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You see Pacino whipping himself into shape for the role and you think, "What good can come of this?" And then, when you see him playing Richard, some of it is indeed overwrought and underdone. But some of it, such as his wooing of Lady Anne or his speech that begins, "I am so far in blood ...," is great, and you realize that a lot of Pacino's jet-powered ditheriness is what he uses to achieve liftoff. It's what he finally clears away in order to effect a sense of tense repose in his acting. The irony in Looking for Richard is that we're looking at the flibbertigibbety wellsprings of an actor who has achieved prominence through the force of his stillnesses -- most notably in The Godfather movies.

But the high-wire haywire aspect of Pacino's personality can sometimes be his redemption as an actor. Those zonked stillnesses in such films as Bobby Deerfield or Cruising can be murder, whereas in Dog Day Afternoon Pacino's high-flying act seems to express everything he can do as an actor. It's probably his best performance and, on the evidence of Looking for Richard, also the one closest to his temperament. Of course, he doesn't always score when he's flying high: As the mayor in City Hall I thought, his grandstanding was none too grand. But Pacino takes risks that pay off. And he wants to be seen as a risk-taker -- that's one of the reasons he made Looking for Richard. The subtext of the film is: "I may be a movie star, but I am serious about what I do."

For Pacino, that seriousness takes the form of theater work. There is still a cultural snobbery loose in the land that says stage actors are superior to movie actors, and Pacino plays into that snobbery. He may not be aware that his finest acting has been not on the stage but on film. (He's currently starring in Eugene O'Neill's one-man show Hughie on Broadway.) I've seen him several times onstage, most memorably on Broadway in American Buffalo, and he's been powerful. But I would suggest that Pacino's particular brooding brand of greatness requires a larger arena than the proscenium arch. Onstage his force can seem blocky and undifferentiated, but in the movies, especially in close-up, he can really take you on a soul dive.

In Looking for Richard Pacino is on a quest for "the meaning of Shakespeare in our lives." He goes up to people on the street, asks them about his plays, and for the most part gets foggy responses. He explains to anyone who will listen the ways in which the Bard can be made accessible to general audiences. But Pacino's mission here, I think, is as misplaced as all those commentators who try to make Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Othello resonate for us by making their agonies "relevant." (Othello/O.J. was a big fave last year.) Shakespeare experienced in this way becomes a kind of magisterial guidance counselor. The reduction of his plays to the standard contours of grand passion -- as a way to inveigle bored audiences unresponsive to the beauties of language -- is patronizing. (Film adaptations of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and an updated Romeo and Juliet will all be out by year's end. The honors English field-trip brigade must be on red alert.)

Pacino reconciles his love for Shakespeare with the popular artist's dream of Shakespeare for the masses. And it's a good dream. But the masses today aren't the masses of the Globe Theater. Like it or not, the greatness of Shakespeare's language will never be accessible to the vast majority of the mass audience -- or the high-art minority audience either. Pacino approaches Shakespeare on the most melodramatic and straightforward of levels because that's how he makes sense of his performance. He needs to think melodrama in order to get at drama. But if we are to base our discussion of Shakespeare on how "exciting" and "relevant" he is to our lives, we are vastly diminishing him. Pacino -- not as an actor, but as a proselytizer for Shakespeare -- is as fussy and well-meaning and misguided as those teachers who encouraged us to find parallels between Romeo and Juliet and our senior prom.

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