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“The term icon is overused, but not tonight,” said Robert DeNiro from the stage of the inaugural American Icon Awards, where he was on hand to present a trophy to his longtime friend, colleague and friendly rival Al Pacino, who was being honored along with music titan Quincy Jones and boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
Pacino’s tribute had been kicked off at the start of the awards gala with a congratulatory video from filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who directed Pacino and De Niro in the upcoming Netflix film The Irishman; later in the evening at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, De Niro delivered a fond, lightly roast-y tribute to his fellow actor following a clip package filled with blistering Pacino screen moments from throughout his career.
“Looking at those clips from Al’s career, I can’t help but think, ‘How did I not get those parts?’” marveled De Niro, adding wryly. “I guess they were going for someone older.”
De Niro recalled first meeting Pacino in their early 20s when Pacino was dating De Niro’s “The Wedding Party” co-star Jill Clayburgh. “Al and I got to be friends over the years, hanging out from time to time, talking about work, life, whatever, competing viciously with each other for parts,” De Niro recalled. “Al’s career exploded with The Godfather and two years later in Godfather 2 Al reprised his role of Michael Corleone; I played the young old Vito Corleone in the flashbacks. In other words, I played Al’s father. And that’s when I think I became a father figure to Al, and he’s looked up to me in that way ever since.”
“Actually in Godfather 2 we were never onscreen together,” added De Niro. “We weren’t even on set together. That didn’t happen until 21 years later in the movie Heat, and in that movie Al’s character spends the whole time trying to take down my character, which when you think about it is really kind of a shitty thing to do your own father.”
“Over those 21 years between [us] we did about 50 movies and Al’s been in five Broadway plays — Shakespeare, David Mamet, David Rabe, Oscar While. Did you see him in Shakespeare’s Richard III?” De Niro asked, launching into a soliloquy from the play.
“‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by the son of York,” before pausing to add a loud “Hoo-ah!” — Pacino’s signature line from Scent of a Woman.
De Niro also touched on how for years both vied for the title of the top actor in Hollywood, with a hint of self-deprecation. “In many ways we’ve had parallel careers: we both started as theater actors, and one of the things that so impresses me about Al is that he keeps returning to the stage,” he offered. “Not me. Instead, I open restaurants. And each of us known for dramatic trilogies that defines the culture of our generation, Al with the three Godfathers, me with the three Fokkers.”
De Niro summoned his friend to the stage, offering up the Icon award with another classic Pacino screen quote, this time from Scarface: “Say hello to your little friend!”
Accepting a rousing ovation, Pacino received the honor warmly, even as he grasped to express himself. “I am so grateful for this honor — I feel humbled by it,” he said, “I’m not a man of many words, especially in these situations.”
So instead he relied on his craft, bringing the words of others to vivid, expressive life. From the stage he launched into a scene from playwright Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, then shifted gears into a verse from poet E. E. Cummings’ “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly Beyond,” and closed with a rousing delivery of the famed speech from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II — at one point Pacino had stepped fully away from the microphone, but still played to the back of the Beverly Hills ballroom.
After an introduction from Naomi Campbell, Jones took the stage with an upbeat dance shuffle. “You all sure know how to make an 86-year-old, bald-headed, short, double-brain-operated be-bopper smile,” he said, launching into a plea for renewed unity. “The era of I, me, mine is over. It’s time for we, us, they and our…I’ve traveling all my life, for 70 years, I speak 26 languages now, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Because once you learn 30, 40 words, it takes you to the food, it takes you to the music — everything! And it’s a great feeling being 86 feeling at home in every country in the world.”
“It saddens me today to see that the moral fiber of our country is being tested today like never before in history,” Jones added. “But I am and always will be an eternal optimist, and I believe from the bottom of my heart that as citizens of this world we can come together to resolve our difference, to make this world a better place for those who are less fortunate. That’s really what it’s about, because whatever ideological, cultural or geographical differences we may have, we have so much more in common as human beings…It’s time to come together.”
De Niro, too, touched on the cultural clashes of the moment, as has become his custom. “You didn’t think you were going to completely get away without a ‘Fuck Trump’ moment, did you?” he offered, to a chorus of supportive whoops and a smattering of derisive boos. “The producers of the American Icon Awards call it a tribute to individuals who lead America. Not so fast. The champ Evander Hollywood, my friend Quincy Jones and my lifelong compatriot Al Pacino don’t lead America. Maybe they should, but they do fill their own essential roles. People of great individual accomplishments who give us examples to look up to. They’ve earned our respect and admiration, and they deserve this tribute. On the other hand, the individual who purports to lead America is not worthy of any tribute. Unless you think of his impeachment and imprisonment as a sort of tribute. And that’s how you’d make America great again.”
The attendees — including Sylvester Stallone, Joe Mantegna, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, David Foster and Katherine McPhee, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Peter Facinelli, Barry Bostwick — also took in musical performances by Robin Thicke and Orange Is the New Black actress Jackie Cruz, and a stand-up set by actor/comedian Sebastian Maniscalco.
Holyfield, who was honored for his achievements in sports, told THR that he proudly accepted the title of icon. “I am very honored by all the things that I have gained because I grew up with a lifestyle of being told that I wouldn’t become anything, that I wouldn’t get out from where I came from,” the heavyweight champ explained. “My mama told me three things: sShe said, ‘You listen, follow the rules and don’t quit and that will allow you to get out.’ She told me that it might not allow me to get out as quickly as I would like, but I would get out and know how to stay out. That is pretty much what I have tried to live up to.”
Holyfield received his award from boxer Laila Ali, whose father Muhammed Ali was the ultimate icon, in the fighter’s eyes. “I remember not knowing many of the things that Ali had accomplished,” Holyfield said. “His whole concept was bringing people together, and it is just amazing that no one wants to give credit to a boxer for bringing people together. Fighting is what we do, but only in the ring.”
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