An Actor’s Nightmare: Al Pacino faces The Humbling

By James Kenney

A slightly different version of this was published for the Queens Free Press in 2016.

 “I still have actors’ nightmares… I remember being in a Shakespeare play and saying, ‘My Lord, I have so and so’, and then I did two or three more lines and realized it was another Shakespeare play – I was in Hamlet and I was doing Julius Caesar. I thought, ‘How do I get out of this?’ It was terrifying.” — Al Pacino, interview with The TelegraphDecember 2014.

One can see what drew legendary Al Pacino to the role of Simon Axler, an aging actor crippled by increasing dementia, suffocating insecurity and total narcissism; I know, I know, but don’t worry, it’s a comedy! The Humbling begins with Axler  shakily reciting Shakespeare’s “All the World’s A Stage” soliloquy to his dressing room mirror, questioning and massaging the lines much like Pacino and friends did throughout his Looking for Richard. Axler is always giving a performance and overstrategizing his options as an artist, such as asking for a chance to do a second take on his moans when being wheeled into an emergency room.

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The Humbling, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, is based on a 2009 novel written by Philip Roth.  In it, Axler is institutionalized after falling off a stage during a performance (shot at the striking, landmarked St. George theater in Staten Island where I saw Jaws and King Kong ’76 as a kid), contemplates suicide, and has an affair with a fellow actress’s lesbian daughter who has obsessed over him since her formative years.

Pacino’s buoyant and brilliant Looking for Richard played as a metacommentary on the role of the actor, performance and reality as Richard broke down key scenes of Shakespeare’s Richard III to elucidate the anxieties and concerns of both actors and audience; so The Humbling shows in Axler the actor himself breaking down, illuminating the ticking mechanisms that drive him and also drive him away from any rational association to the drudgery the rest of us slog through daily.

Some reviews seem irritated by the film’s indulgence of Pacino, but count me in the Pacino-is-still-worth-indulging coterie, and The Humbling is unimaginable without him: here is where his authority as an actor and the obsessive qualities that create both a Richard and his new Salome films pay off.  The Humbling is both dark and surprisingly playful, as is his performance. After a 21st century that has put Pacino and us through the moronic  88 Minutes and the truly despicable Righteous Kill, I find his giving this comically knowing, lived-in performance at age 74 a Reason to Believe.

Gerwig, who spent a healthy twelve minutes in the spotlight as her Frances Ha received praise a few years back, offers some funny, sharp line readings, and Charles Grodin makes a welcome, rare appearance as Pacino’s agent, but it’s Pacino’s show, no doubt, and fans partial to Richard, which stylistically and thematically shares the concerns of this fiction, will likely embrace this.  Pacino, looking for comedy in the tragedy of an aging man’s current irrelevance and impending obsolescence is deeply committed here, perhaps because the project feels so personal to the star of The Godfather and Scarface. Lately, Pacino finds his own starring films such as this getting indifferent releases or debuting on cable; his last major theatrical release was throwing comedic support to Adam Sandler’s playing a girl.

To read the recent book “I Want You in My Movie” by Lawrence Grobel (who also published an excellent book of interviews with Pacino) is to see Pacino himself working through many of the issues Axler faces as he tries to figure out what to do with his obsession with Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Pacino recently said to The New Yorker This is what I’m meant to do….with this, everything suddenly coheres, and I understand myself,” and while films like Righteous Kill and Stand Up Guys  surely made Pacino wealthier, they also may have served as the barroom-floor falls needed for him to find out just where he stands. The Humbling is an engaging dramatization of Aristotle’s theme “to perceive is to suffer”; playfully neurotic, it is a small work to be proud of, and while I don’t know if I’d want to live with him, as a fan I’m glad that Pacino perceives no way out of his “terrifying nightmare” of acting.

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