Richard III, Al Too

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 acting stints 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; he 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 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 out references to Hamlet, usually to its disadvantage, as if he were 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, and 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-on-Avon to visit the Bard's birthplace and to the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. He takes his cameras into the Cloisters, a medieval museum in Manhattan where he also did some filming; and to Lincoln Center, where, unbelievably, two cops throw the crew out of a cafe 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 down time -- 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." In Pacino's ken, 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 jawbone with each other about every nook and cranny of their characterizations, but most of it is just patter. We might expect novelists, for example, to be able to articulate the essence of what they do; we have lesser expectations of actors. 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 British actors doing Shakespeare are so concerned to speak their lines mellifluously that they lose the passion behind the words. Vanessa Redgrave makes the point that the iambic pentameter rhythm 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.

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