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