Venice honors the passion of Pacino

Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award: Al Pacino

The trick of any art, especially performance, is to make it look easy. But every now and then we’re reminded of how tortuous and messy the creative process can be, especially if the ambition is great. Stories abound on the trials of working with titans like Orson Welles and Marlon Brando, ranging from exasperation to sheer agony, and then, at the end, amazement.

When the 2006 announcement went out that Al Pacino would star in a limited production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” at the Wadsworth Theater, the entire run sold out in 45 minutes. Part of that has to do with an audience’s desire to see one of the unquestionably great movie stars of the past 40 years up close and personal (the same thing happened when he performed Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” at the Mark Taper Forum in 1999). Part has to be curiosity about which Pacino shows up, “the indrawn or the hambone,” as critic Peter Rainer characterizes the twin sides of his performance career.

And then there’s the fascination of never knowing what you’ll get, only that it’ll be something unlike anything else. This time Pacino decided to up the ante by directing a film, based on the production, calling it “Wilde Salome,” and opening it in September at the Venice Film Festival, where he’ll pick up the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

Pacino is a Bronx high school dropout who endured miserable homelessness as a kid. As an actor, he has virtually no classical conservatory training, no period style, no dexterity with formalized language. But for all his professional renown and honors (one Oscar out of eight nominations, two Tonys, four Golden Globes and a 2007 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award), he’s one of the few who’s willing to get out of the air-conditioned trailer and into the fraught atmosphere of live theater.

“I adore movies,” he says. “I like doing them when everything’s right. They’re a world phenomenon. But acting is timing. When it’s stop and go, stop and go, with a lot of waiting, it’s hard to stay energized. With theater, you’re going all the way through something that’s taken months to build. It’s a ride. It’s different psychologically, physically, and then you have to go through it the next night. It’s tantamount to a ballet dancer having to go through excruciating pain in order to be free.”

Theater is also the place where he can follow his passion to the point of obsessiveness. Audiences saw it in his 1996 documentary, “Looking for Richard,” in which it seems his entire on- and off-stage lives are relentlessly devoted to exploring the character of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The same is true of “Salome,” based on the biblical virgin who has the head of John the Baptist served up on a plate to the court of her stepfather Herod. Written in French in 1893, it was banned in Britain for 40 years.

The saga has been served up many times in many versions — including most bigscreen versions of the Jesus story. Wilde’s play is stilted and stylized but it’s also a pungent stew of carnality, jealousy, vengeance, sensual appetite and horror — a Grand Guignol turnout of Victorian decadence. In his 1993 Broadway performance as Herod, Pacino’s face looked crusted with licentious rot.

He still can’t get enough of it.

“I first saw a Steven Berkoff production in London,” he says. “I was mesmerized. It comes at you. It’s so unlike anything else Wilde wrote that I didn’t know he’d written it until someone told me. Whoever this was, I thought to myself, he’s a prophet. I stayed with it.”

Pacino’s devotion to “Salome” has taken it through several incarnations for the better part of two decades — Marisa Tomei played the title role on Broadway, directed by Estelle Parsons. He settled on the Wadsworth production after landing the gifted young Juilliard grad, Jessica Chastain, to play Salome.

But the real fun began when he decided to film it. He shot on a soundstage and in the Mojave desert during the day while the company played the Wadsworth at night. The hours, the travel, an increasingly entangled schedule on a tight budget, all soon gathered into the pitch of a fine madness, with Pacino at the center.

The on-screen expressions of co-producers Robert Fox and Barry Navidi suggest the sight of a Bronx Icarus about to make his fiery plunge to earth. They had no choice but to stay with it. Such is the force of Pacino when his energies are mobilized.

“I was never crazy about that play,” Navidi says. “It’s a one-act. When he said he wanted to film it, I said, ‘How? This is surreal. There’s no script, no budget.’ But the definition of Al is passion. He gave everyone complete artistic license, complete freedom to explore. When I said, ‘Al, you’re giving me a heart attack,’ he said, ‘No, it’s an art attack.’ He drove me on in a good way. He contaminated me.”

The shot of Parsons standing among the empty seats of the Wadsworth, hands on hips as if wondering what’s going on, tells a great deal. But she too stayed with it.

“It was grueling,” she says. “In Al, you have this unique, original creativity. He isn’t swayed by what other people do. It was tough the way he grew up. He had to become a man before he could become a child. But he can go places where a lot of educated minds won’t go. Nobody could make Richard III and Salome the way he has.”

Somewhere along the line, Pacino realized that what he had in the can wasn’t working.

“Gotta go back to the desert,” he says in the film. “Gotta go.”

The next stops included Ireland, where Wilde was born, London, where he enjoyed both success and disgrace, and Paris, where he died in a rooming house (famous last words: “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do”). With comment from Gore Vidal, Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner, Pacino achieved a documentary, a “humorous inversion” by playing Wilde on this deathbed, and a piece of avant-garde filmmaking.

“He taught me two things about film acting,” Chastain says. “He told me that the camera will pick up what you’re thinking, so it’s important to stay mentally focused. He said you have to love the camera. Where a lot of actors aren’t physically comfortable with it, you have to love it and understand it as an extension of your body. I see myself as a student willing to learn. He helped me on the journey.”

“Of all the stars of his generation, he’s worn the best,” says Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “He’s one of the few who’s spent quality time on stage and TV as well as the movies. He’s willing to mix it up, and his zest for acting is enticing.”

Pacino, who confesses “I’m not really a director,” tells this characteristic story about himself:

“We were in Philadelphia doing Richard, working hard through the winter to bring it from 4½ hours to 2½. We drove back to New York. I saw a guy walking in the street. ‘Look at that crazy guy, walking along with no coat on.’

” ‘Al,’ my friend said. ‘It’s spring.’ ”