You Can Call Me Al Pacino in S1m0ne

The Actors Studio, a professional organization for stage and theater performers, is free to join, but requires an audition for membership. When Al Pacino first auditioned, he was rejected. A second audition in 1966 would finally grant him access, a step he saw as a means to a greater form of expression in a career path he had stumbled upon almost by accident.

Pacino started acting in school as an excuse to get out of class, but ended up with something more: “I never thought this was going to happen,” Pacino has reflected. “I just kept doing it, and then finally one day, a long time ago, I thought, ’I can express myself here.’” In a 2022 interview with Playbill, Pacino says acting “saved my life.”

Pacino rose to stardom during, and to be sure helped bring about, an era of film that heralded the “working man’s” actor. From Marlon Brando to James Caan, actors working notably in the 1970’s set a new standard for masculinity on film, an evolution from the suave, theatrical men that populated films in the early days of Hollywood. Cary Grant’s tailored suits and soft hands were replaced by men in wife beaters and rough callouses. To be a tough guy was suddenly preferred over a man you could swoon over for his romantics.

Craft building was heavily replaced by method acting. The claim that a performer must “disappear” into a role became the preferred way of approaching a part. Lots of actors, from Christian Bale to Jared Leto, are praised for using this tactic in their projects, utilizing dramatic weight changes, staying in character for the entire duration of shooting, sending their co-workers dead rats. Al Pacino is often listed among actors that “go method,” but I don’t particularly think that’s true. If Marlon Brando was the “working man’s” actor, Pacino is an actor’s actor, a man preoccupied not by fame’s accolades, but the scene in front of him.

For that, one of the more meta jobs of Pacino’s career is 2002’s S1m0ne, a sci-fi film written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote “The Truman Show.” S1m0ne finds Pacino as Viktor Taransky, a film director fresh off a string of flops, desperate to return to a golden age of Hollywood for which he wasn’t even alive. He complains to his studio exec ex-wife that actors these days just don’t want to work in a conversation that shows off Pacino’s comedic flair:

Viktor: Miss Nicola Anders, supermodel with a SAG card, has it written in her contract that all cherry Mike and Ike’s be removed from her candy dish, along with strict instructions that any room she walks into must have seven packs of cigarettes waiting for her, three of them open. That there be a personal Jacuzzi within eighty paces of her dressing room, and that any time she travels, her nanny must fly with her, first class.

Elaine : So? What’s wrong with that?

Viktor : Elaine, she doesn’t have children.

S1m0ne chronicles Taransky’s journey in creating and marketing a completely artificial actor: computer simulation SIM-ONE, named Simone, immediately shoots to stardom despite never physically appearing in public. Simone stars in films, advertising campaigns, at one point even records and performs (via hologram) an album of songs, and the world eats it up. Literally no one but Viktor has ever been in the same room as Simone, or, rather, the room with the computer that houses her, yet she is absolutely beloved. Actors want to be in films with her, actresses want to sleep with Viktor so he’ll tell them they’re just like Simone. Even the investigators trying to discover the truth about this new starlet are swept up in the fantasy and disregard any semblance of what could be realistic. In one of my personal favorite lines in the film, Viktor remarks that “our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.”

Created to combat an industry of fakes, Viktor has created the ultimate fake, and as his own star rises along with Simone’s, he tells his pixelated beloved:

“You’re more authentic than all the people who worship you, and that’s the problem you’re lookin’ at… the real fraud. I told myself this was all about the work. But if that were the truth, it wouldn’t matter to me that you got all the attention, and it does; it does. I’m sorry, Simone. Here I was trying to convince the whole world you existed, but what I was really trying to do was convince them that I exist.”

As Taransky, Pacino embodies a familiar disappearing act: he is technically someone new, but the intensity, charm, and sly smile of his real life self bleeds through his portrayal of the director. There are a lot of actors that audiences think show up in films a little too earnestly as themselves (ie George Clooney is just George Clooney in everything he’s in), but Pacino knows where the line is drawn. He’s able to embody without a full loss of self, and the ability to bring a part of who you are to a role is part of what makes it feel most authentic. There is a reliability in performance that is guaranteed, but the human soul at the center is what holds our hearts when consuming it.

In a 2014 interview, The Hollywood Reporter asks the man born Alfredo James Pacino about the “Al Pacino screen persona”:

“When you put Tony Montana with Michael Corleone, they’re two different variations — I mean, they’re both living in that world [of gangsterdom], but they’re different. I mean, “Birdman” and “The Humbling” are both about actors, but they’re two different movies, two different worlds. I mean, if someone’s a painter — you’re gonna see a Jackson Pollock and you’re gonna know it’s a Jackson Pollock.”

S1m0ne as a film has plenty of faults, and never quite matched the financial or cult success of properties like The Truman Show. But through it, Pacino proves that it’s not a highly manufactured charade that makes a film great, it’s the humanity at the center of it all that does.

As Viktor Taransky says, “The only real truth is the work.”


Cited

Al Pacino on His Great Roles, Frustrations with Fame, Return to Form in ‘The Humbling’ | The Hollywood Reporter

Al Pacino Would Not Be an Actor Without the Actors Studio | Playbill

Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting | The Atlantic

How the Method Made Acting Modern | The New Yorker

S1m0ne Review | Roger Ebert

S1m0ne | IMdB