Monday, May 4, 2020

James and Israel


James was born in 1940 in New York's East Harlem.  His parents divorced when he was two years old.  His father moved to California, so James was brought up by his mother and grandmother in the Bronx.  James began smoking and drinking at age nine and began using marijuana at 13.  His two closest friends died of drug abuse. As a teenager, he dropped out of school and left home. To make ends meet, he worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk.  During his teens and early 20s, he was often homeless and slept in friends' houses or on the street.

Israel was born in 1901 in Budzanow, a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine, the youngest of four children.  His father emigrated to New York's Lower East Side, leaving his wife and sons in Budzanow with an uncle.  By 1909, Israel's father had saved enough money to bring Israel and the rest of the family over.  In 1918, Israel's older brother (and best friend), Zalmon, died in the influenza pandemic.  The event was so traumatic to young Israel that despite being a straight-A student, he dropped out of school.

Let's put James and Israel aside for a bit, and watch this fantastic four-minute scene from The Godfather Part II, with Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth:



I find that scene unusually compelling.  There's some excellent acting going on, but I think there's something more.

Pacino can convey volumes with even the most subtle facial expressions.  Here, though, he is deliberately deadpan.  During Strasberg's monologue there are plenty of opportunities for him to emote, yet he restrains himself.

Pacino's remarkable ability to express what's in his character's mind using only delicate facial expressions is evident in this 50-second clip from The Godfather):



Yet, in the scene with Strasberg, nothing.  No eye movement, no mouth tightening, no subtle gestures.  Nothing.  I've come up with two theories to explain Pacino's conspicuously impassive performance in that scene.

But first, back to James and Israel.

After dropping out of school, "James" (Alfredo James "Al" Pacino), pursued an acting career.  A few years after being rejected as a teenager, he was able to gain admittance to New York's prestigious Actors Studio.  There, he studied method acting under the Studio's founding artistic director (and fellow high-school dropout) "Israel"  (Israel Lee Strasberg).

 I'll let Pacino himself describe the influence Strasberg had on his life and acting career:
The Actors Studio meant so much to me in my life. Lee Strasberg hasn't been given the credit he deserves.  [Actors Studio] sort of launched me. It really did. That was a remarkable turning point  my life. It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting. It was exciting to work for him [Lee Strasberg] because he was so interesting when he talked about a scene or talked about people. One would just want to hear him talk, because things he would say, you'd never heard before ... He had such a great understanding.  He loved actors so much.
Pacino shared the stage with Strasberg for the first time in The Godfather Part II.  My two theories regarding Pacino's lack of expression during the "I didn't ask who gave the order" scene:
Theory #1: Pacino determined that Michael Corleone would have been expressionless in that situation and played it that way.  Nothing more than method acting at its best.
Theory #2: In a loving act of deference and generosity to his teacher and mentor, Pacino intentionally subdued his performance to draw no attention away from Strasberg's monologue.
Theory #1 is, by far, the likeliest.

Nevertheless, I joyfully subscribe to Theory #2.