Saturday, April 30, 2016

Looking for Richard

Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996) Early on, actor Al Pacino is waiting in the wings, waiting to go on-stage in a small theater. He peeks through the curtain, only to see William Shakespeare sitting (alone) in the middle of the theater, waiting to see his performance. He lets loose one long crudity of indeterminate origin (Anglo Saxon? Flemish? Germanic?) that the Bard never used in one his plays, comedy or tragedy (although he did skirt around it quite a bit). It's as good a view as any of actor intimidation, looking at a text and being confronted with the mystery of what the author might have meant and of that same author's passing judgment on any possible misunderstanding.

Plus, Shakespeare was a director...and actor. And his voice (being dead and all) is silent. Except for what is there on the page. The actor is left, very much alone on-stage.
Looking for Richard
is a unique film. A documentary (and barely that—a docu-drama? docu-tragedy? vanity project?), not a staged play, of Al Pacino "finding his way" through Shakespeare's "Richard III," which, as Pacino's friend and co-conspirator
Frederick Kimball describes it, is "Shakespeare's most popular play" (as it's the most often produced). 

The movie is, at once, enormously ego-driven—it's all about Al and how cutely eccentric he is—but it is also just as much a display of humility and quite generous in its company-feel. For as much as Pacino is ever-present in the film, he is rarely alone and almost never in the position of authority—he's always the inquisitor. One rarely sees actors seeking, rehearsing "in the raw" (usually it's staged to make the process seem seamless), but Looking for Richard frequently has impassioned table-reads in which subtext is debated, and that is interesting. Pacino is enthusiastic about exploring the complexities of the play, especially in regards to the other characters involved in this supposedly "one-man play", and he gives a lot of screen-time to not only the actors picked for his own iteration (like Alec Baldwin, Kevin Conway, Winona Ryder, Penelope Allen, Estelle Parsons and especially Kevin Spacey), but also interviews with other actors, in interviews, renowned for their mastery of the Bard: John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones, Rosemary HarrisViveca Lindfors, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline.
That's a cast bigger than most Shakespeare plays—with maybe the exception of "Julius Caesar"—and corralling them is a tough endeavor for the movie's stated task, which is to make Shakespeare accessible to the man on the street (and the "man on the street" interviews are fascinating, veering between the extraordinarily articulate to the kid who might like it if it were a first-person shooter). But, the way to make Shakespeare accessible is for it to be performed well. And so the fallback becomes the thespian exploration of character and relationships, breaking it down, getting inside the skin of the character through their expressed words. 'Twas ever thus.
With all the advice and words of wisdom, the one who comes off the worst is Pacino. He's excellent in most scenes playing Richard, but once he ascends the throne, he drops the measured wiliness too far, affecting a smirking blitheness while giving orders of "head-offing," that seems to indicate he has forgotten all the history that has gotten him to where he's sitting, and with little regard to the impression that would leave with any Lancaster that might want to snuff out that son of York.  Bad playing on both the actor's and the character's part. One should be leavening the other...if it is to be true with what has gone before.

Especially with the exceptional way Pacino has played the part up to that point.
But, overall, despite that hump, the interpretations are a success, lending understanding to the feud between the Yorks and Lancasters, an empire-defining feud that has long since past in its importance, other than in providing lessons on the dangers of acquisitiveness. Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years past his passing, bringing us cautionary tales that still resonate and are given new breath by whatever voice utters those words. It doesn't matter what voice, in what era—the plays the thing wherein they capture our conscience.

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