Heat Stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino Reveal the Origins of the “Great Ass” Scene

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The post Heat Stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino Reveal the Origins of the “Great Ass” Scene appeared first on Consequence.

It’s easy to forget with two and a half decades’ worth of hindsight, but Michael Mann’s Heat was not received as an instant classic upon its initial release. That’s true of many films, of course, but Heat also wasn’t exactly under the radar in its day: a big-budget, big-studio Oscar-season crime picture hyping up the first actual pairing of titans Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (they had previously only shared the screen via the dissolves of The Godfather, Part II).

In December 1995, Mann’s film was a success, but a moderate one: Decent reviews, some of which expressed disappointment by how long the movie keeps its stars apart. Respectable box office that was nonetheless significantly lower than the grosses for Jumanji. Incredibly, zero Oscar nominations.

Now Heat is more or less canonized, to the point where it didn’t need to be celebrating a notable anniversary to screen as part of this year’s Tribeca Festival. (Happy 26th-and-change, Heat!) The real reason for the retrospective, or part of it, may be that Mann has co-written a Godfather II-style sequel-and-prequel novel, Heat 2, due out in August and distributed after the screening to those lucky enough to snag free copies before they ran out. There’s also an Ultra 4K disc of a new restoration of the film, which was the version that played at United Palace Theater in Manhattan.

Mann himself was not able to make the screening; he was quarantining with a positive COVID test while prepping his next film. But Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and producer Art Linson turned up to discuss the movie with critic Bilge Ebiri before the screening.

Heat Great Ass Scene
Heat Great Ass Scene

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

True to the dynamics of the movie, where Pacino plays a fiery, freewheeling cop opposite De Niro’s icier, more taciturn career criminal, Pacino was the more colorful participant, despite a raspy, hoarse-sounding voice (and repeated, sort-of-joking entreaties to just let the audience watch the movie). He and De Niro both had several answers that amounted to “I don’t remember because that was a long time ago,” but Pacino clearly relished the chance to muse about his craft, play to the crowd, and maybe bullshit a little bit. De Niro, as ever, was dutifully clocked in for his Tribeca responsibilities. (Linson, for his part, seemed vaguely annoyed by several perfectly reasonable discussion prompts.)

This left Ebiri to provide more behind-the-scenes info than the actual interviewees, though he was able to shake loose a few tidbits. For example, Mann apparently did not try to extend his famously intense research to his actors, at least in terms of the real people who inspired their characters. Though the actors trained extensively to wield machine guns with appropriate realism, Pacino didn’t recall having any opportunity to meet with the “real” version of Vincent Hanna, noting that he would have jumped at the chance (“When you have an apple like that, you wanna take a bite”).

Ebiri also brought up the now-famous scene where, while intimidating a character played by Hank Azaria, Pacino’s Hanna offers an exclamatory explanation for how he got into this mess: “SHE’S GOT A GREAT ASS! And you got your head… ALL THE WAY UP IT” (The amped-up crowd was more than prepared to yell out this line and others before the movie started.)

According to Azaria, this was an ad-lib, and so the reaction Mann captured and left in the film — Azaria muttering “Jesus” in astonishment — was genuine. In other words, Azaria didn’t realize Pacino was going to do that. “How about this?” Pacino offered when presented with that version of events. “I didn’t know I was going to do it.”

Asked about the famous diner scene that brought the two leads together, Pacino compared comparing acting opposite De Niro to an intense tennis volley — “hitting the ball over the net” and waiting for it to come back. In a roundabout way, it explained De Niro’s polite reticence: He saves his best work for the camera, which, in that centerpiece scene, captures the subtleties of his eyes and micro-expressions.

Ebiri recently wrote a fascinating piece exploring this scene, and how much De Niro and Pacino bring to it, compared to an earlier dry run that featured different actors in a Mann-penned TV movie that he would later repurpose for Heat. It seems remarkable that anyone could have been underwhelmed by the quiet, lived-in, beautifully acted Pacino/De Niro meeting in Heat — that anyone failed to notice that this is a pantheon-level exchange.

So why does the movie play so much better for so many now? (Or, alternately, what the hell was wrong with people who shrugged at it in 1995?) Some of it may the way that familiar mannerisms can generate more affection with the passage of time. In 1995, Pacino doing his whisper-to-a-scream thing and De Niro grimacing through scenes of violence might have felt like stars defaulting to their personas. 26 and a half years later, neither of them is really a leading man anymore, and concerns that they might be working in archetypal modes for Heat feel churlish. Of course they’re archetypes!

A very real pleasure of the movie is watching Pacino and De Niro enliven those movie-world types with their personalities, complementing Mann’s meticulous procedural research. When Ebiri asked who might play these roles if Heat were cast today, Pacino suggested Timothée Chalamet — and, good as Chalamet can be, it’s a testament to how thoroughly Pacino and De Niro own these parts that it wasn’t clear whether Pacino was making a sincere suggestion or an affectionate joke.

As the movie played, the love for these characters occasionally threatened to meme-ify and distort a melancholy, reflective story in real time, with the audience cheering and whooping at now-classic moments: De Niro’s “I’m talking to an empty telephone,” Pacino’s weirdo riffs (“GIMME ALL YA GOT!”), and so on. The movie fights off a Rocky Horror-style experience with sheer expansiveness; as Ebiri pointed out, the movie’s ensemble is rich with great actors, lead and character alike, afforded grace notes — usually tragic. Mann has an eye for iconography, but he also seems aware that iconography can’t save us in the end.

Heat Stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino Reveal the Origins of the “Great Ass” Scene
Jesse Hassenger

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