Actor Al Pacino and director David Gordon Green, left, smile during a press conference for "Manglehorn" at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014. (Photo: AP)
Introducing one of Al Pacino's two films at the Toronto Film Festival, artistic director Cameron Baily remarked that perhaps an "Al Pacino Day" was in order, just as it had been for Bill Murray.
At 74, Pacino debuted his latest batch of work at the festival, both films that find him exploring the regrets, ambitions and ruts of old age. In David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn," he plays a lonely Texas locksmith, mourning a bygone romance despite the interest of a friendly bank teller (Holly Hunter). In the more meta "The Humbling," directed by Barry Levinson and adapted from the Philip Roth novel, Pacino plays an aging stage actor no longer interested in performing.
"Aging seems to have gotten a bit of a bad rap," Pacino said in an interview. "Like, what do you do now? Someone says how old are you, that's like saying how long do I have left. I can't answer that question."
Pacino has been particularly busy in recent years, showing the same curiosity for more elderly characters as he brought to more youthful or middle-aged roles throughout his career on screen and on stage.
"We grow in a lot of different ways, and if you listen to your cycles or feel it, that takes you," Pacino says. "A lot of times I haven't, but I'm starting to. These things I'm doing are expressions of that. I'm trying to be aware of that. I think I can enter that world. There are things I wouldn't do now that I would have done 20 years ago. I don't feel it. I'm not there."
"Manglehorn" doesn't have distribution but its earned Pacino rave reviews. The Guardian called it "the finest performance Pacino has delivered in years." Far from the sort of film most septuagenarians would contemplate, it evidences Pacino's abiding interest in experimentation. He's not cementing a legacy, but continuing to stretch.
The film was made quickly in between work on "The Humbling" (due out Nov. 21) a project Pacino started himself by buying the rights to the novel.
"We had this window of time to do it in, and I knew if we let it past, David wouldn't do the movie," says Pacino. "Which I, first of all, love the idea of. Because he wrote it for me."
Green, the hard-to-pin-down director of "George Washington" and "Pineapple Express," began pondering a film with Pacino after an earlier unrelated meeting. He saw something in the actor that hadn't previously been captured in his movies, and asked his friend, Paul Logan, to pen a script for them.
"There was a way he was listening when other people would be talking, and a true intensity in that, and absolutely tuned in," Green says. "Something about the sliver of smile, the furrow of the eyebrow."
Few actors are better known for their operatic bigness than Pacino. But in "Manglehorn," he's taciturn and hermetic, with hints of Asperger Syndrome. And he's heartbroken: "I got nothing but frustration and disappointment," he muses in one of his narrated letters to his lost love.
"Manglehorn" is a kind of surreal fairy tale that stitches together scenes of absurdity (there's a watermelon car crash inspired by Richard Scarry's children's books) to mysteriously build a beautifully demented grace. Slowly and awkwardly, Pacino's Angelo Manglehorn opens the locks to himself.
"You see a lot of great Al performance movies that can really grab you by the throat and have the bravado and take you to theses grand emotional places," Green says. "I wanted this to be the intimate emotional place."
Quite unlike his character in "The Humbling," Pacino's passion for acting remains steadfast, as does his willingness to believe in a filmmaker. Did Pacino — legend of American cinema — hesitate at all when, for one of the film's many unexplained moments, Green sat him high up on a tree branch with a cat?
"I've long since given that up," says Pacino. "David is going to do what he does and he has his reasons to do it. That's what you have to trust, and I completely trust him. You don't question it. It's how he paints."