A companion piece documentary to Pacino’s Salomé, Wilde Salomé uncovers the man behind the play. Funny, flamboyant and famous, both of them.
The Selfish Giant by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Much like Al Pacino’s directorial debut Looking For Richard, Wilde Salome is the passionate Method actor’s exploration of a beloved play. But while Looking For Richard took place several decades after his stage performance, Wilde Salomé is filmed simultaneously with his filmed play Salomé and the stage production itself in Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theater. After Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde is heralded as theatre’s next best thing, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Pacino, with his burning passion for Wilde’s early play, should try to explore its subject and tease out its meaning. The play by itself, he confesses, is not enough. The Salomé project merits, nay demands, a documentary to sketch out the context of Wilde’s infamous production.
Travelling between New York, Los Angeles, Dublin London and Paris (with some gratuitous and quaintly European shots of the Eurostar train), the odyssey begins with a portrait of Oscar Wilde. From his humble student beginnings at Trinity College, via Cambridge University to London, where Pacino pays homage to his former home on Tite Street, and even signs a few autographs. It ends in Paris, at Pére Lachaise Cemetery, where his body is interred, but not before passing over those salty years where Wilde had affairs with men, hooked up with Bosie, fought with his lover’s father (and boxing rules aficionado) the Marquis of Queensberry, those libellous court cases and a spell in Reading Gaol. Encyclopaedia Pacinnica.
What this all means to Salomé is rather vague – and while Pacino does due diligence to the play’s beginnings, trotting through its genesis in French, its casting of Sarah Bernhardt and the theme’s popularisation through Gustave Moreau’s Symbolist paintings, he does unearth some interesting facts – such as it being written in French, not so much to escape British laws forbidding the portrayal of biblical characters on stage, but rather following a conversation about it in Paris with André Gide. (Despite, as Gore Vidal mordantly observes, his French not being up to scratch. Whatever Gide might say.)
Pacino’s documentary is constructed through a historic retelling of voiceover and photographs, some on-the-hoof making-of footage during his thespian pilgrimage or production meetings (we’re even treated to a close-up of the great actor eating a sandwich) and some talking heads – Bono (who provides the closing music), Gore Vidal and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland (the family changed their name after Oscar’s notorious stretch in prison). There are even some amusing asides as Pacino heads out into the Californian desert in search of a dramatic truth or re-enacts Wilde’s arrest in a London hotel, and some gentle self-mocking, as Pacino puzzles over a newspaper review that pegs him as “Back!” or striding out of a screening of the first rushes, brought to a rapid close with the words, “We need to go back to the desert!” Like an LA Don Quixote.
Wilde Salomé relies however too much on lengthy swathes of his film Salomé. And while Pacino’s passion for the play is clear – to the point where he can watch it or perform it again and again – as a play, film or documentary – Wilde Salomé wears thin, failing to unearth much about Wilde’s play or even its various interpretations. It’s a half-formed documentary of sadly missed opportunities, the most interesting of which would have been to understand where Pacino’s love for Salomé comes from. Is it her erotic dance of the seven veils or Herod’s campy lecherousness? But with a spry, self-deprecating humour, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s failed Don Quixote in Lost In La Mancha, Wilde Salome reveals nevertheless that there’s more to Pacino than the importance of being earnest.
Wilde Salomé is released as part of a special double feature on 21st September 2014 in the UK