It’s Saturday night on Hollywood Blvd and the sidewalk is illuminated by neon signs that invite, confuse, and disparage people from their shaded doorways; music filters from the windows and into the air – which is still warm despite the hour. One neon sign stands out from the others; it’s bright with the image of a pharaoh and I stand below it with a man from Oregon. He’s wearing a Pink Floyd 1973 North American tour t-shirt. I don’t know this man, but we get talking.
“I wanted to get a drink and then come over, but I saw the line,” he sighs to a stop, still indignant about the whole thing. The line he’s referring to is one that already stretches out of the gates and down the sidewalk past the shaded doorways; it starts at the entrance to the Egyptian Theatre and never ends. It reminds the man from Oregon of his young days lining up to see Star Wars, but not in a good way, “I don’t mind lining up for something I’ve not seen before, but this movie is 40 years old,” he stops and takes a look around at all the people, at me, at his friends, at the far off woman who’s number one “but this is for Pacino and he’ll talk for fifteen minutes tops. I guarantee it.” He ends it there and re-joins his friends.
Once the doors open and we mill inside, I lose the man from Oregon, but I’m not altogether displeased – I only hope the evening wins him back. The evening in question (October 10, 2015), and the reason for the throng of people, is the screening of Dog Day Afternoon, followed by a Q&A with Al Pacino, at the Egyptian Theatre. Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterpiece, his second movie with Pacino and perhaps his most acutely observed movie about his beloved New York, is still funny and touching; it's a gripping story about a bank robbery, subtly operating all the time as a social commentary on its place and time. It’s the mid-seventies and everything’s backward, the president turned the lights out, and the movie captures the mood perfectly.
Yet, it’s a wonder it got made at all. Pacino walked away twice, admitting he was in another state, “another world” during filming; a combination of wild nights and a loathing for the movie-making process added up to create a weariness that nearly ended the production on more than one occasion. “I always found the whole process very difficult…very troubling, and It was extremely, excruciatingly boring” (standing around for long hours on-set).
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that an actor in love with the immediacy and energy of theatre thrived under the directorship of Sidney Lumet, a strong realist director who began his career off-Broadway, and who rehearsed for a minimum of two weeks with his actors before shooting. “I always preferred to be directed – to be told where to go and Sidney was great at that, a real ‘director’ of people”, remembers Pacino, “In rehearsal he would say ‘ok, Al, you go there, and then you go there, and you do this here and then come around here’… and then we would rehearse it and I was robbing a bank! His staging was so accurate, so interesting, it just put you in there, but it was totally orchestrated by him – he was a genius”.
It’s a dual testament to the craft of rehearsal and the close relationship between actor and director that some of the movie’s most memorable moments are improvised; Dog Day Afternoon was the first time Lumet had allowed his actors to do this. Chris Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for his perfectly balanced portrayal of Leon, a performance essentially captured in one fourteen minute scene – arguably the best in the movie – yet it wasn’t in the original Frank Pierson script.
Pacino revealed they struggled for a long time to make it work. “In the original, [Leon] came dressed as Marilyn Monroe and kissed me on the cheek. I just thought it was over the top. We changed it to the telephone but couldn’t get it right – it just wasn’t working - but because we’d rehearsed so many times, Chris and I were able to improvise; we did three full improvisations and Sidney took them away and wrote a scene around it. ”
The electrifying moment when Sonny chants "Attica!" and almost starts a riot – a visceral moment of cinema with the power to stir emotions 40 years after the fact – was improvised between Pacino and the extras, and stirred up by the assistant director, Burtt Harris - a man who also took it upon himself to rouse a weary, hungover Pacino each morning on set. “He used to give me bitters in the morning and slap me around,” laughs Pacino. “We had all these people standing around and Sidney would have me come out and do the scene and go back inside [the bank], this one time just as I’m about to go out, Burtt comes up to me and says, ‘hey, Al, say Attica when you go out there,’ and I look at him…okay, you sure…just say Attica?...and he goes, ‘yeah, yeah, just say it.' So I go outside and I’m doing the scene and I go, ‘yeah, remember Attica, right’ and an extra stood off to the side shouts back, ‘Attica’! And I go ‘YEAH, Attica!’ and that’s how it happened, and now it’s this iconic scene in the movie.”
Another iconic moment is the "Wyoming" punch line by John Cazale – a character actor whose career was cut short by his untimely death in 1978. He made five films, all of which were nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, and he is a man dearly missed by his friend Pacino. “I learned more from John as an actor than anybody else in my life. I first met him when I was nineteen and just fell in love with the guy.” It was Pacino who recommended John for the role of Sal – a part originally written as a nineteen year old kid. Sidney Lumet hadn’t seen the Godfather movies and didn’t know John Cazale, but changed the role after hearing him read. That Lumet listened to Pacino is a mark of the respect; an acknowledgement from the director that his actor is skilled at selecting costars.
Pacino likes to work with his friends, and he spoke as if he were presently amongst them. The audience at the Egyptian Theatre was treated to a great movie, followed by genuine candor from a legend of the screen.
I left the theatre with the masses and walked down Cherokee Avenue. It was late, but still warm, and the neon was beckoning everyone everywhere. I saw what I thought was Oregon man; he was ahead of me so I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like him. He was smiling. He seemed happy. The evening won him round, I thought, and why shouldn't it have?