Al Pacino's 1996 documentary Looking for Richard features famous actors playing out scenes from Richard III interspersed with man-on-the-street interviews, scholarly analysis, and commentary by the actors on their roles. The film is meant to bring out some of Shakespeare's central themes and ideas from the play and to demonstrate...
Al Pacino's 1996 documentary Looking for Richard features famous actors playing out scenes from Richard III interspersed with man-on-the-street interviews, scholarly analysis, and commentary by the actors on their roles. The film is meant to bring out some of Shakespeare's central themes and ideas from the play and to demonstrate how they are still relevant in modern society. Moreover, Pacino is tasked with explaining how the modern actor is the conduit for this message and must overcome some of the barriers that exist between Shakespearean theater and the commonly held precepts of American storytelling.
Female characters are crucial to the play, with four in particular—Queen Elizabeth, Lady Anne, Margaret and The Duchess—used in various ways to foreshadow Richard's ultimate fate during his Machiavellian rise to power and short time on the throne. They serve as the voice of morality in the play, and Shakespeare uses them to explore themes like divine order, greed, and struggling for power through their juxtaposition to men.
In the documentary, Pacino is able to articulate how Richard manipulates and controls women in his quest for power, although he eschews some of the more religious or superstitious elements like curses and cosmic retribution that he likely feels may not resonate with modern audiences. Instead, he focuses on how innately female attributes—like, say, intuition and empathy—are able to perceive and ultimately expose Richard's wicked ways.
However, the women in the play are no wallflowers. They are equally cunning, canny, and intelligent, at times manipulating Richard the way Elizabeth does near the end of act 4 when she leads Richard to believe she will court her daughter in his name, only to promise her to another later. Pacino uses quick editing and chiaroscuro lighting to heighten the tension between Richard and these women in the film, but he doesn't portray them as strongly and intelligently as Shakespeare had done. Instead, he shows them as more subservient, convenient stepping stones to power.
In this way, Shakespeare demonstrates a greater proclivity toward ideas like female empowerment and gender equality when speaking to his sixteenth-century audience than does Pacino in his message to modern-day audiences, ironically where those ideas would be more readily accepted. Pacino also takes a more secular view of the events, which removes power from certain female characters, like Margaret, who uses curses and prophecies to protect her family. In this way, Pacino may be trying to intentionally call out gender inequality issues by portraying women as weaker than Shakespeare had done in his original work.
In Al Pacino’s documentary, Looking for Richard, there are three very important women to look at, Penelope Allen who plays Queen Elizabeth, Winona Ryder who plays Lady Anne and Estelle Parsons who plays Margaret. Each woman represents in some way the character that they portray in the play.
Penelope Allen argues with her male counterpoints as to how Elizabeth should be portrayed or seen. She challenges the notion that Elizabeth is reacting simply out of hysterics over the death of her husband. Allen attempts to show that it is Elizabeth’s emotions that give her strength and should be the source of power behind her words. Simply calling it a hysterical reaction demeans the true nature of the character.
Pacino, when considering the character of Lady Anne, notes that she should be young, contrary to women who have previously played the roles. Women for stage productions had to have a voice that would be able to deliver the lines, usually a more experienced actress. With film, the need for a powerful voice is not needed and thus the role can be cast for a younger actress. This mirrors in some way the character of Lady Anne, she does not have to have any strength of character other than her beauty to serve a part, yet it is her ability to spot opportunity that gives her strength. It is the strength of ability that lies within the beauty of the younger Ryder that brings Lady Anne’s character to life.
Lastly, Estelle Parsons, who plays Margaret, truly gives recognition to the idea that where beauty fails age and wisdom can be power. Margret in the play is seen as somewhat crazy yet the characters fear her word. It is mentioned that Margret is like a primal force. It is not beauty that is her strength but some deeper expression of strength held with-in and laid bare by her words.
It is interesting that you have three women represented in what draw parallels to the classic vision of Maid, Mother, and Crone, a trope that Shakespeare would be familiar with. In the documentary, these three women represent their characters and reflect the gender notions of our own time, as well as those in Shakespeare's.