Before the gods of screen

Updated: 24 November, 2019 07:41 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Ahead of Martin Scorsese's American crime thriller The Irishman dropping on Netflix, Sunday mid-day recreates cinema history, in conversation with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, in the same room/frame

Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the The Irishman's international premiere and closing gala during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square in October in London. Pics/ Getty Images
Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the The Irishman's international premiere and closing gala during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square in October in London. Pics/ Getty Images

Oh yeah, at Anupam's place, I remember," says Robert De Niro, sitting alongside Al Pacino, end-September at New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, as I remind De Niro about the one time he came to Mumbai, and had a full posse of Bollywood's A-list (from Anil Kapoor to Ranbir Kapoor), swarming on the floor by his feet—a picture that went viral online. Unsure if he was embarrassed by that public display of deep bhakti. He certainly didn't let on. This isn't surprising.

Between the two, De Niro, 76, comes across as the severely reserved, quiet type. Perhaps he saves public pronouncements and choicest words for his President! Pacino, on the other hand, despite age, 79, appears to have retained that slightly frazzled but youthful gregariousness we've come to admire him on screen for, over generations—one-on-one, he's far more forthcoming with opinions, and anecdotes.

The point I was trying to make with both De Niro and Pacino was if they're even vaguely aware of the sort of unparalleled weight and excitement their names—individually; forget, for a moment, together—carry across the globe, let alone in Mumbai, which is half a world away from Manhattan, where they've honed and practiced their craft since the late 1960s.

"It's a good question," Pacino mulls in his husky baritone. For him this sort of undying global admiration quite simply boils down to doors that it can open up when he's travelling. "My daughter wanted to go to Japan, you know. And I said, yeah, yeah, alright—was thinking about what we could work out. Because you really get access to things. And it's wonderful. What's better than that, right?"

Right. For De Niro, this excitement equals expectations alone. He recalls how in 2008, Al Pacino and him were in Europe together—he can't remember if it was Paris or London—and he thought in his head, "You know, it feels so nice, there're so many people; this big premiere on the street and everything. We should be able to give something to deserve this kind of adulation, or whatever you want to call it. Let's hope we can do something really special the next time that we're in this situation."

That 2008 'situation' was Righteous Kill—only the second time De Niro and Pacino shared screen (after Michael Mann's Heat). Not too many people have seen Righteous Kill. I just had, on US Netflix, before I met them. It's a buddy-cop thriller, with twists and turns that Abbas-Mustan could've pulled off on a decent day. Even as I bring it up later in the conversation, De Niro tones down while referring to it, mindful of not overtly dissing his own film.

Pacino is more elaborately realistic: "What was that thing that Paul Newman once said? He said, 'He works!' Because if he only did what he really felt good about—he'd work once in every five years. And he can't do that. As an actor, stuff comes to you. It's not like you generate your own work, although Bob [De Niro] does a lot of that. I have a little bit [of that going] in theatre. That's where my thing is. I'm pretty much half and half—I do more theatre than I do films, [especially] when I'm thinking about what to do next."

"You know, I was just thinking about this play called The Visit. Don't know if you know that one. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane did it on Broadway. Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn did it as a movie. But it really is a play—has some surreal stuff. But then, I found out [playwright] Tony Kushner is now adapting it. So I had one idea. And it's taken! In some ways though, I'm lucky to have a go-to thing in live theatre. Maybe I'll come to your place with something once."

Okay, maybe I skipped a beat. While he can't say for sure if the thought occurred to him during the London/Paris Righteous Kill premiere—as producer, De Niro did in fact plot the making of The Irishman, having read the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. And seeing in it potential to star alongside Pacino, Joe Pesci and others, in a film directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he's collaborated nine times—pretty much all of which, starting with Mean Streets (1973), rank among the greatest films of all time! The Irishman drops on Netflix on November 27.

Pacino, rather surprisingly (or not), had never worked with Scorsese before. How'd that go? "What can you say? It's just easy. Working with Marty [Scorsese] is like working [jumping] without a net and feeling safe. That's a good way to describe it. I'm sure that's how Bob feels too. It's why they do what they do together. And I feel that. There've been directors I've had that feeling with, but not many."

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro

The Irishman centres on the true-life, stellar story of Teamster (truckers') Union boss Jimmy Hoffa—whose mysterious disappearance in 1975 still remains strong in American consciousness—and a truck driver, Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who became a hit-man, and Hoffa's key consigliore.

Pacino plays Hoffa, a role immortalised by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 biopic. Did he look at that closely? "No. I loved Jack. But that has nothing to do with the way I was interpreting [the part]. It only inspired me, when I saw it [and it helps]. Like it makes you say, yeah, I'm not the only one doing this. That person exists. I saw Bob Duvall do American Buffalo, I remember, on stage. I thought his characterisation is brilliant. And I'm thinking, yes, so I can do [the play] now. I won't do it like him."

