"The Godfather's" Michael Corleone has taken a crack at Shylock. Oscar-winner Al Pacino -- always a daring actor -- steps into the shoes of Shakespeare's notorious moneylender in the latest big-screen version of the Bard's classic, "The Merchant of Venice."
Directed by Michael Radford and co-starring Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Sony Classics is handling "Merchant's" distribution with extreme care. Aware that the film could be used to stir hatred in today's global climate of mounting anti-Semitism, Sony is sensitive to interpretations of the most famous anti-Semitic stereotype in literature, especially given last year's release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
Having Pacino in the lead guarantees attention will be paid to the film. At 64, the actor is one of the few movie names that commands instant respect. He is part of an elite band known simply by their last name: Brando, Garbo, DeNiro, Streep.
The first signal that this actor was potentially for the ages came in l972 with his Michael Corleone, the straight-arrow who takes his family's concept of loyalty to the extreme to become the ruthless capo di tutti capi (boss of the bosses) in "The Godfather" and its two sequels.
Pacino could have played it safe, but he never did. He revels in risk. Despite or maybe because of that fact, he has delivered unforgettable and mesmerizing performances on stage and in countless movies including "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Scarface," "Sea of Love," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Carlito's Way," "Heat," "Donnie Brasco" and "Any Given Sunday." He won a best actor Oscar in l992 for "Scent of a Woman."
He first tackled Shakespeare on film in 1996 as Richard III in "Looking for Richard." Last year he played another controversial Jew, despicable lawyer Roy Cohn in the award-winning mini-series "Angels in America."
Jewish Journal: How do you view Shylock?
Al Pacino: I see him as more sinned against than sinning. When I chart the history of this character, when I go into his life and his conditions, that's what I come away with.
JJ: Because of the history of this play and the rise of anti-Semitism around the world today, can 'Merchant' not be seen as some kind of a provocation?
AP: I never had a desire to do 'Merchant of Venice' for a lot of reasons, but certainly I just couldn't quite see the character. I saw some great performances done, but I myself had no relationship to it. But then I read Michael Radford's text and I thought I understood somehow where Shylock was coming from. I thought that he made a case for Shylock and in doing that I was able to see the other elements of the character, those human elements. I started to understand his motivation and that was the point for me. I thought, 'I can play this.' Before that I didn't know how I would approach it, but I saw a character that I could understand and identify with.
JJ: Is his tragedy that he lived during his time?
AP: I would say that, and his tragedy is also how he dealt with these conditions. As Michael Radford says, it's a kind of road rage really because of what he's come to in his life. It's sort of being violated by the conditions of his life. I remember going into it very much with Michael and Jeremy Irons and talking about that scene with the pound of flesh ... and knowing that what Shylock is really doing there is taking a risk. He doesn't know Antonio's ships are going to sink. It's a way of standing up to the oppressors, his way of posturing to them.
JJ: Talk about approaching the 'hath not a Jew eyes' monologue. Is it about racism and is it indicating that Shakespeare wasn't anti-Semitic?
AP: This is a real case against prejudice. It's one of the great speeches against it. What I liked about it, what I felt about the way Michael set it up, and what I finally related to, was the fact that it was something that was happening on the street. It wasn't a speech anymore. It was an incident that was taking place. Of course it's wonderful. You get a speech like that and you really want to give it the old gun.
JJ: Yet it seemed you low-keyed it if anything.
AP: You know, you want to be Mr. Righteous, Mr. Right, and Michael kept moving me away from that and saying, 'This is something that's got to do with something that's happening inside of him.' It's an episode that happens on a street. You've got the whores looking at him and you've got those two guys that he's talking to and it just happened. It might not have happened. He might've just kept walking, but he turned around and just said it. You know, I'm sure that it's happened to everyone: where we've had an opportunity sometimes that we just want to say, 'You know, f--- off.' He's earned the right in a way to speak out like that and he does it in that instant and it's over. I only wish that I could talk about things that bother me like that.
JJ: What keeps Shakespeare so fresh in our minds?
AP: Lots of things. First of all though, let's start with this: one has to have an appetite for it. I mean, it's not a criteria for, 'Oh, you're going to be a big-time actor if you do Shakespeare.' No. I mean, Charles Laughton, one of the greatest movie actors of all time, stage actors, too, never did Shakespeare. He couldn't get around it. Paul Muni never did Shakespeare. It's just something that either appeals to you or it doesn't. There are a lot of great actors out there who aren't doing Shakespeare. They have no desire to. It's whatever rings your bell.
JJ: What are your priorities in life and movies?
AP: I've been lucky because I always let what I did dictate the work that I do. That's what interests me. I remember doing roles for reasons that were really strange only because I wanted to explore something in the movie. And there were times when I did a movie to get away from what was happening in my personal life. My career is part of my personal as well as my artistic life.
JJ: After a lifetime in the business, what have you learned about acting?
AP: I learned early in my life that you try different parts in order to see if any of them will work. And that's the benefit of repertory. You'll read a role and say, 'Never. I could never do that. I don't understand it.' But once you say, 'Oh gee, I'd love to sink my teeth into that,' you do. And it happens.
Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.