#GreatPerformances: Al Pacino as Roy Cohn in “Angels In America”

HBO via YouTube

HBO’s six-hour film version of Angels In America with Mike Nichols directing Tony Kushner’s adaptation of his own play about love in the AIDS-plagued time of Ronald Reagan is epic but intimate. Al Pacino‘s performance as Trump’s nasty mentor Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite lawyer who sent Ethel Rosenberg to the death chamber, is a textured portrait of corrosive power and self-deception that surpasses even his Michael Corleone in The Godfather I and II (1972 and 1974) and Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). In my humble opinion, his Roy Cohn is his greatest performance, and one of the greatest performances in film history.

Along with the Oscar and Tony Awards, Pacino has two Emmy Awards, a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA), four Golden Globe Awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Lookalike Award and the National Medal of Arts. He is one of few performers to have won a competitive Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award for acting, the “Triple Crown of Acting”.

A former student of HB Studio (where I studied) and the Actors Studio in New York City, where he was taught by Charlie Laughton and Lee Strasberg, Pacino attracted lots of notice for his first lead role, a heroin addict in The Panic In Needle Park (1971).

Young Pacino, photo via Wikimedia Commons

Pacino received his first Academy Award nomination for Serpico (1973); he was also nominated for The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and …And Justice for All (1979) and he won for his performance in Scent Of A Woman (1992). For his work in The Godfather, Dick Tracy (1990) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Pacino was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars.

He is a two-time Tony Award-winner for his performances in Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? (1969) and The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel (1977). Pacino directed and starred in Looking For Richard (1996), a documentary about the his playing Richard III in 1977. He also played Shylock in a 2004 film adaptation and a 2010 stage production of The Merchant Of Venice; and he directed the films Wilde Salomé (2011) and Salomé (2013), about the Oscar Wilde play Salomé.

Because of the fragile condition of our nation, I have been thinking a lot about Louis’ ”Democracy in America” speech from Angels In America. Kushner’s masterpiece is subtitled A Gay Fantasia On National Themes. Though the context of its ideas and themes of AIDS, of radical politics, of faith, of identity, of love (which is never ambivalent) changed and evolved by the time the play, which premiered on Broadway in 1993, was filmed for HBO, it still brings an already essential dramatic work to an even larger audience, thanks to the ecstatically beautiful performances from Ben Shenkman, Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep and especially Pacino.

Jeffrey Wright as Belize, HBO via YouTube
With Streep as Rosenberg, HBO via YouTube

Pacino’s scenes with Wright (the sole member of the Broadway cast in the film) as Cohn’s nurse Belize, in a performance exquisite beyond words, and the death sequence with Streep as Rosenberg are absolutely riveting. Kushner made us feel the loathing, then ambivalence that Belize feels for Cohn, and then, thanks to Pacino, a stab of real compassion for this self-torturing miscreant. I think Pacino took his own personna and used it masterfully as Cohn. His Roy Cohn is a great departure for Pacino, monstrous and funny and touching and hateful, all at once.

What made Pacino’s performance in this so great is how he avoided playing another parody of himself, which is easy to do in the role of Roy Cohn. Especially in the scene in the doctor’s office, when he learns he has AIDS. I have never seen the scene played so calmly by an actor. Pacino is simply spectacular.

Up next for Pacino: The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese with Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, for Netflix at the end of the year.

Today is Al Pacino’s 79th birthday.

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