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The Light from the TV Shows: Giving HBO’s “Phil Spector” a spin

When it was announced that Al Pacino and David Mamet, who proved to be a formidable combination of actor and writer/director on 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” would be reteaming for HBO’s original movie about Phil Spector, reactions of giddiness and uncertainty seemed to be in equal measure. Sure, Mamet’s awesome, and he’s obviously proven that he can get a great performance out of Pacino, but surely there’s substantial chasm between the fiction of Ricky Roma and the reality of Phil Spector, isn’t there?

Actually, you might be surprised.

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If you haven’t seen “Glengarry Glen Ross” recently, maybe you should see how Roma’s described on Wikipedia:

Although Roma seems to think of himself as a latter day cowboy and regards his ability to make a sale as a sign of his virility, he admits only to himself that it is all luck. He is ruthless, dishonest and immoral, but succeeds because he has a talent for figuring out a client’s weaknesses and crafting a pitch that will exploit those weaknesses. He is a smooth talker and often speaks in grand, poetic soliloquies.

Those who’ve read about Spector’s brusque, often downright crazed interactions with musicians in the studio, his turbulent relationship with ex-wife Ronnie Spector, and a notorious obsession with firearms which—no matter how you spin the story of the night a woman named Lana Clarkson ended up dead in his home—was directly responsible for his eventual incarceration will certainly see some immediate similarities between him and Roma. After seeing HBO’s “Phil Spector,” you will see even more of them. What you will not see, however, is a movie that matches “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

But, then, you probably didn’t expect that, anyway.

Discerning the difference between a good Al Pacino performance and a bad Al Pacino performance is a bit like the old “Remote Control” category, “Dead or Canadian”: sometimes it’s awfully hard to tell.

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Take, for instance, his turn as John Milton in 1997’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” which was so insanely over the top that…well, it wasn’t what you’d describe as good in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s got such a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen quality to it that it’s hard to write it completely off as bad, either.

This is not what you’d call an isolated incident within Pacino’s filmography, but he’s certainly not beyond the point of being able to disappear inside a character. In particular, there seems to be something about working for HBO which brings out the very best in him: he’s earned the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie twice now for his efforts in the network’s production, first for playing Roy Cohn in 1993’s “Angels in America,” then for his depiction of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in 2010’s “You Don’t Know Jack.” The quality of work might also have something to do with a desire to do justice to his portrayal of real people. Whatever the reason, his performance in the latter role effectively made me an Al Pacino fan all over again, because I forgot I was watching Al Pacino. Hand on heart, I cannot begin to tell you the last time I’ve ever experienced that, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s because it was the first time it had ever happened.

Suffice it to say that it does not happen during “Phil Spector.” Or, at the very least, it does not happen with enough consistency that viewers will ever truly find themselves lost in Pacino’s performance. Part of that may come from the fact that it would be impossible for anyone to play Phil Spector without a certain amount of flamboyance, thereby sending Pacino down a road where it becomes almost inevitable that he will fall victim to his tendency to go over the top. Certainly, the need to wear several different wigs and at least one fake moustache don’t exactly help one’s suspension of disbelief, either.

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Still, you may have noted the caveat in the previous paragraph which implies that there are, in fact, some occasions where, despite whatever get-up he may be wearing at the time, Pacino captures the viewer’s attention successfully enough to vanish into his character for short periods. There’s definitely a special kind of magic when Mamet’s dialogue and Pacino’s delivery meet, and it’s evident during Spector’s soliloquies about his career, his way with women, and various and sundry other topics. Sometimes they come across as considered and thoughtful, other times they play like the ravings of a lunatic, but when Pacino’s given the opportunity to get on a roll, he delivers.

Oftentimes, however, Spector’s rants are interrupted by his attorney, Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren, which shatters the magic. As a result, the back-and-forth between the two of them isn’t nearly as effective as when they’re provided their own spotlights, or when Mirren gets to play against Jeffrey Tambor, who plays her fellow attorney Bruce Cutler.

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It’s also worth noting that there’s a slightly mind-bending announcement made at the beginning of “Phil Spector” which may affect your appreciation of the subsequent events:

“This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”

So what the hell is it, then?

Ultimately, it’s a reminder that Mamet and Pacino can, when the circumstances are right, work magic together, but whereas “Glengarry Glen Ross” was pure wizardry, “Phil Spector” is just a couple of nicely-executed card tricks: it’s not entirely unimpressive, but you’ve seen ‘em do better.

  

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