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  • Looking for Richard in Looking for Richard: Al Pacino Appropriates the Bard and Flogs Him Back to the Brits
  • Kim Fedderson and J.M. Richardson
Looking for Richard. Dir. Al Pacino. Twentieth Century Fox, 1997.

Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard opens with the words “King Richard” appearing first on the screen with the other syllables necessary for completing the title being added gradually. This device not only highlights the name “Richard III,” the protagonist of the Shakespearean source for Pacino’s film, it also enlists and then encourages us to search for Richard within the film. And when we go looking for Richard, we can, if we look hard, find him, but not where we had expected and, more tellingly, not where we seem to be directed to look. While it gives us innumerable glimpses of Richard—the documentary frame of the film allows us to see Richard in America, in the Cloisters, in England, at the Globe, in theatrical rehearsal and performance, in cinematic rehearsal and performance—Pacino’s film, like Shakespeare’s humpbacked dissembler, harbors a “secret, close intent,” making Richard far more difficult to locate than his conspicuousness in the film would suggest. And once he is glimpsed, we should begin to question the film’s motives. While Pacino claims that his goal is to make Shakespeare more accessible to his public, what he, in fact, does under this typically American anti-elitist and democratic ruse is to appropriate the cultural commodity that Shakespeare has become and then use it to establish American dominance within the global market in which this commodity is distributed. Pacino does this by first undermining the hold that England has had on Shakespeare’s work, in effect repossessing the work, and then reforming it to his taste so that it may be marketed at home and ultimately abroad. In this cautionary tale about coming to America, Pacino not only hijacks the bard, but then he also audaciously offers him for sale back to his original owners. Indeed, it is only within the film’s conflict with itself, in the division between what it actually does and what it appears to do, that the character of Shakespeare’s smiling villain comes clearly into our view.

One of the things this film purports to do and in fact does is to provide us with an iteration of Shakespeare’s Richard III. That Richard III offers a narrative comprised of four phases: 1) an initial state of sovereignty, presented as “true and just” and represented by King Edward IV, comes to an end as Edward sickens and dies; 2) this is followed by an act of legitimate succession as sovereignty passes into the hands of the legitimate heir, who because of his youth, is assigned a protector; 3) this in turn is disrupted by an act of illegitimate succession as the protector turns usurper, “subtle, false and treacherous,” has the rightful heir murdered, and assumes sovereignty himself; 4) finally, the usurper is displaced and dispatched and a new legitimate sovereignty is restored. Pacino’s Looking for Richard presents only a selection of scenes from the Shakespearean original, yet these scenes are carefully chosen so as to represent these major narrative phases: hence, the sickness and death of Edward IV (Harris Yulin) is enacted; the young prince inherits his sovereignty but is forced to relinquish it to the Protector (Pacino), who has his charge murdered and so succeeds illegitimately; and finally, the usurper is replaced by the new legitimate monarch, Henry Richmond (Aidan Quinn).

While the major phases of the narrative of Shakespeare’s Richard III are represented in Pacino’s selection of incidents to dramatize in his Looking for Richard, the film itself, as a totality, is as conflicted as “divided York and Lancaster.” The principal source of this conflict is the film’s form. Pacino, as director of the film Looking for Richard, wraps his episodic and fragmentary performances of Shakespeare’s play in a documentary frame, in which Pacino, in the role of dramatized director of the film, explores how Richard III, which the film contends has become lost and mired in tradition, might be made “accessible to the people out there...

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