Al Pacino is one of those actors that has delivered so many memorable performances that it’s difficult to pin down his best work. People’s opinions vastly differ in what his strongest performance is but there’s not many who can deny that some of his best came from the 1970’s. His role as bank-robber Sonny Wortzik in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon in 1975 is, without doubt, a real highlight in Pacino’s shining career.
Based on a the real-life story of John Wojtowicz who, in 1972, walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn and attempted to steal thousands of dollars to fund his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. He, and his accomplice, held nine bank employees hostage for 14 hours but the plan was doomed from the beginning and even though he quickly became aware of this, he used his wits to try and work out a deal that wouldn’t put himself or anyone else in jeopardy.
The part of Sonny was written with Pacino in mind but having just finished shooting on The Godfather part II, it left Pacino, in his own words, “Exhausted and infinitely depressed” and he had no desire to work on a role that would require him to invest a lot of emotional anxiety. Disappointed, Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson then sent the script to Dustin Hoffman. It’s a part that Hoffman could have excelled at and being a screen rival in method acting at this time in American cinema, Pacino didn’t like the idea of Hoffman stealing his thunder. As a result, he changed his mind and decided to accept. It would result in, not only, one of the best performances Pacino has ever given but also one of the best from the decade itself.
The energy and events of the film move between absurdity and tragedy and Pacino’s hugely effective range moves along with it. It’s at once frantic and fast paced before settling down to a claustrophobic chamber piece and Pacino is rarely offscreen throughout it’s entirety. When the camera is on him, we experience the absolute stress this man is under; the panic in his eyes, his nervous ticks and the sweat on his brow. It’s a simmering and captivating performance that fully captures the enormity of Sonny’s predicament.During production, Pacino reportedly only slept a couple hours a night, ate very little and would sometimes take cold showers in order to emphasize Sonny’s disheveled, exhausted and yet wired appearance. However, halfway through production, Pacino collapsed from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized for a short time. After the film was completed, he decided to stop doing films for a while and return to stage work.
It could be said that Pacino’s detrimental concerns on accepting the role were correct but if he hadn’t taken it then we, as viewers, wouldn’t witness one of the screen greats delivering, arguably, his finest work.
Oscars? – As Best Actor, Pacino received his third Oscar nomination in a row for Dog Afternoon. He had previously been nominated for Serpico and The Godfather part II but he was also competing against Jack Nicholson who was also on his third Best Actor nomination in a row following The Last Detail, Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ultimately, it was a fight between the two in the 1976 awards but Nicholson came out on top for Cuckoo’s Nest.
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