Niall Anderson watches Al Pacino deconstruct Oscar Wilde’s most difficult play, and himself
In John Lahr’s recent New Yorker profile, Al Pacino comes across as highly intelligent, funny and driven, with an appetite for work that would shame someone half his age. He also comes across as something of a mystery to himself. ‘I feel like an outsider who got on the inside, so I’m inside out, if you know what I mean. Or outside in,’ he says. Pacino considers that his vexed outsider status gives him an affinity with Oscar Wilde – a ‘kindred spirit’ of ‘mischievousness’ and ‘subversiveness’. Pacino has certainly delivered subversive performances over the years (his aggressive underplaying nearly got him kicked off The Godfather), but the idea of him knowingly trading in mischief is genuinely illuminating. At the very least it gives us a new tool by which to judge some of his more eccentric outings. You may have thought he was merely shouting his head off at dead-eyed sex-plank Keanu Reeves at the climax of The Devil’s Advocate, but you’d be wrong. He was engaged in mischief.
If mischief helps explain Pacino’s fondness for and identification with Oscar Wilde, it doesn’t quite explain what drew him to Salomé, by some distance Wilde’s least mischievous play. A florid concoction of pre-Christian piety and fin de siècle decadence, Salomé is Wilde in the rueful, vaguely hungover mode he usually reserved for his children’s stories. Its centrepiece is an erotic dance performed by the 16-year-old Salomé for her stepfather King Herod, at the conclusion of which Salomé demands the severed head of the captive John the Baptist so that she might kiss it. Things get grimmer from there.
Salomé has the glamour and difficulty of a work whose author was not quite in control of all his effects. Many of its paradoxes and provocations are familiar from elsewhere in Wilde, but they’re presented more starkly here – almost to the extent that they overwhelm the characters. It’s a play that you conduct more than direct, taking care that the smaller voices are audible within the harsh music that the big themes whip up. Enter Al Pacino, with his unique approach to volume control.
By his own account, Pacino has been obsessed with Salomé since seeing Steven Berkoff’s 1989 production in London. Pacino first acted in Salomé himself in 1992, and has returned to it on a number of occasions since. In 2006, he was given the opportunity to direct his own version of the play in Los Angeles. A filmed performance of that production has now surfaced under the title Salomé, along with an engagingly personal quasi-documentary of Pacino’s journey towards directing it, Wilde Salomé.
Both films are eccentric in their own way, but it takes the documentary to point up the true eccentricity of Pacino’s take on the play, which is that it isn’t really his take. It’s an attempt to recreate the atmosphere and fervour of Berkoff’s version – with Pacino himself in the middle of the action as Herod. This results in a curiously flat production, quickened by some prime Pacino mischief. His decision to play Herod as bisexual is maybe justified by the text’s overtones of sensual pantheism. His decision to play him with the voice of Milhouse out of The Simpsons is of an altogether different order of strangeness.
To be fair to Pacino, he didn’t come by this interpretation of the character just out of cussedness. Among other things, Wilde Salomé is a record of all the research he put in. He visits places Wilde lived. He has nice on-camera chats with Tony Kushner, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal. He appears genuinely enthusiastic about Wilde and Salomé, without always seeming too keen on his own production. He is witty, smart and engaging. You come away from the film with an immense liking for Pacino, for the unforced charisma he displays when playing himself.
It is a rule of Wilde studies, however, that one mustn’t be too earnest, except when Wilde himself has given his permission (as in late, lachrymose works like The Ballad of Reading Gaol). Broadly, the trend is to stress the carefree verbal assurance that makes Wilde’s scrupulous ironies palatable. There are many pitfalls to this approach, and Pacino skirts none of them. The first is to refer to Wilde as ‘Oscar’, as though he’s just left the room and will be back in a minute. The second is overlaughing. Wilde’s best jokes and epigrams are so well known that even children in the womb are sick of hearing them. The third is to attempt an impersonation of Wilde’s manner. Pacino gets away with this in a voiceover recitation of De Profundis, but there’s also a scene where he appears in a velveteen jacket, with a floppy hanky in his hand and a gay carnation in his buttonhole. This is a charmingly unguarded moment in its own way, but it does make you wonder anew what the point of the whole exercise is. (Among the established pitfalls of discussing Wilde, Pacino even manages to invent a new one: seeking the opinion of Bono.)
For all the willed strangeness of Pacino’s approach, there is definite method behind it. Many productions of Salomé are a mere preamble to Salomé’s dance – the audience are voyeurs before there’s anything really to view. By giving Herod so many visible tics and idiosyncrasies, Pacino attempts to lend both ballast and background to Salomé’s final cruelty. It also puts Herod very much in the lineage of Pacino’s portrayals of Shylock and Richard III: wounded wiseguys who seem to hold all the cards, until suddenly somebody pulls a fifth ace. But as you watch Pacino’s Herod being ravished by Salomé (a young and impossibly beautiful Jessica Chastain), as you see the almost second-by-second means by which Pacino constructs his character, you wonder at all the energy he expends on small gestures. It is not a case of less being more. Less is less. More is more. But enough is enough.
Salomé and Wilde Salomé are both on limited general release in the UK through Emfoundation Film. Al Pacino will appear in a live Q&A with Stephen Fry at the BFI on September 21.