Longish pause, and Pacino, ever so generous in this chat, reveals, "But I'll tell you one thing: When I saw [Paul] Muni's Scarface (1932), all I wanted to do was copy him in that performance. Of course it turns out—it always turns out—that I didn't. Don't know why I didn't. Maybe it was in the back of my head. But he gave me something with the anarchy in that performance, which was incredible. After I saw him, I said, let's do this film, you know. With Jimmy Hoffa, there was so much stuff on him. And so you watch, and you wait, and you hope to absorb."

Pacino has of course, banged it with biographical roles in the past. I recall Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973): "I knew him—NYPD officer Frank Serpico, on whom the film's based—very well. And I studied him, and worked with him." How about Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (on an actual, failed robbery in a Brooklyn bank)? "For some reason, I didn't meet him [the person Sonny Wortzik character was inspired from]. Because I had some sort of idea [about him]. And again, he was in prison. And I didn't meet [Dr Jack] Kervorkain either. I don't know if you ever got to see that [HBO's 2010 TV film, You Don't Know Jack, on a controversial euthanasia practitioner]."

Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983). Serpico, which also somewhat got channeled into Om Puri's sub inspector Anant Velankar in Ardh Satya (1983). Dog Day Afternoon (1975). The fact that these are monuments in cinema history, having aged not a day since their release, should be lost on no one—least of all, late-millennials. In fact it's impossible to touch upon Pacino and De Niro's vast body of work, without extending it into a full-blown thesis. Suffice it for most recent relevance—arguably the best film of 2019, Jaoquim Phoenix starrer Joker is, at its core, De Niro in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and The King Of Comedy (1982), rolled into one.

From even before Francis Ford Coppolla's The Godfather (1972)—that Pacino broke out into the global scene with—and Godfather 2 (1974), where De Niro and Pacino were in the same film (but never in the same frame), and which fetched De Niro his first Oscar (second was for Raging Bull), the careers of these two masters have wholly mirrored each other's.

Both method actors, having debuted in the same year (1969)— graduated from the same New York acting institutes, Actors' Studio, Stella Adler, HB Studio—were effectively the right conduits at the right time, brutally heralding the golden age of American (realist) cinema. Over years, film-buffs have been split between admiring one more than the other, but inevitably both.

At this stage in their life, I ask them how they look back at this rivalry/relationship, and how it's evolved. "Well, I think we're both happy to be still working," De Niro says. "And alive," Pacino cuts in, to add: "You know, we've been through a lot of the same things—unusual stuff happened to us in this profession. We knew each other when we were very young too—not well, but we had met. Throughout the many years of knowing each other, we had a certain comfort, when we'd meet, share certain things. It was helpful."
4 AM friends, on occasion? "Well, if I need to ask him about something, we talk about it. Or he does with me," De Niro says, defying at least at this moment that there is extreme envy among equals. There's extreme empathy too. It's also the roles that's brought them together for the third time in The Irishman—mob-boss, and his aide. You can feel a certain camaraderie/chemistry spilling over from the screen, which is heartwarming for fans.

For, The Irishman—a perfectly conclusive show-reel of Scorsese's (under)world—quite literally travels back in time, with a novel 'de-ageing' camera technology, seamlessly transforming De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and others into their younger selves. De Niro says, "Even before the de-ageing was as complete as in the final film, a few people that Marty had screened it for didn't find age getting in the way of the story. But it looks pretty good [now]. I hope audiences will go with it. And it's interesting."

Hell, yeah! How many film-buffs of my vintage (growing up in the '90s) have incessantly relived that coffee-shop scene in Michael Mann's Heat (1995)—"A guy told me one time: Don't let yourself get attached to anything you're not willing to walk out of in 30 seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner" (De Niro's line).

Just watched it again on YouTube—two stationary cameras flipping between over-the-shoulder shots of De Niro and Pacino. There were rumours that they hadn't actually shot the scene together. Fact is they hadn't rehearsed it together. It's the first time the two superstars were in the same movie-frame, after killing it not-so-softly, and separately, for 26 years in Hollywood. Goose-bumps cut across generations/globe.

During this interview, I similarly see De Niro and Pacino sitting a few inches away, talking not to each other, but to me. Is it out of some unconscious nervousness towards breaking ice that I ask De Niro as he walks in, dressed in thin jacket and T-shirt, and places his phone on the table, "Oh hey, you got the new iPhone 11 already (it'd just been launched)." Eh?

After the interview, Pacino, in his adorably clumsy state—in black blazer, loose black shirt buttoned down, and dark glasses—plucks the airpod that'd been stuck to his ears throughout: "I can't believe I'd been wearing this all along; man, what'd you think of me?" De Niro wraps up asking about why it's called Mumbai, and not Bombay: "What's the difference? And yeah, hope to see you soon." Yeah, sure. Just another day (or 20 minutes) at work, no? Huh!

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First Published: 24 November, 2019 07:12 IST

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