Al Pacino is not who Oscar Wilde had in mind when he wrote “Salomé.” One of Wilde’s lesser-produced plays, “Salomé” dramatizes the Biblical story of King Herod and his stepdaughter, who danced for him before demanding the head of John the Baptist. Pacino starred in and directed a staged reading of the play in 2006, snugly embodying a lascivious old man as he pleads for a dance from Salomé, portrayed by a 29-year-old Jessica Chastain. Fiery-haired and armed with classical acting chops, the then-unknown Juilliard graduate stole the show from Pacino.
That staged reading at Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theater produced two little-seen cinematic products in “Wilde Salomé” (2011) and “Salomé” (2013), now making their New York debuts in repertory at the Quad Cinema. “Wilde Salomé” chronicles the staged reading as well as Pacino’s attempt to film the production for a movie adaptation, which became “Salomé.” Pacino explains it best in “Wilde Salomé”: “I’m doing a play, a movie of the play, and I’m doing a documentary all at the same time.”
Wilde’s greatest works have received multiple stage and screen adaptations over the years, most notably “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” but “Salomé” has inspired fewer interpretations. (Ken Russell’s 1988 film “Salome’s Last Dance” featured Glenda Jackson.) It’s not hard to guess why; the play lacks Wilde’s signature wit and fancy. It’s also a one-act, making it less likely to be given a full production. He also wrote it in French.
“Very daring of him, to write it in French,” says Gore Vidal in “Wilde Salomé. “His French wasn’t very good.”
Theater lovers may enjoy the rare peek behind the curtain from these two acting giants, which includes a pre-celebrity Chastain gently objecting to her costume — a pink skirt and belly shirt — because it “doesn’t feel virginal.” The material may not be Wilde’s best, but Chastain milks every ounce of the classical language, reminding us that there are hefty theater chops behind those two Oscar nominations. Red-lipped and defiant, it’s no wonder the Hollywood machine quickly snatched her up.
In “Wilde Salomé,” Pacino travels to Europe to visit Wilde’s home as well as the perfectly preserved room where he died in Paris. He’s visibly moved. “I love Oscar Wilde,” he said. “I feel as though I know him. I would have loved him. Because of the civility.” The documentary tells the story of Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie), which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for gross indecency. The film uses brief recreations, in which Pacino plays Wilde.
“Me as Oscar Wilde, can you imagine?,” Pacino asks, side-eyeing the camera in a wig and cap. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
As charming as his excitement is, Pacino’s stress during the ambitious triple project is more fascinating to watch. He is dismissive of both movie and theater producers, who each worry their respective projects will suffer from a rush job. He is friendly to fans who stop him on the streets of London. He is bullish in his vocal disagreements with the play’s director, Estelle Parsons, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1968 for “Bonnie and Clyde” and may be best known for her recurring role on the original “Roseanne.”
Pacino is charming, if a little ridiculous, wearing a beige suit and turban as he pulls a camel through the Mojave Desert. Vidal’s commentary about Wilde, along with Tom Stoppard’s and Tony Kushner’s, add some much-needed substance to an otherwise indulgent passion project. The documentary draws interesting parallels between the story of “Salomé” and Wilde’s own demise at the hands of a younger lover, which Pacino calls the “destructive power of sexuality.”
“I allowed pleasure to dominate me. And I ended in horrible disgrace,” wrote Wilde. Herod, even in Pacino’s oddly voiced interpretation, experienced a similar fate.
“Wilde Salomé” and “Salomé” open at New York’s Quad Cinema on March 30.