3/15/2021 WILDE SALOMÉ / SALOMÉ Amazon Prime / BroadwayHD
LOOKING FOR OSCAR
In 1996, Al Pacino gave us Looking for Richard, a documentary about his quest to make a movie of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It included “Behind the Scenes” moments of his first directing-a-movie-gig as well as snippets of what would have been the final product. It was enthralling and proved to be one of my favorite movies of that year.
Fifteen years later, he created Wilde Salomé, a similar effort to document his staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and two years later, released Salomé, the actual film of the production. Salomé alone is currently available on BroadwayHD, and both films are available as a moderately-priced Amazon Prime double feature. Although I can heartily recommend Salomé as a stand-alone piece (particularly because of the outstanding performance of a pre-fame Jessica Chastain in the title role), it takes on much more resonance and impact when experienced after watching the documentary.
The documentary gives us a remarkable look into the process of the ambitious goal of staging a play, making a movie, and filming a documentary all at the same time and all in a very limited time span. It is also a deep dive into the life and career of Oscar Wilde and a (sometimes unflattering) portrait of Pacino, the actor and artist, including compelling scenes of how the director and the actor are unable to reconcile the often conflicting demands of “getting in the moment” within the tight confines of a shooting schedule. (The staging at L.A.’s Wadsworth Theatre was spear-headed by director/actor Estelle Parsons so Pacino could focus on his acting and his movie, but it is apparent he has “Veto Power” over her choices.)
Within the documentary, Pacino offers glimpses of the desert, of the characters as they may have looked, at stock images of Masada and the ruins of Herod’s palace, all to “set the stage” for the play itself. He also includes commentary on the play and on Wilde from the likes of Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Tony Kushner, Wilde’s grandson, and Bono, who all agree on the reason Bosie treated Wilde in such a despicable manner – “He was a shit!”
Pacino became obsessed with the play after seeing an avant-garde production, particularly the way it reflected Wilde’s obsessions and passions. He decided to stage it as a modern-dress reading, although it is very obvious all the actors are “off book” and fully in the moment. The staging itself is static (Salomé’s climactic dance excepted) as is common for staged readings. This is no doubt what created much dissatisfaction from the opening night audience and critics, who were expecting a fully-staged production.
Just to recap the plot for those unfamiliar with Wilde’s play, Salomé is the stepdaughter of Herod, Tetrarch of Judea, who married his brother’s widow Herodias. Currently imprisoned in a cistern on the palace terrace is the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist), madly ranting condemnation of “Herodias’ sin” in marrying her husband’s brother. On the evening of Herod’s birthday, a party is in progress with guests from Rome and from the Temple, and the moonlight on the terrace is a welcome haven for Salomé from her stepfather’s lascivious attentions. But she overhears Jokanaan’s rants and becomes obsessed with him. The prophet scorns her attention even as she expresses her fervent desire to “kiss him on the mouth.”
When the dinner party (as a whole) moves onto the terrace, Salomé remains aloof and silent. Herod implores her to dance for him, promising anything he has to give “Up to half my kingdom.” She finally concedes and performs a seductive dance that has all entranced. That the moon (and stage lighting) turns blood red for this moment only underscores its passion. When she has finished, she asks for Jokanaan’s head on a platter. One way or another, she will kiss those lips!
Wilde’s play, originally written in French to side-step the British restriction against showing Biblical figures on stage, is full of long monologues containing highly florid language. Salomé’s “ode” to Jokanaan’s skin and lips is especially “purple” fully revealing her obsession with his physicality. And Herod’s post-dance listing of everything he’d rather give her than the head she asks is a litany of excess. Wilde is very good at covering harsh undercurrents with over-the-top speech, as the beauty of his words masks the rot at the heart of the royal family.
Pacino, Chastain, and the entire cast are all excellent at delivering the reality behind the unrealistic language. Pacino makes the very smart choice of focusing his camera on reactions and eyes (seemingly) more often than those speaking, and the faces carry the lion’s share of story-telling.
Though Pacino is very good as Herod, it is Jessica Chastain who really stands out here. Although virginal, her face glows with passion and purpose, her eyes telegraph every subtle shift in mood, and her climactic dance burst with sexuality and sensuality. To be honest, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, even when she was “being herself” in the documentary. Roxanne Hart’s Herodias is strong and a good match for Pacino’s Herod, not afraid to stand up to him or express her disgust with his obsession with her daughter. And Kevin Anderson’s Jokanaan is more than just a wild-eyed prophet – he is able to express in equal parts sympathy for Salomé and disgust for her desires. Yes, he can be priggish and judgmental and obsessive, but he is also compellingly human.
Yes, Wilde Salomé makes the point that the staging of the play was not very successful, owing chiefly to the expectations created (and perhaps to over-charging for admission – “Only doctors and dentists will be able to afford to see this”). But, based on Salomé, Pacino’s vision and obsession paid off and created a work of art that would make Oscar Wilde proud.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #WildeSalomé #BroadwayHD #AmazonPrime)
Link to the Amazon Prime Double Feature:
Link to Salomé on BroadwayHD: