I watched Al Pacino's remarkable documentary, Looking For Richard, last night and it spoke to me on so many levels it's difficult to know where to start. I'm reminded of Alec Baldwin's quote on the opening page of David Mamet's book about acting, True and False, "I agree with virtually nothing Mr. Mamet says in this book and I think every actor in the world should read it." Baldwin, incidentally, is also in Pacino's Looking For Richard.
I have always been fascinated with 'process,' for lack of a better word. How an actor gets to where he's going. When I was younger it was the most important thing in the world. One thing about Method work that is unfailingly useful is it lets actors communicate easier because of the universal language. This seems a small thing, this agreement over language, but in the end, as I recently discovered with my own play, Praying Small, it can come in very handy. Actors and directors should have a common reference so as to be able to communicate with each other. Otherwise, terms that might mean one thing when using a certain process can mean something else to another actor. Stanislavski's three books do at least one thing well...they formalize a language.
Looking For Richard is a great example of a gaggle of actors trying to grasp a complicated piece of stage writing and all be on the same page, sometimes literally.
Pacino had essayed the role of Richard III three times before making the film. The final one being his much-acclaimed star-turn on Broadway. Clearly, he has had a lifetime fascination with the role and the play. Olivier called it "the closest thing to a one-man show Shakespeare ever wrote." That's probably one of the reasons Pacino likes it so much.
It's one of Shakespeare's more complicated plays. Not so much for the acting, like in Hamlet, but for the Lancastrian-Yorkist relationships and political history involved.
In the film Pacino is trying to make the audience understand how he, Pacino himself, approached the role and interpreted the character. He surrounds himself with a crew of savvy actors - Baldwin, Harris Yulin, Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons, Kevin Conway and many others. Even poor Winona Ryder, looking completely lost, turns up for a scene as Lady Anne.
On another level Pacino wants to present the play so the average American can understand it. Not sure why he thinks this is important, but he does. Shakespeare was, of course, meant to be understood by the average blue-collar, or more appropriately, blue-tighted guy in 1590, but not so much in 2010. And Richard, we must remember, was early Shakespeare, written when he was a young man, still trying to master his craft. Trying to make Shakespeare readily accessible to the masses in 2010 is daunting, to say the least. To bring The Bard and his soaring poetry to the inner city streets of NYC or Chicago or LA...well, that's as doomed to failure as the civil rights policies of Johnson forty years ago. And that comparison is meant to be apropos, in case you're wondering.
But I digress. Back to this process thing. I was struck dumb as I watched this group of very fine actors sitting around a table and endlessly discussing the play and its ramifications. Hour after hour they would talk. And talk passionately. Trying to understand what Shakespeare "wanted." I remember a quote again from Olivier in his book 'On Acting.' He says at one point, nine times out of ten when a young actor would tell him he couldn't find the "truth" of a certain scene or monologue, Olivier's constant advice would be to do the scene "twice as fast." The truth will come, he says, if you just stop pursuing it so relentlessly. In other words, he was saying, just do it. Stop thinking so much and just do it. The revelations will present themselves. Again, it is important to remember that Shakespeare DID NOT WRITE subtext. He said exactly what he meant at all times. And Method work is built on subtext. This is one of the reasons Brando had such a dickens of a time with Marc Antony in Julius Caesar so many years ago...he was searching for the subtext and couldn't find it. It was all cleared up one day when Geilgud, playing the role of Cassius in that film, pulled him aside and told him exactly that. Brando was aghast. But Brando being Brando, immediately grasped it and suddenly began giving an electric performance.
So what we have in the documentary is the Method Richard. Now, Al Pacino is one of the great American actors of all time, with or without his Method background. He is the cream that has risen to the top regardless of his approach. Unlike Brando, he has steadfastly remained true to his training throughout his life. It has served him well, needless to say. One simply can't argue with success. Brando, eventually and publicly, denounced Method work, saying Strasburg and his ilk taught him "nothing" that he didn't already know. The Actors' Studio for many decades held Brando up to be their shining example. Only years later was it revealed that Brando barely had anything to do with The Studio. In fact, he found Strasburg to be an "old windbag." His teacher of note, he admitted, was Stella Adler, not Lee Strasburg. And in turn, Adler is on record as saying, "I merely pushed him in the right direction. I taught him nothing."
Process. Approach. Style. It's all semantics in the end.
When I was rehearsing Praying Small recently, the director and I could not have been at further ends of the spectrum when it came to process. He simply couldn't understand that I was not the least bit interested in finding the "honesty" or "truth" of a scene or moment. It just didn't interest me because I knew it was there already. I didn't need to do anything to "find" it. It was never lost. Instead, I was far more concerned with discovering the physical "map" of the play. He would look at me agog and somewhat condescendingly as I simply said, "Okay, at this line I'll be here doing this and then when this line comes I'll be over here doing this in this manner." He found it appalling. I, on the other hand, was dead set against wasting invaluable rehearsal time endlessly talking about the play itself. I just wanted to do it. I knew that the playwright had already done all the "truth finding" FOR me...the playwright, in this particular instance, happened to be me. But that doesn't matter...it's the same with all plays. And in Richard III SHAKESPEARE has already done the homework...he's already FOUND the truth, the honesty, the moment to moment thought process. All the actor has to do is plot out his own personal road map. It is the same with every play written since the dawn of man. The writer has done the work. We, as actors, only have to google map quest and decide the quickest way to get where we're going. It's as simple as that.
In the final analysis, everyone is very good in the acting of the piece, particularly Kevin Spacey as the loyal but ambitious Buckingham, sort of the Secretary of State for President Richard. The actors, off and on, spent FOUR YEARS working on the piece. But it was like baking brownies from scratch and having them eventually taste exactly like the ones you can buy in a box and make in a half hour. Was the play better served because of the inordinate amount of time spent discussing it? Perhaps. But I doubt it. What if Pacino had gathered this same group of extraordinary actors together and said, "Okay, we have one week to do this." Would the final performance be that much different? I doubt it.
He constantly takes the camera to the streets and asks the average Joe walking down the sidewalk what he thinks of Shakespeare or Richard or Hamlet. The average Joe, not unexpectedly, repeatedly answers, "It's all gobbledeegook, I don't understand it." Pacino sees this as something that needs to be fixed. I see it as a testament to the genius of Shakespeare. He was not MEANT to be understood and universally grasped by everyone in 2010. Five hundred years from today I'd like to know what the average Joe on the streets thinks of Neil Simon. Doubtful he'll find him the least bit amusing. Genius is not meant for everyone. That's why it's genius. The very fact that not everyone "gets" Shakespeare is the very reason Shakespeare towers over every other English-speaking writer in history. Sometimes things that seem too 'smart' for some people is because they ARE too smart for some people. Art is not a democracy. Never has been, never will be. Art, by it's very nature, is exclusive. Propaganda is meant for everyone, not art. That's why Rembrandt didn't paint pictures to be hung in the lobby of the local bank.
In the end, I very much agree with Baldwin's assessment of David Mamet's brilliant book on acting, True and False. I completely disagree with nearly everything in Looking For Richard. And yet I think every really serious actor in the world should see it.
Al Pacino as Richard III.
See you tomorrow.