Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996)

The Al Pacino season at the BFI has showcased his best work, but it can be difficult to get a sense of what Pacino is like when viewed through the fictional lens of characters like Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico. Looking for Richard is Pacino’s directorial debut, digging deeper into American attitudes towards Shakespeare – specifically the influential historical drama Richard III. This is an insight into Pacino’s acting and his love for the stage. Informative, insightful and playful, Looking for Richard is a theatrical treat for film fans.

Led primarily by Pacino himself and his co-writer Frederic Kimball, they banter and argue about the text and purpose of the documentary. While Pacino is building and amassing footage to create a film to educate and illuminate a centuries old text, Fred is keen to prove how actors understand Shakespeare, while directors and academics don’t hold a candle to the perspective of the actor – who lives and breathes the roles.
Looking for Richardalso showcases some of the finest American acting talent. Signing up Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin after working on Glengarry Glen Ross, we see their portrayals of their respective roles effortlessly played. Baldwin particularly clearly has a finesse and style that perfectly suits the betrayed brother of the king (How else can I see Baldwin play Shakespeare?). Winona Ryder appears briefly as the widow, and future wife, of King Richard. Her grace and conflicted young woman is challenged and manipulated so well, it only highlights how strong an actress Ryder can be. It also breaks my heart to see Pacino and Ryder acting alongside each other. Francis Ford Coppola cast Winona Ryder as Michael Corleone’s daughter in The Godfather Part III, but she was taken ill shortly before production and replaced by Sofia Coppola.  Suffice to say, if she can convincingly act Shakespeare, Mary Corleone would be a walk in the park – and what a film it would’ve been.
Pacino cuts between the actors discussing the roles and their motivations to actors and academics who have built their careers on Shakespeare. Vanessa Redgrave tells us of the Iambic Pentameter providing a direct connection to the soul; John Gielgud reveals his belief that Americans are simply not cultured enough to truly understand Shakespeare while James Earl Jones equates Shakespeare with the word of God.
It’s hard to argue with Pacino. The relevance of Shakespeare, and crucially Richard III, is all around us. From the debt House of Cards owes to Richard III, to the politics at play in Game of Thrones, the influence is all around us. In fact, considering the story so far in House of Cards, watching the third act of Richard III may give the plot away for the third season of House of Cards next year.

Though difficult to break down, iconic and unforgettable lines hark back to this specific text. “Now is the winter of our discontent” through to “… a horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse”. Looking for Richard deconstructs and reveals the poetry, though an acquired taste, of the language. While shooting some of his most memorable roles (his beard from Carlito’s Way, the use of crew in the final act – borrowed from Michael Mann’s Heat), this is Al Pacino discussing his love for Shakespeare, the stage and acting itself. But now I recall others. Where is ‘Looking for Hamlet’ starring Jude Law or David Tennant? Or Ian McKellan enlightening us with the words of King Lear? This is a fascinating documentary and, if you’ve ever been switched off by the Bard, this is your entrance into his work.
This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 17th March 2014

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