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24 March 2006

Looking for Richard (1996)

Al Pacino (Richard III), Winona Ryder (Anne), Kevin Spacey (Buck- ingham), Alec Baldwin (Clarence)

Directed by Al Pacino

From Hollywood Video: "One-of-a- kind documentary chronicling an actors' search for meaning behind Shakespeare's Richard III."

As part of my Shakespeare project, I checked out this from the library well in advance of when I should receive Richard III on CD - sometime in May! This served as a gentle introduction...

Through a series of interviews, rehearsals, and discussions, Al Pacino revealed his personal search for the meaning and significance of Shakespeare, particularly the play The Life and Death of King Richard III, originally written in 1593. I found the concept interesting, in that it was not merely a rendition of the text, but its successes were limited.

Conceptually, this should have been a more engaging documentary. I like the idea of peeking behind the curtain to hear actors' opinions about the lines they say and the characters they inhabit. I was also curious about engaging with the history of this play in particular, in which Shakespeare vilified one particular English king in order to better praise Elizabeth I and her Tudor family line. Was Richard really a deformed madman? Does the truth matter when it makes for good drama? Why has his image persisted? These would have been interesting topics, but the historical nature of the play was left out almost entirely. Pacino and company took it as red that Richard was a deformed man, although the historical record is uncertain, and little of Shakespeare's intended audience - the court and subjects of Elizabeth I - was discussed.

Although Pacino consulted with a few very articulate academics about the historic characters and the importance of the play, actors were given precedent to offer their opinions and interpretations. During one discussion in particular, Pacino's co-producer said that Shakespeare cannot belong to academics because, ultimately, actors must bring the characters to life. True, but when Pacino needed iambic pentameter explained to him by five different people, and when the actors could not figure out if Edward IV's queen had one or two grown sons, the value of the academics became more obvious. I must say that Pacino himself came across as a little thick.

Numerous well-known actors and their less-famous theatrical counterparts discussed the tricks and rewards inherent in performing Shakespearian roles, but particularly the difficulty American actors seem to have in being taken seriously in such performances. However, their discussion stood at odds with contemporary films that some of these same actors were involved with at the time: Richard III (1995) featured Annette Benning and Robert Downey Jr. in fantastic roles (granted, as relatively low-born nobles - an intentional casting decision), Shakespeare in Love (1997) starred I-think-I'm-English Gwyneth Paltrow, Much Ado About Nothing (1993) saw Denzel Washington and Robert Sean Leonard stand toe-to-toe with Kenneth Branagh (but don't mention Keanu), as did Lawrence Fishburne in Othello (1995), and Romeo + Juliet (1996) further reinterpreted the wig-and-codpiece stage production and altogether ditched the idea of Shakespeare as an English-only domain.

The English may still hold sway on stage and in character roles, but as 1990s Hollywood realized the timelessness of Shakespearian drama and the need to retell these tales in new ways, the Royal Shakespeare Company-style performances have been forsaken on film - for better or for worse - in favor of modernizations and more well-known, American leads. For this reason, Looking for Richard came across as particularly dated, discussing the issue of "who gets to play Shakespeare" when that topic is no longer so relevant.

I digress. Aside from a few minor points brought up by the scholars, I found nothing substantial to take away from this documentary. Brief excerpts from interviews with Branagh, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, and Rosemary Harris should have been longer, because theirs contained an intriguing line of discussion - how does one become excited by Shakespeare? But the bulk of the film featured enactments of various scenes that seemed like some bizarre cross between "Homicide: Life on the Street" (read: extreme handheld cameras) and a high school production, with the more difficult lines edited and parsed in favor of Hollywood-lite, audience-friendly dialogue. And for all of the discussions about American actors doing Shakespeare, Baldwin and Ryder... blew. They simply were not up to the task. Even Pacino was too busy hamming and enjoying the sound of his own voice to truly sink himself into the role of Richard. Only Spacey (not suprisingly) and the two queens (Margaret, played by Estelle Parsons, and Elizabeth, played by Penelope Allen) escaped those tacky scenes with a sense of gravitas and vulnerability.

Overall, although this would not have been the case two months ago, the well-intentioned "Shakespeare for Every- one" approach left me bored and wishing for more depth.

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