Al Pacino had a strange decade in the 80s, and it was Sea of Love that steered his career back on track.
Yes, one of the greatest actors in a generation of all-timers, responsible for a staggering number of classics in the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s, had almost a solid decade of duds, save for the story of one outrageous Cuban immigrant. Coppola’s Godfather films and his work with Sidney Lumet in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon had cemented his status as one of the hottest, most compelling young stars in the game in the 70s, but 1979’s …and Justice for All was a middling film, and William Friedkin’s highly-controversial and oft-protested Cruising – also a bomb at the time – seemed to level off Pacino’s upward trajectory.
His next film was Author! Author!, Arthur Hiller’s story of a playwright stressing over his latest production. The movie went absolutely nowhere, a shrug. The next year, Pacino did bounce back in Brian DePalma’s garish pop-culture touchstone, Scarface. It was praised by some critics and did well at the box office, though many voiced their disgust with the ultra violence of the picture. Pacino took this new Scarface cache and used it to make Revolution, a $28 million historical epic set for a Christmas release in 1985. It was wholly dismissed; Revolution closed its run after two weeks, and a $350,000 haul.
Pacino retreated to the stage, and didn’t star in a movie in 1986, ’87’, or ’88. He’d become an afterthought in Hollywood, a great actor with an untouchable run whose time had come and gone. Enter Richard Price, a novelist who’d just written a detective thriller about a woman killing men she meets through personal ads in the newspapers – these were ancient times. Price’s screenplay had been optioned, and he’d written the part of Detective Frank Keller – the investigator who poses as a blind date for a series of women in an attempt to catch the suspect, only to fall for a woman who may or may not be the killer – for Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman was being fussy, demanding rewrites, so the production moved on and Al Pacino recognized the potential.
Directed by Harold Becker, Sea of Love turned out to be anything but your typical noir mystery. It’s a more emotional film, its characters more human in their imperfections than the heightened miscreants of the pages of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. Keller is a good cop, tough but fair, as evidenced in the opening scene where he gives us a reason to root for him:
Pacino’s partner is Sherman, played by John Goodman, whose work through the 80s and 90s as “the cop hero’s partner” is, on its own merits, quite impressive. Keller and Sherman set up an undercover operation at a restaurant where they try and match fingerprints at the murder scene with wine glasses from the date to figure out who might be killing these men. These montage sequences of the dinner dates are airy and smartly constructed, the monotony played for laughs and the banter gives the scenes terrific energy, until Helen Cruger arrives. Cruger, played by Ellen Barkin at her absolute peak sultriness, practically overpowers Keller with her boundless sexual energy. Clad in red leather when we first see her, Helen turns out to be not what she seems in some surprising ways. The way Barkin evolves in her performance from beginning to end, and the way small details can create doubt or suspicion, is the best work of an underrated actresses career. She is the perfect pairing for Pacino, who is putty in her hands. We never doubt her control for a second.
Is she the killer? That’s the big question. The story around that is equally as interesting, perhaps even more so, than the stock thriller elements that allow us to solve the mystery. Thankfully one side of the film never outweighs the other, and Becker never toys with us when it would be so easy to do just that. The initial sex scene between Pacino and Barkin is perfect, and Barkin sinks her claws into the viewer when she pulls herself away from Pacino, only to slowly circle the room, remove her jacket, and go back in for the kill. It is a masterful mood setter. Their relationship evolves like few do in this genre or this setting, and the result is a much richer experience than so many thrillers in this era, where action and gore superseded intelligence or realism.
The mystery of Sea of Love comes and goes, but the relationship between Keller and Helen endures, and it’s why the picture was met with the best reviews of Pacino’s career since the late 70s. Buzz was properly in place, and the film opened in mid September at number one with just over $10 million. It bowed with $58.6 million, a robust hit for 1989. More than that, it was return to form for Al Pacino. His name was back in the trades, back on shortlists, and he was gearing up for a second half of his career that would have moments of sheer greatness before the eventual descent into self parody.
Pacino was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Sea of Love, and he was off to the races. He was in Dick Tracy, he played Michael Corleone one last time in a polarizing end to Coppola’s Godfather saga, and he dominated a handful of scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross. In 1992 Pacino won what’s often considered a “make good” Oscar for Scent of a Woman, which was more a reward for a career of excellence. It happens to the best of them, see: Paul Newman. It was an appraisal of a career of a great actor, one that had been rescued from the pit of obscurity in 1989.