Yes, it's true: Al Pacino was super hot in the mid-1970s, after the Godfather movies, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and he was offered the role of Han Solo in Star Wars. Asked at a Q&A if there were any roles he regretted turning down, he quipped that he really only regretted roles he'd taken, but there was that one…. He said he was sent the script, and read it, “and I didn't get it. I didn't know why I'd do it. … So I gave Harrison Ford his career! He owes me so big! I'm gonna have him pay me back. I'm gonna have him build my house.”
Interlocutor Stephen Fry, visibly surprised by the Star Wars anecdote, responded with one of his own: “I ran into Peter O'Toole, who was complaining about some New Zealander who wanted him to be a wizard. 'I don't want to be a wizard. I told him to send it to Ian McKellen.'”
Pacino was in a relaxed mood at Sunday's Q&A following screenings of his documentary Wilde Salomé and filmed play Salomé at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts theater. Much like his Looking for Richard, about Shakespeare's Richard III, the doc tracks Pacino's journey on the Oscar Wilde trail as well as, in this case, a Los Angeles staging of the play starring then little-known Jessica Chastain.
Showing Wilde Salomé first adds context to the film of the play, Oscar Wilde's poetic musing on the story of how John the Baptist met his end. Pacino plays King Herod; Chastain is his stepdaughter, Salomé, who wins from Herod the promise to give her anything she wants if she dances for him. What she wants, it turns out, is the head of John the Baptist (here named Jokanaan, and played by Kevin Anderson) on a silver platter.
Pacino has been engaged with Salomé for years. He told Fry, “Twenty years ago, I was in England and saw Steven Berkoff’s production of Salomé. It was the most arresting, powerful, beautiful thing that I had seen in years. It really struck me. The odd thing was I didn’t know it was Oscar Wilde who wrote it. It wasn’t the Oscar Wilde I knew, famous for some of the greatest comedies ever written.
“I performed the play with Robert Ackerman in New York at the Circle in the Square uptown in full regalia, full costume and eye makeup. It was a very creative experience for me. I did it again on Broadway with Marisa Tomei in 2003. She was great, she did a great dance. But even after that I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to know more about Oscar Wilde.”
Pacino's Herod is taunting, teasing, petulant yet authoritative. “I love the challenges of a big role like Herod,” he said. “It expresses something that is not what you usually see in movies. It’s a classical role, a role written in verse. It’s not a role that audiences would normally think of me in.” But the tale's relevance endures, especially in its consideration of power and gender roles.
“I was obsessed with this story, with the play, with immersing myself completely into discovering who Oscar Wilde was and what this play said about him,” Pacino said. “So I decided to film everything that was going on in my life as it related to the play, the theater and trying to make the play a movie. I went a little mad during the year and a half of doing this.
“In documentary you’re operating by the seat of your pants. So I did that. I enjoyed it. Audiences will get to see a part of our world they don’t usually get to see. I reveal a little in Looking for Richard but not nearly as much as I do in Wilde Salomé. Even though the play and the documentary are finished, Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate me. It’s not a closed book. He is still in my mind.”
Pacino was effusive in his praise for Chastain, pointing to “her transcending, celestial performance, and without her I would not have done Salomé.” He told Fry he'd like audiences “to see a different side of me, to witness what we went through in putting this project together. I would love for them to share our artistic journey we took, the struggle to understand a complex man (Oscar Wilde) and his work. This is not a traditional narrative feature or even a traditional documentary. It’s experimental. Like the actors in the play, you have to trust, trust the process and come along on the journey.”
Wilde Salomé and Salomé play in repertory at Laemmle's Monica Film Center starting Friday, March 30.
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