For a brief and tantalizing moment on the Castro Theatre stage last night, a sly Al Pacino appeared set to go Cruising. The house was packed and primed for the U.S. premiere of Wilde Salome, the actor-director's powerhouse amalgam of documentary, stage production, and film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's harrowing 1891 play about privilege, power, desire, and revenge. Flown up from L.A. for the event -- a benefit for the GLBT Historical Society -- Pacino summoned a sweet-spot memory of San Francisco before setting the stage for his movie.
"I played at the Curran Theatre many years ago in [David Mamet's] American Buffalo," he recalled with his trademark rasp. "A very controversial film I made also opened then."
Pacino smiled as a wave of chuckles and random applause drifted toward the stage. The audience had instantly summoned the 1980 image of a wiry, butch Pacino as an undercover detective hunting a serial killer in Greenwich Village's queer underground and, unexpectedly, discovering an appetite for leather. William Friedkin's Cruising was panned on release as a sordid, unappetizing crime story. Mainstream audiences didn't want to see the movie star who played Frank Serpico and Michael Corleone ogling guys in a seedy bar, while the gay community attacked the film for propagating negative stereotypes.
Cruising is now ranked with the great, gritty New York movies of the 1970s. Pacino's risk-taking performance -- just five years after Dog Day Afternoon, no less, which is about a gay bank-robber -- is unimaginable for today's image-obsessed male stars. Any lingering detractors of either the movie or the eight-time Academy Award nominee were assuredly not at the Castro last night.
Pacino could have milked the moment, but he didn't. He quickly (too quickly, for my money) revealed he was referring to Scarface, which was summarily ignored by the Academy Awards (on the basis of it being a violent, unappetizing crime story). Outraged at the injustice, a few passionate fans had greeted the actor one day at the Curran with a homemade, oversize Oscar statuette.
"It's in my living room in New York," Pacino declared. "When people say, 'Where's your Oscar?,' I say [pointing], 'It's there, right there.'"
The 10 minutes or so he spent on stage charming the crowd and paying tribute to Oscar Wilde revealed, once and for all, the secret of Pacino's success. He possesses the magnetism, energy, and self-assurance of a movie star; the respect for the source material, his collaborators, and the audience of a great actor; and the gruff likeability of a regular guy.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he said about his obsession with Salome, which started when he saw Steven Berkoff's London production 15 years ago, "and I kept trying to find out. 'If you persist in your folly, one day you will be wise.' Well, I don't think that has happened yet."
Pacino confided that he had neglected to skim the program before the performance that night in London.
"I thought Steven could maybe introduce me to the writer," he said. "When I saw it was Oscar Wilde, well, no chance."
The actor was familiar with Wilde's novels and other plays, to be sure, but not Salome. Pacino was instantly attracted to the role of King Herod, playing him as a tipsy, fey, spoiled and jaded monarch in the 2006 L.A. stage show directed by Estelle Parsons and the film adaptation he directed simultaneously on soundstages and in the Mojave Desert.
Alongside gripping chunks of those works, Wilde Salome (which is awaiting distribution) wisely includes enough self-aware humor, mostly at Pacino's expense, to offset Salome's unflinching depiction of horrific human nature (courtesy of Jessica Chastain's mesmerizing performance, bristling with serpent intelligence, in the title role). There's also a wisp of mirth, or rather outright strangeness, when Pacino accentuates his New York accent in the garb of an ancient Roman king.
Last night's screening -- the U.S. premiere -- coincided with the 130th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's visit to San Francisco, and Mayor Ed Lee was sufficiently roused to sign a document declaring Wilde Salome Day in our town. Pacino accepted the proclamation with sincere appreciation, then he bounded off the stage and up the aisle, escorted out the door by the crowd's equally sincere eruption of affection and admiration.