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Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain & Stephen Fry Dig Into ‘Salome/Wilde Salome’

Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain & Stephen Fry Dig Into 'Salome/Wilde Salome'

Oscar Wilde’s controversial play, based on the biblical story about the beheading of John the Baptist, has been a long-time obsession of Pacino’s, on a par with Shakespeare’s “Richard III” for the actor. But although he filmed his theatrical staging of Wilde’s tragedy way back in 2006 (casting Chastain in her first feature) and his companion-piece documentary “Wilde Salomé” premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival (where it received mixed reviews), yesterday marked their first presentation as a double bill. Both films and the Q&A were broadcast live to dozens of cinemas across the UK and Ireland.

Initially banned from the London stage for its salacious depiction of biblical characters, “Salomé” was one of Wilde’s most controversial works, but the great wit’s wordplay within it is rhythmic, ornate and hypnotic; it’s not difficult to fathom why Pacino became smitten after seeing Steven Berkoff’s famed London production in the late 1980s. “I was sitting there witnessing something I’d never seen before and hearing words that I’d never heard before,” recalled Pacino. “I was just mesmerized. Halfway through, I thought, ‘Whoever wrote this is a prophet — I really want to meet this person.’ When the play was over I looked down at the program to see who wrote it and, well, I couldn’t meet him.”

In Wilde’s play, King Herod lusts after his titular stepdaughter while she attempts to seduce the imprisoned John the Baptist (Jokanaan). When the prophet rejects her advances, it sets in motion a disastrous chain of events that ends with his head on a platter, after Herod has goaded Salomé into dancing for him with the solemn promise that she can have anything she desires in return. “To me, this conceit of someone with all this power and all these riches asking this little girl to take all this but please spare his head — that confrontation was one of the big reasons that motivated me to act it in the first place,” said Pacino.

While he clearly has a ball playing Herod, Chastain’s performance as the virginal, vengeful temptress is his film’s main attraction. Apart from being her film debut (Pacino first spotted her at LA’s Wadsworth Theatre), Chastain delivers a scintillating, can’t-tear-your-eyes-away performance. When Fry asked whether she found it hard to empathize with Salomé’s conniving and sinister actions, she replied that she viewed it as a challenge to be embraced with relish: “In the beginning, she comes on stage and talks about the moon as a chaste, pure thing and different from the court – she wants this chaste life,” said Chastain. “She ends the play kissing a severed head, just in this fit of madness. It’s the greatest character arc I’ve ever played as an actress.”

“Wilde Salomé” attempts, not entirely successfully, to unravel Pacino’s obsession with Oscar Wilde and the play, and the difficulties he encounters translating it to the screen; it reveals Pacino at his most passionate but also at his most irrational and nutty, prompting Fry to ask why he’d allowed some of the more unflattering moments to make the final cut. “I knew we were being photographed all the time but I thought, ‘I’m an actor, they got the cameras rolling – let’s make a meal out of this,'” smiled Pacino, admitting his willingness to play it large even for a documentary.

Fry, the ideal host for the occasion as a lifelong Wilde enthusiast and the man who played the Irish literary genius in the 1997 biopic “Wilde,” talked as much if not more than his guests. But since he’s an erudite man of wit and intellect himself, it wasn’t a hardship and Pacino clearly adored sharing the stage with him. When one woman asked during the audience Q&A what Wilde meant to each of them, it was Fry who stepped up with an eloquent, evocative response, comparing the writer’s reputation with the effect of sailing down Fifth Avenue in a taxi with the green lights in your favor and observing the Empire State Building rise majestically behind you:

“When you watch it out the back window, it launches like a Saturn 5 rocket, it gets higher and higher the further you go. And that’s how I feel about Oscar. He was obscured by pygmies beforehand but every year that’s passed since his death in 1900, he’s become more and more a gigantic figure: a prince of bohemia, a prince of all students, artists, actors. All people who are excluded, he stands for them.”

That prompted an outburst of audience applause. And when Fry subsequently praised Pacino for only making projects that matter to him, the actor elicited one of the biggest laughs of the night when he replied, “Well, no – I’ve taken the money; I have. But I like this whole idea of cycles and I think the cycle that I’m going through now is one I went through before in my life, where I won’t do anything that I don’t feel somehow there’s a connection. If I can find that in myself, I’ll do it; otherwise, I’ll just try to do these kind of things.”

For now, “Salomé” paired with “Wilde Salomé” is a UK-only experience although plans are afoot to release the double bill in stateside, either later this year or in the first quarter of 2015.

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