Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tarnished Greatness?

As is so often the case, the idea for this column came from one of my buddies. Specifically, DB sent me an email last week informing me that "88 Minutes" starring Al Pacino is, at best, dreadful. After exchanging a few emails, in which DB shared with me the details of this disaster, he posed this question: "At this point, is Pacino ruining his legacy?" Two things happened when I read this question: 1) I screamed "No" at the top of my lungs, causing my secretary to run into my office to ask what was wrong; and 2) I immediately began banging out a 500 word response to DB telling him why this was not the case. Now, 7 days later, at DB's request, I have watched "88 Minutes". The result? Well, I really wish I hadn't watched it, but my response to DB's question hasn't changed. Why? I'm glad you asked.

To begin the analysis, you must consider this: from the time he burst on the scene as Michael Corleone in 1972 until he implored us all to fight for that inch as Coach D'Amato in 1999, here is how Pacino filled those 27 years:

"The Godfather";

"The Godfather: Part II";

"Dog Day Afternoon";

"And Justice for All";

"Scarface";

"Dick Tracy";

"Frankie and Johnny";

"Glengarry Glen Ross";

"Scent of a Woman";

"Carlito's Way";

"Heat";

"City Hall";

"Donnie Brasco";

"The Devil's Advocate";

"The Insider"; and

"Any Given Sunday".

Good God, read that list again! Sure, I left some less than memorable films off the list ("The Godfather: Part III" NEVER happened!!!!), but has any single actor ever had such an extended run of undeniable greatness? I defy you to pick any one of those movies and tell me that Pacino didn't lift it to otherwise unobtainable levels. I mean, has any other entertainer or athlete ever had even an equally impressive run in their chosen profession? Well, again, I'm glad you asked.

From 1991 -1998, MJ put together the only run in sports or entertainment history comparable to Pacino's nearly three decade reign. From '91 - '98, MJ played 6 full seasons, won six titles, averaged 30.6 pts/game, shot exactly 50% from the field, played in 486 of a possible 492 regular season games, never missed a playoff game, played every possible game from '96-'98, won 4 MVP's, and personally destroyed every player that even dared challenge him. And yes, his two years in minor league baseball were his "The Godfather: Part III".

Please re-read the previous paragraph and take a minute to soak in those numbers. I watched nearly every game MJ played from '91-'98, and I own every one of his playoff games during that time on VHS, and I still can't believe those numbers when I see them in print. Similarly, I've seen every movie Pacino has ever made (thanks to DB making me watch "88 Minutes"), and every time I watch them, I am continually amazed at how he carries each and every one, up until "Any Given Sunday".

Now, the question I'm sure you are asking yourself is how in the hell did DB asking if Pacino is ruining his legacy lead me to performing an in depth breakdown of MJ's career? It's a fair question, and here's the answer: We can all agree that MJ was one of the greatest, if not the greatest (which he was), basketball players of all time, and when you think of MJ today, you think of the MJ I described above. You never think of the MJ that took his last fade away for the Washington Wizards in 2003. In the same vein, we should all be able to agree that Pacino is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, actors of all time, and when it is all said and done for him, you are going to remember Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Lt. Col. Frank Slade, Lt. Vincent Hanna, and Lowell Bergman. You will never remember him as Dr. Jack Gramm in "88 Minutes" or Rooster Fisk in "Righteous Kill". In other words, when entertainers or athletes reach the apex of their profession and ingrain themselves into the national consciousness for doing what they do, we, as their fans, are more than willing to forgive the sins of the twilight of their careers, no matter how egregious.

This phenomenon, of course, is not limited to Pacino and Jordan. In fact, we are living it right now with Brett Favre. While there are more than a few people, myself included, that really wish Favre would just hang up the cleats and move on, the truth is that we want this only for our selfish reasons. For one reason, we are afraid that watching Favre tank down the stretch for the Jets or do God knows what with the Vikings will somehow cause us to forget all the moments that caused us to love Favre in the first place. It's kind of silly when you think about it, though. I mean, all the empirical evidence proves that, when we are telling our children about Favre, all we will remember is him threading balls into impossible places in crucial moments at Lambeau, willing his teammates to impossible victories, and running around like a mad man after winning it all against the Pats.

Don't believe me? Well, do you remember Dale Murphy winning two MVP's for the Braves, or do you remember him walking away two homers short of 400 with the Rockies? Do you remember Magic running the Showtime fast break like it was what he was born to do, or do you remember his 32 game comeback with the Lakers in '95? Do you remember Joe Montana limping off after a 1st round playoff loss for the Chiefs in '94, or do you remember his decade of near perfection for the 49er's? Do you remember Mike Tyson not answering the bell for the 7th round against Kevin McBride, or do you remember him devastating Michael Spinks in 91 seconds? Do our fathers and grand fathers remember Willie Mays making backward basket catches in the Polo Grounds, or do they remember him limping around the outfield at Shea? Finally, do our fathers remember Muhammad Ali badly losing his last two fights to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, or do they remember him vanquishing Foreman in Zaire and Frazier in Manila?

Now, if I were a betting man, I would wager that most of you don't have any memories of Murphy as a Rockie, Magic even coming back in '95, or Tyson losing to McBride; and I would bet you didn't know that Ali closed his career with two devastating losses. And, I would be willing to bet that if I asked you who starred in "Don Juan DeMarco", "The Island of Dr. Moreau", "The Brave", and "Free Money", you wouldn't guess Marlon Brando. In fact, I'm guessing your response would be, "I've never heard of any of those movies".

The obvious, and final, question that arises is why do we manage to forget about the sins of our sports and entertainment heroes' later careers? Frankly, if I knew the answer, I could probably right a pretty entertaining book. In fact, I'm hoping Malcolm Gladwell takes on the subject some day. For now, however, I can only offer my best guess, which is based on my own experience. The fact of the matter is that we watch sports, movies, television, etc... as a means to escape the "real world". We watch in the hopes of seeing something that will allow us to talk to our co-workers at the water cooler, our friends at the bar, and our families over the dinner table. And, when we watch with our family and friends, we hope for a moment that we can forever share with those around it. Face it, there are very few things more exciting than sharing a great sports moment (i.e. Jordan over Russell in the '98 Finals) with your buddies. I mean, it's been 11 years since that shot, and seldom does more than two weeks go by that I don't have the "did MJ push off" conversation with someone. Similarly, watching a great movie with your friends and/or family can provide a lifetime of quotes and anecdotes. For God's sake, not a day went by in college that Stats, CC, and I didn't either watch or quote "Heat", "Tommy Boy", "Hoosiers", or any one of a few dozen movies.

Bottom line, our sports and entertainment heroes provide us with a unique type of excitement and joy that we need. Now, in the grand scheme of things, that might seem a little screwed up, but that's just the way it is. And, given that, the answer to the question that started this column is that short of starring with Miley Cyrus in a "Hannah Montana" movie, there is nothing Al Pacino can do to tarnish his legacy. Ah, who am I kidding. I'd watch that movie. I watched "88 Minutes" for God's sake!