Saturday, December 13, 2008

Looking at Richard, One More Time

MADE GLORIOUS SUMMER BY THIS SON OF NEW YORK

Al Pacino’s 1996 film Looking for Richard addresses the perennial "problem" that Shakespeare presents for American actors: the film regularly contrasts the relative (or imagined) ease with which British actors bring Shakespearean materials to the stage with the degrees of anxiety suffered by their U. S. counterparts. Al Pacino’s vision of America and of American theater, however, has a decidedly New York cast to it. In the film, New York locations stand in for Shakespeare’s settings and New York actors embody his characters; they also represent American attempts to imitate and, in effect, to naturalize artistic traditions from the Old World. Through them, Pacino attempts to justify his personal interest in Shakespeare’s plays and his past experiments in staging them.

The film is, on one level, a curiously circumspect theatrical documentary. It stylistically participates in the "Making of" genre: the film recalls the kind of promotional trailer that takes viewers behind the scenes of a major release’s production. But here Pacino does not document the processes by which a full production of Shakespeare’s Richard III actually reaches the screen; instead, the investigation of sources, the consulting of critical expertise, the development of character, the glances at film technology and economics, and research into general audience interest are presented as primary objects of concern in themselves. The scenes from the actual play that are filmed do not exist independently from this documentary: they serve, more or less, as prompts for the processes of development upon which Pacino focuses most directly (Buhler 48-49). On the film’s surface, the preparation’s the thing, not the play--beginning with the actor’s attitudes toward Shakespeare and constantly returning to that theme.

An earlier experience with the play, however, is a major part of the preparation. An unacknowledged or, perhaps, simply assumed subject of this documentary is a 1979 Broadway stage production of Richard III, in which Pacino played the title role. In Looking for Richard, Pacino strategically plays the American naif, inexperienced in the ways of Shakespeare. Behind that persona lurks the seasoned veteran of the boards, whose performance as Richard was almost universally savaged by New York critics. Walter Kerr famously dismissed the staging as "Richard of Third Avenue"--in his view, a preposterously New York take on Shakespearean material. Pacino’s film endeavors to rebut such criticism, tacitly commemorating the Cort Theatre production and overtly celebrating his native city.

The 1979 cast included Penelope Allen as Lady Anne; Frederic Kimball in several roles, including the Bishop of Ely; and Larry Bryggman as Lord Stanley and the Earl of Derby. Allen had worked with Pacino previously in films, playing a hostage in the New York-based Dog Day Afternoon; in Looking for Richard, she assumes the role of Queen Elizabeth and provides a memorable defense, both impassioned and canny, for the political acumen of the Woodvilles. Bryggman again portrays Stanley in the film, while Kimball reprises his performance as the Bishop of Ely and serves as Pacino’s confidant and sounding-board.

Such New York landmarks as the Cloisters Museum, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and Central Park (especially the amphitheater used for "Shakespeare in the Park" performances) figure prominently in the film. Just as important are the city’s quotidian sights and sounds, ranging from a pickup game on an outdoor basketball court to an oppressive cocktail party. The street scenes are crucial, as Pacino and Kimball debate points of interpretation during cab rides and enact scenes in front of buildings. The two also engage passers-by in interviews which alternately demonstrate the attitudinal obstacles facing the American actor of Shakespeare and offer multi-ethnic, often distinctly American insights into the plays.

One sequence, in which a primarily Italian-speaking resident of the Bronx delightedly recognizes Pacino and then is abashed when asked more closely about Shakespeare, does both. Although Pacino and Kimball, along with most writers about the scene, think the man hasn’t attended a Shakespeare play or watched one on television because of lack of interest, the man is trying to explain that he doesn’t feel qualified for Shakespeare: "I no study," he confides at one point, indicating that he--like his interrogators--keenly feels a need for preparation. He knows enough, however, to stop them and the audience short with a perfectly delivered quotation of "To be or not to be, that is the question."

Another sequence, featuring an African-American street person, asserts the primacy of feeling in Shakespeare’s language. Shakespeare, by implication, is well-suited for "the Method," the adaptation of Stanislavsky’s approach to performance so closely identified with New York’s Actors Studio. As Douglas Lanier has observed (45), the film regularly contrasts American acting styles with aspects of English classical training--most entertainingly and somewhat unfairly captured in the late John Gielgud’s deliciously and characteristically tactless suggestion that American actors don’t spend enough time in museums, that they are insufficiently grounded in high culture. The film also seizes upon comments that endorse core principles of the Method, as delivered by English actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Rosemary Harris. In rehearsals and fully staged scenes from Richard III, the film features several Actors Studio alumni: Estelle Parsons, Kevin Spacey (as Buckingham), Alec Baldwin (as Clarence), and Aidan Quinn (as Richmond). Other recipients of Actors Studio training who appear include Harris Yulin (as Richard’s brother Edward), Paul Gleason, and Viveca Lindfors. Another New York theatrical institution represented in the film is the Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp. Parsons--who does a brief, but vivid turn as Queen Margaret (a character absent from the 1979 production)--has directed plays for the Public Theater’s "Shakespeare on Broadway for Schools" project. The film’s Hastings, Kevin Conway, has long been associated with "Shakespeare in the Park."

Of the principal actors in Looking for Richard, only Winona Ryder does not have a strong affiliation with the New York stage--she received training at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater--which may, in Pacino’s view, be another form of vulnerability for his Richard to prey upon. As Neil Sinyard reports (64-65), Ryder’s dialogue had to be dubbed over later by another actress, Kate Burton, the daughter of Richard Burton.

Scenes not shot in New York are associated with disasters small and great. Pacino visits the recreated Globe Theatre in London, only to find it still in the midst of construction; he goes to the shrine that is Stratford-upon-Avon, only to be asked "what the fuck" he knows about the Bard and later to set off fire alarms in what the town presents as Shakespeare’s birthplace. Richard’s tragic end is also located outside of Gotham: the battle scenes were shot in Simi Valley, in southern California, as Pacino spent time away from a Hollywood shoot. At the time these scenes were filmed, Aidan Quinn was one of the most recognizable screen actors among all the performers Pacino had recruited for the project. Casting Quinn as Richard’s nemesis, Richmond, suggests how Pacino’s Hollywood connections gave the critics of the 1979 production further ammunition.

As it underscores the importance of New York in shaping Pacino’s view of acting and of Shakespeare, Looking for Richard also argues that Hollywood can nevertheless contribute to an understanding of Richard III. There is more than a little of The Godfather in this film’s sense of the "internecine family warfare" (as Kimball explains it) at work between Lancastrians and Yorkists, and within the York clan itself. At the heart of Pacino’s film is the desire to transform "Richard of Third Avenue," Kerr’s sneer, into an assertion of cultural weight and emotional resonance. In Pacino’s presentation, that specific New York address has the potential to give a local habitation and a name to what might otherwise remain for American actors and audiences an airy nothing.

WORKS CITED

Buhler, Stephen M. Shakespeare in the Cinema: Ocular Proof. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Lanier, Douglas M. "Now: The Presence of History in Looking for Richard." Post Script 17.2 (Fall/Winter 1998): 39-55.

Sinyard, Neil. "Shakespeare Meets The Godfather: The Postmodern Populism of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard." In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siecle. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, editors. London: Macmillan, 2000.

THIS ESSAY PREVIOUSLY APPEARED ON THE WEBSITE FOR POOR YORICK -- the late, lamented Shakespeare emporium and esteemed partner of Flatwater Shakespeare.

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