Where was Al Pacino when I was taking Shakespeare 101 at the University of Illinois? For that matter, I wish Pacino had made Looking for Richard 20 before its release, so I could have used it with my English classes. I had the same goal—trying to communicate an appreciation for the Bard.
I used to treat my high-school freshmen as if they were groundlings, who mostly appreciated Shakespeare’s bawdy language and the action scenes. We spent time learning some of Shakespeare’s “dirty bits.” For freshman minds, this was enough to open them up to the possibility of following Romeo and Juliet and becoming hooked forever with the power of the words.
Pacino’s dream with Looking for Richard is exactly the same; he wants to communicate what he feels about Shakespeare so others can develop a similar passion and understanding for the Bard's work. And to do so Pacino realizes he must make Shakespeare more accessible to the general public.
Looking for Richard should now be required viewing in every class that includes Shakespeare in its curriculum. There simply is no better teaching tool for Shakespeare study. Pacino films this documentary during a production of Richard III to give us a thorough view behind the scenes. I learned far more than I ever imagined about putting a Shakespeare play on and about the play itself.
Richard III is performed more than any other Shakespeare play, but places great demands on the audience due to the numerous characters and complex plot.
Indeed, we see Pacino ask people on the streets of New York what they know about Richard, and nobody knows. They don't even know about the hump on his shoulder or his lines about trading his Kingdom for a horse.
Pacino goes on the street to find out what people think about Shakespeare. Most opinions are negative, one person even saying that the author “sucks.” The most eloquent man on the street is homeless, and he expresses the idea that Shakespeare's words can teach students “how to feel” and will help stop the gang shootings plaguing the city.
Although we do not see the entirety of Richard III performed, we see enough to get a video Cliff's Notes. We get a deeper understanding than we might from watching the full 1954 Olivier version or the Nazi-ized 1995 McKellen version.
It's in the magical way Pacino interweaves rehearsals, interviews with scholars, actual performance footage, and background scenes to break the play down and analyze its parts.
We hear intelligent discussions about why Americans have such a difficult time acting in Shakespeare productions and the special motivations behind Queen Margaret, Lady Anne, Buckingham, and Richard himself.
The camera allows us to see Pacino practice various nuances with an acting coach, and see how hard he works on just pausing correctly with his opening lines of “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
We grow to understand Pacino’s appreciation for Shakespeare the man, as, to test its acoustics, he stands upon the very spot where the original Globe Theatre once stood.
Later, the production moves to a 300-year-old theater that has seen many a Shakespeare play, just so everyone can gain an idea of the “ghosts” in the last act of Richard III.
Pacino makes a special trip to Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon to view the bed where the writer's mother gave birth. (The camera crew sets off the fire alarm and everyone is vacated abruptly.) I won't mention how I once touched that same bed, despite the warning signs about the room.
Particularly surprising is the wide array of actors Pacino lined up to participate in the project.
Familiar names: Kevin Spacey as Buckingham, Alec Baldwin as Clarence, and Winona Ryder playing Lady Anne; other notable actors include Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde) as Queen Margaret and Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall) as Richmond. Pacino also demonstrates that he’s serious about the Bard by showing interview clips with noted Shakespearean actors Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and John Gielgud.
One highlight: when Pacino is brainstorming with a group, and the producer begins to rant about getting a scholar to explain Richard III. To much laughter (including mine) he asks why they have to do this, since Al knows Richard far better than any scholar that exists out there in academia. Pacino explains that his project is an educational one, and that a scholar's viewpoint is also valid.
The next scene sent some chuckles through my body; we see a literary scholar expound on Richard III while Pacino and a bemused producer look on.
Looking for Richard is shot in pretty standard fashion. The structure is framed traditionally with a picture of the Tower of London accompanied by a voiceover quoting Shakespeare's lines about the “things that dreams are made of.”
A couple of choices are curious. One is the inclusion of a scene in a New York sidewalk café where the crew is forced to relocate because they don't have a permit. The other involves some footage of the cinematographers talking about the massive amount of film they have shot and how they are glad the project is finally ending. While the latter helps establish Pacino's commitment to his project, the purpose of the café scene is puzzling.
You won't find the same kind of creative imagery and juxtaposition you'll find in an Errol Morris documentary, but it’s the content that stands out in Looking for Richard. Pacino demonstrates his passion for the project, and succeeds in giving us a greater appreciation for Shakespeare. The Bard, and especially Richard III, no longer need be inaccessible.
So if you're an English teacher, get a copy and include it with your curriculum. If you're an English student, this is your annotated video version—far superior to Cliff's Notes. And if you are neither, but would like to understand Shakespeare better, Looking for Richard is designed for you.