Looking for Richard is Al Pacino's shaggy, nutty, wheedling documentary about a staging of Shakespeare's Richard III and the art of performance. Filmed between jobs over a period of several years, it shows us Pacino in a flurry of guises. We see him as Richard, of course, but also as "himself" -- which most often turns out to be a scraggly, bearded roustabout.
For movie and theater audiences accustomed to watching Pacino's dagger stare and cloaked intensity, the actor in this movie is something else again: He's bumptious and glib and more than a little wacky. With his baseball cap turned around and his mouth motoring, he's like a Bardic, superannuated Dead End Kid. He draws his viewers and his cast of well-known actors -- and even people off the street -- into an extended bull session about Shakespeare: How can you can explain his power? How do you read his lines meaningfully? Pacino has already played Richard three times on the stage, so Richard III is his focus -- though he opens and closes the film with a passage from The Tempest and keeps hauling in references to Hamlet, usually to its disadvantage, as if he was downgrading a competing brand. (We are told that Richard III is the most performed of Shakespeare's plays. Take that, Prince of Denmark.)
The snippets and occasional extended scenes from Richard III were staged in full costume for the film and feature some big-ticket names: Kevin Spacey as Buckingham, Alec Baldwin as Clarence, Winona Ryder as Lady Anne, Aidan Quinn as Richmond, Estelle Parsons as Queen Margaret, Kevin Conway as Hastings. Pacino interviews Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosemary Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Brook, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, and James Earl Jones.
Accompanied by his cohort and confidant Frederic Kimball, who "co-wrote" the film and functions as a kind of Falstaffian Ed McMahon, he makes his way pilgrimage-style to Stratford to visit the Bard's birthplace and to the reconstructed Globe Theater in London. He takes his cameras into the South Bronx; into the Cloisters, a medieval museum in Manhattan where he also did some filming; and into Lincoln Center, where, unbelievably, two cops throw him out for lacking a movie permit. Are New York's Finest still pissed about Serpico? (Pacino handles the roust with abrasive panache.)
The movie is about Shakespeare, but even more it's about Pacino's bewildered passion for acting. He's like a junkie celebrating the maddening glory of his fix. It's not just the craft of performance that turns him on, it's the whole dizzy realm of the actor's life. For Pacino, life is what you do to work yourself up to a performance. Time spent away from the stage or the cameras is downtime -- unless it's grist for acting. Pacino has said in interviews that he subscribes to the philosophy of Karl Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas, that you are only living if you're "on the wire." For Pacino, acting is a high-flying tightrope act, and the highest flying is on the stage, in Shakespeare.
Which is not to say that Looking for Richard is rich with insights into Pacino's working methods. Like most American actors, including most great ones, he's inarticulate about what he does. To some extent, he's even pleased with this state of affairs -- you can see in the way he yowls and rambles about Richard that he prizes his own "primitiveness." Actors enjoy elucidating their craft, yet, at the same time, they don't really want to know how they do what they do. They want to preserve the mystery because in that mystery is the sense of discovery that makes great acting possible. Actors, particularly those trained in the Method, love to jaw with each other about every nook and cranny of their characterizations, but most of it is just patter. You might expect novelists, for example, to be able to articulate the essence of what they do, but for actors we have lesser expectations. It may be that the kinesthetic nature of acting, with its connections to the subconscious and the mysteries of personality and mimicry, make it inexplicable to most of its practitioners.
In Looking for Richard, the British actors and directors interviewed are invariably more articulate than their American counterparts, and yet their repeated point is that Brits often lose the sense of their performance by overanalyzing. Peter Brook talks about how the British doing Shakespeare are so concerned to speak the lines mellifluously that they lose the passion behind the lines. Vanessa Redgrave makes the point that the iambic pentameter rhythms in Shakespeare should not be strictly enforced: "You must find the iambic pentameter of the soul. Should you find that reality, all the rest will fall into place."
When Pacino is casting about with his fellow actors for "ideas" on how to play Richard III, he reminds you of every drawn-out theater-study experience you had to endure in high school or college. The inadvertent comedy in Looking for Richard is that some of the finest actors around, such as Pacino and Spacey, don't really have that much more to bring to the party than a slumming theater-arts grad student.
You see Pacino whipping himself into shape for the role and you think, "What good can come of this?" And then, when you see him playing Richard, some of it is indeed overwrought and underdone. But some of it, such as his wooing of Lady Anne or his speech that begins, "I am so far in blood ...," is great, and you realize that a lot of Pacino's jet-powered ditheriness is what he uses to achieve liftoff. It's what he finally clears away in order to effect a sense of tense repose in his acting. The irony in Looking for Richard is that we're looking at the flibbertigibbety wellsprings of an actor who has achieved prominence through the force of his stillnesses -- most notably in The Godfather movies.
But the high-wire haywire aspect of Pacino's personality can sometimes be his redemption as an actor. Those zonked stillnesses in such films as Bobby Deerfield or Cruising can be murder, whereas in Dog Day Afternoon Pacino's high-flying act seems to express everything he can do as an actor. It's probably his best performance and, on the evidence of Looking for Richard, also the one closest to his temperament. Of course, he doesn't always score when he's flying high: As the mayor in City Hall I thought, his grandstanding was none too grand. But Pacino takes risks that pay off. And he wants to be seen as a risk-taker -- that's one of the reasons he made Looking for Richard. The subtext of the film is: "I may be a movie star, but I am serious about what I do."
For Pacino, that seriousness takes the form of theater work. There is still a cultural snobbery loose in the land that says stage actors are superior to movie actors, and Pacino plays into that snobbery. He may not be aware that his finest acting has been not on the stage but on film. (He's currently starring in Eugene O'Neill's one-man show Hughie on Broadway.) I've seen him several times onstage, most memorably on Broadway in American Buffalo, and he's been powerful. But I would suggest that Pacino's particular brooding brand of greatness requires a larger arena than the proscenium arch. Onstage his force can seem blocky and undifferentiated, but in the movies, especially in close-up, he can really take you on a soul dive.
In Looking for Richard Pacino is on a quest for "the meaning of Shakespeare in our lives." He goes up to people on the street, asks them about his plays, and for the most part gets foggy responses. He explains to anyone who will listen the ways in which the Bard can be made accessible to general audiences. But Pacino's mission here, I think, is as misplaced as all those commentators who try to make Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Othello resonate for us by making their agonies "relevant." (Othello/O.J. was a big fave last year.) Shakespeare experienced in this way becomes a kind of magisterial guidance counselor. The reduction of his plays to the standard contours of grand passion -- as a way to inveigle bored audiences unresponsive to the beauties of language -- is patronizing. (Film adaptations of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and an updated Romeo and Juliet will all be out by year's end. The honors English field-trip brigade must be on red alert.)
Pacino reconciles his love for Shakespeare with the popular artist's dream of Shakespeare for the masses. And it's a good dream. But the masses today aren't the masses of the Globe Theater. Like it or not, the greatness of Shakespeare's language will never be accessible to the vast majority of the mass audience -- or the high-art minority audience either. Pacino approaches Shakespeare on the most melodramatic and straightforward of levels because that's how he makes sense of his performance. He needs to think melodrama in order to get at drama. But if we are to base our discussion of Shakespeare on how "exciting" and "relevant" he is to our lives, we are vastly diminishing him. Pacino -- not as an actor, but as a proselytizer for Shakespeare -- is as fussy and well-meaning and misguided as those teachers who encouraged us to find parallels between Romeo and Juliet and our senior prom.