When Great Actors Make Bad Choices

Al Pacino has a new film out. It’s called 88 Minutes, and the gripping premise is as follows: a gifted forensic scientist (a post “hoo-ha” Al Pacino) is given 88 minutes to live by a copy-cat serial killer who calls him up on a cell phone. From what I hear it’s not very good.

Later this summer Pacino will star alongside fellow veteran actor, Robert De Niro in Righteous Kill.Here the two play cops who must track, yet another serial killer. Oh and the film also stars 50 Cent. This film was directed by the same genius behind 88 Minutes. Why shed light on these two upcoming routine sounding genre flicks? Simple. They’re proof that two more acting legends may be letting their careers go down the drain.

Why do some of greatest living actors continue to make such poor project choices? How come we have to endure a piece of crap like Meet the Fockers from the same guy who gave audiences Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, or the young Vito Corleone? How is it someone like Pacino who stretched his acting abilities to just about every angle imaginable in his hey-day could sign on for a film like Gigli

Why do some of best continue trade away their rich careers for mediocrity? This is by no means a new topic of discussion but it still remains a curious one. 

There is no denying that even the finest of actors have ups and downs in their careers–the occasional flop or poor decision is to be expected. Still some, like the pair mentioned above, can’t seem to climb out of their current slumps and are in serious threat of becoming has-beens. Sure some people claim that actors like De Niro are just trying to have fun in their later years–opting for the less challenging roles instead of the gigs that truly test one’s acting chops. The problem with this argument is it seems like taking the easy way out. 

The best of the best are the ones who took the chances, stretched their acting range, and devoured the roles they were handed. Orson Welles was still testing his abilities both as an actor and a director in his later years. As did Henry Fonda, whose later work complimented his age and maturity as an actor perfectly. Then you have a legend like Marlon Brando whose later work was a bit of a train wreck (does anybody remember his laughable turn in The Island of Dr. Moreau in which he is carried around like a God with a creepy mini-midget by his side)

Consider a lineup from arguably the greatest era of filmmaking, the late 1960s through the 1970s. When surveying the list of greats to come out of this epoch–Pacino, De Niro, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, for example–it’s difficult to pick one with a near flawless record. With the exception of maybe Meryl Streep, who even after 50+ films continues to tackle new and exciting roles, many of these actors are struggling to find their place in the new generation of filmmaking.

Some have switched gears to fluffy comedic roles and popcorn flicks while others can’t help but revisit the same character or method and are on the verge of typecast. Below is a short list of three greats whose reputation since the new millennium is at risk thanks to some particularly bad and uninspired project choices. 

Robert De Niro: To be fair De Niro was maintaining a respectable career through the 1990s. His work with Scorsese is now legendary (GoodfellasCasino, even a juicy scene stealer in Cape Fear), he was collaborating with rising directors (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), and even managed to do some smart big budget flicks (Backdraft perhaps). Then came Analyze This, without a doubt the beginning of the end for one of our finest actors. It’s not that Analyze This (That) or later Meet the Parents are bad comedies it’s just that De Niro is better suited for something smarter, rather than films that focus on feline breast milk jokes. Take for example the satirically brilliant Wag the Dog, or his early comedic work in films like Brazil!The King of Comedy and even Midnight Run.
Possible Resurrection: De Niro needs to collaborate with some serious up and coming directors. While another project with Scorsese would also be suitable, it would be interesting to see what De Niro could do under someone like P.T. Anderson or Christopher Nolan. Ditch the bad comedies and even worse thrillers and focus on the roles that matter.

Al Pacino: Unlike De Niro who hasn’t starred in a truly outstanding film since maybe 1997s Wag the Dog or ‘98s Ronin, Pacino has turned in a couple truly memorable roles in his A.A.R.P years. His turn in Mike Nichol’s wonderful Angels in America adaptation as Roy Cohn was Pacino at his best. Add this to 1999s The Insider, a thrilling look at ethics in journalism, and a riveting take on Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and you have a veteran who still has some tricks up his sleeve. Then there was the virtual supermodel disaster, S1m0ne, or two completely overly acted performances in Any Given Sunday (loud, angry football coach) and The Devil’s Advocate (loud, angry Devil). 
Possible Resurrection: Pacino’s biggest problem is he’s become accustomed to playing, well, Pacino. In his earlier years he was a master at tackling out of character roles–the homosexual bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, the multi-dimensional Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy. Even his vibrant role as gangster villain, Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’sDick Tracy was a fun character to watch on screen. Pacino’s last truly fascinating role was in the little seen film People I Know, in which his subdued performance was a complete 180 to everything he’s done in recent years.

ImageJack Nicholson: It could be said that Nicholson is at the point in his career where people know what to expect from him. Similarly to Pacino most of his recent roles show Jack playing Jack. With the exception of two performances dealing with trials of aging and retiring a life long lived (About Schmidt and the equally if not better and underappreciated film, The Pledge), Nicholson hasn’t really done anything recently that matches his range in the early stage of his career. His take on Frank Costello in The Departed was fun to watch but ultimately seemed way over the top, even for Nicholson (his bizarre cocaine sex scene was particularly ridiculous).
Possible Resurrection: It could be Nicholson is close to film retirement, following in the footsteps of greats like Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Warren Beatty, all of which chose their later roles sparingly and with care. One last triumphant performance could maintain his legendary status. Please just not another Adam Sandler flick. 

One could argue that unlike someone like Beatty or Newman, who starred in only a handful of films in the past twenty years, actors like Pacino or De Niro are more concerned with trying as many different roles as they can. In reality they seem to be recycling more of the same. Clint Eastwood is in the midst of a very strong late career both as an actor and a blooming director. He’s choosing his work wisely and isn’t afraid to branch out (his two Iwo Jima films were very well executed). 

I look at some of the best younger actors working today and I wonder how their careers will be in their later years. Christian Bale has shown that he has a knack for not only crowd pleasers (Batman Begins, 3:10 to Yuma) but also more challenging roles (The Machinist, I’m Not There) but will he be able to maintain his momentum and maturity as an actor into his twilight years?

Perhaps some of the actors mentioned earlier still do have it in them and are just waiting to unleash another monumental performance. If this is true than all I have to say is, the sooner the better.