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Looking for Richard

Al Pacino undertook his self-produced documentary Looking for Richard (1996) for a few reasons: to explain something about the works of William Shakespeare to himself, certainly — but also to cast a light on the sort of vibrant drama that scholars tend to undermine with overly fussy terms while audiences, and Americans in particular, either understand in the most general sense or avoid outright. Like many actors, Pacino considers Shakespeare ideal for mass consumption. But he also thinks that Shakespeare should be very much for Americans, both to perform and appreciate. Hence, his four-year odyssey to capture a largely Stateside production of one of Shakespeare's important works. Notably, he avoided some of the easier targets in the canon — the tragic/ironic romance of Romeo and Juliet; the patriotic, action-packed Henry V; the comedy and sexual politics of The Merry Wives of Windsor or The Taming of the Shrew. All would have been perfectly suitable primers on accessible Shakespeare. Instead, Pacino had settled upon Richard III, which by many accounts is Shakespeare's most-produced play historically, and his second longest (ranking next-door to Hamlet on both scorecards). It's not quite as easy to say that Shakespeare's arch-antihero Richard Gloucester is quintessentially American, although he's certainly among the most complex characters to arrive on the Elizabethan stage, winning the audience's sympathy with little more than his shrewd, against-all-odds cunning and his bold plot to steal the crown of England and coronate himself King. It's also notable that only two major cinematic renditions of Richard III exist: Laurence Olivier's 1955 version and Richard Loncraine's 1995 future-shock update with Ian McKellen. Both are British; Hollywood had produced none. Richard may not be Shakespeare for the masses after all.

Aware that he had no opportunity to match Olivier's production, Pacino embarked upon Looking for Richard simply by recruiting fellow actors and shooting small excerpts on film, be it conversations, debates, table-readings, or informal scenes in casual settings. The process then gave way to a micro-budget, full-costume production of particular scenes and passages (primarily shot at Cloisters, the branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to Europe's middle ages). And in the interim, while Pacino was off making other movies, he also managed to lodge interviews with Shakespearean scholars, and even a few folks who might know a thing or two about putting on a show (including John Gielgud, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kenneth Branagh). The result is several things all at once. Looking for Richard is an authentic production of Shakespeare's popular historical work, distilled into four acts. It's a meditation on the value of the play, and of Shakespeare in general. It's a master class in acting, with several behind-the-scenes conversations illuminating how much thought and planning goes into this sort of production. It's a functional Cliff's Notes on the history behind the play and the action on stage. And it's a look at the very intuitive job of literary interpretation, where the actors and director do their best to determine exactly what motivations support each line of dialogue, and thus how the dialogue is best expressed. The fact that Pacino delivered this labor of love on the cheap is perhaps the only drawback to the experience. Despite being beautifully lit, the 16 mm film-source (blown up to 35mm) is hard to miss. And Pacino is simply so damn good at playing Richard that it's a bit painful to consider that an enclosed dramatic production wasn't created for those who would like to lose themselves in the story and the fine cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder. Nonetheless, Pacino relied on the graces of others to even get this much on screen (he recruited Spacey and Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross, while Michael Mann lent some of his film crew from Heat to shoot the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field just outside of L.A.). And if it were possible for Pacino to mount his own production, it's doubtful that this fly-on-the-wall look at Shakespeare in America ever would have emerged.

Fox's DVD release of Looking for Richard features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a reasonably good source-print, with monaural DD 2.0 audio. Extras include an "Epilogue" (22 min.) featuring new interviews with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. Available exclusively in Fox's four-disc "Pacino: An Actor's Vision" box-set.

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