AFI Threw a Classy Awards Luncheon, and Al Pacino Hijacked It

Not that there’s anything wrong with Pacino hijacking any event he feels like hijacking

Al Pacino AFI Awards Lunch 2023

A funny thing happened on the way to the American Film Institute saluting its picks for the Top 10 films and television programs of 2022 at its annual AFI Awards Luncheon on Friday.

Al Pacino showed up.

Mind you, Pacino was an invited guest who took the usual spot the AFI gives to an actor to deliver the final comments at the annual event; it’s not like he was crashing the party or anything.

Then again, he did kind of crash into the party, upending a sedate and classy event with a rambling, ramshackle and uproarious speech that eventually got around to him telling the story of his trip to the Oscars in 1974.

What exactly it had to do with the best filmed entertainment of 2022 was unclear, but it was Al Pacino and he has the right – and most certainly the ability – to hijack any event he wants in the most entertaining of ways.  

The AFI’s annual luncheon is an easygoing ritual that AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale described as “no envelopes, no speeches, no sweat.” In other words, the awards have already been announced and all the creators have to do is show up, mingle, have lunch and watch some artfully assembled film clips that make a good case for the honorees.

(The “rationales” that describe why each work is being honored are, to be honest, a little florid, but so was Pacino and everybody loved him.)

For 2022, the television honorees were “Abbott Elementary,” “The Bear,” “Better Call Saul,” “Hacks,” “Mo,” “Pachinko,” “Reservation Dogs,” “Severance,” “Somebody Somewhere” and “The White Lotus,” while the film awards went to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Fabelmans,” “Nope,” “She Said,” “Tár,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “The Woman King” and “Women Talking,” plus a special award for the otherwise-ineligible (because it’s not a U.S. production) “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

In the opening, Pacino-less stretches of the event, guests from all of the films mingled, with mutual-admiration societies springing up all around the room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Steven Spielberg told Quinta Brunson that he loved “Abbott Elementary,” “She Said” stars Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan huddled with “Banshees” director Martin McDonagh and star Barry Keoghan, “Nope” actor Steven Yeun traded compliments with “Severance” star Adam Scott and photographers swarmed in the crowded room whenever two people of note stood next to each other. Out in the lobby, the center of gravity in the room changed when Disney’s Bob Iger and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos chatted for a moment.

AFI lunch - Luhrmann Spielberg Gazzale
Baz Luhrmann, Steven Spielberg, Bob Gazzale (American Film Institute)

One somber note came when Baz Luhrmann and the team from “Elvis” arrived less than 24 hours after the announcement of the death of Lisa Marie Presley, who had been vocal in her support of the film about her father. Luhrmann wore a shell-shocked look, while actor Austin Butler, who played Elvis and grew very close to the Presley family, opted not to appear at an awards event so soon after the death.

Gazzale began the program by asking for a moment of silence to support unnamed honorees “who attend with a heavy heart,” before moving on to the film clips that are the heart of the show – first a “March of Time” reel that started in 1902 and then jumped forward 10 years at a time, going into a fast-paced montage that mixes all the work honored by the AFI for 2022.

The clips that followed were scenes rather than trailer-like montages, a more effective way to spotlight the films and programs. And then Gazzale called up Pacino, who spent the first five minutes or so talking about why watching all those great clips made him think that he shouldn’t tell the story he’d planned to tell because it would throw off the tone of the afternoon and perhaps be too offensive.

He said that a few times, then slipped into the story anyway. It started with him setting the scene from earlier in his career – when, he said, drugs and alcohol “were my feed. They helped me through a lot of stuff, I have to admit.” A pause. “I’m not advocating it, please! I’m just talkin’ here!”

With the scene set, he described reluctantly going to an Oscars ceremony with his girlfriend at the time, Diane Keaton. (He didn’t mention the year, but it was clearly 1974, when he was nominated for “Serpico.”) “Diane sat on one side of me, and the great Jeff Bridges sat on the other,” he said. “I was poppin’ Valium, poppin’ all sorts of things. I was already drunk when I got there.”

In that frame of mind, Pacino said he sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the show went on – and just before it hit the one-hour mark, he said, “I turned to Jeff Bridges in my stupor, and I asked him, ‘I guess they’re not going to get to Best Actor?’

“And he said, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘The hour’s up.’

“He said, ‘What hour?’

“I said, ‘The hour of the show.’

“And he said, ‘It’s three hours, man.’ Well, then I was in the stages of grief.”

Pacino said he went to the Oscars convinced he wasn’t going to win, but gradually a nagging thought came to him through his drug-induced haze: “What if I do win?”

“You know I can’t make it to the f—ing stage,” he said. “I am so gone.”

Eventually, they got around to the Best Actor category and read the envelope: Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger. “

“Well, you couldn’t hold me in the seat,” he said, shouting, “I was so f—ing happy!”

Pacino’s speech got more sentimental for the last couple of minutes, but at that point it barely mattered. On an afternoon devoted to the best of 2022, everybody in the room would go home with indelible memories of a stoned Al Pacino at the 1974 Academy Awards.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.