Al Pacino goes Wilde 

Although Al Pacino and Oscar Wilde may not seem like an obvious pairing, the iconic actor has a hallowed place in his heart for the legendary Irish writer.

Pacino’s decades-long love affair with Wilde’s work is reflected in “Wilde Salomé,” an experimental documentary he directed. The film screens Wednesday at the Castro Theatre in a red carpet event benefiting the GLBT Historical Society and celebrating the 130th anniversary of Wilde’s visit to San Francisco. Pacino and cast members Jessica Chastain and Tony Kushner are slated to attend. 

The film follows Pacino’s stage performance as Herod in Wilde’s “Salomé,” an intense play that casts the biblical title character as a jilted admirer of John the Baptist who, seeking revenge, wants the prophet’s head on a plate.
Pacino’s role drives him to investigate Wilde’s real-life story; his impassioned pursuit takes him to Dublin, London and Paris.

Wilde, the Victorian-era playwright, essayist, novelist and poet who died in 1900, was celebrated and controversial. Although he married and had children, he also served years in jail for being homosexual. Weakened after his release, he fled London for Paris, where he lived  penniless before he died at 46 of meningitis.

“Pacino’s directing style is about discovery,” says “Wilde Salomé” producer Barry Navidi. “The film is dramatic. Pacino’s journey as an artist is amazing, and what he learned about Wilde is fascinating. The way it is put together is very emotional.”

Pacino’s initial interest in Wilde stems from the stage: “It all started 20-odd years ago when he saw Steven Berkoff’s ‘Salomé’ onstage in London,” Navidi says. “Pacino was familiar with Wilde, but ‘Salomé’ baffled him, and prompted him to put on his own productions.”

Pacino performed “Salomé” on Broadway and in Los Angeles, with co-stars Marisa Tomei and Chastain, who made quite an impression trying out for a 2006 production.

“She blew their minds in the audition,” Navidi says. “They knew they had their Salomé after that. Al showed rough cuts of her stage footage to other Hollywood executives, and that led to her getting the film roles she’s famous for now.”

For all of its intensity, “Wilde Salomé,” like the playwright it honors, has a sense of humor.

“Al is actually very funny, which a lot of people don’t know,” Navidi says. “Oscar would have been proud of this. Pacino’s goal is to give people an impression of Oscar, and to learn about his literary genius. But it is also semiautobiographical. Pacino is Pacino. There is only one.”

lgallagher@sfexaminer.com

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Lauren Gallagher

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