But Salome is different, he says. To begin at the beginning would be to begin 20 years ago when he first saw Salome onstage in London with the brilliant, eccentric Steven Berkoff playing King Herod in a celebrated, slow-motion, white-faced, postmodernist production. Pacino recalls that at the time he didn’t even know it was written by Oscar Wilde and didn’t know Wilde’s personal story or its tragic end. I hadn’t realized that the Irish-born playwright, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, raconteur, aphorist, showman and now gay icon, had died from an infection that festered in prison where he was serving a term for “gross indecency.”
Salome takes off from the New Testament story about the stepdaughter of King Herod (played with a demented lasciviousness by Pacino). In the film, Salome unsuccessfully tries to seduce the god-maddened John the Baptist, King Herod’s prisoner, and then, enraged at his rebuff, she agrees to her stepfather’s lustful pleas to do the lurid “dance of the seven veils” for him in order to extract a hideous promise in return: She wants the severed head of John the Baptist delivered to her on a silver platter.
It’s all highly charged, hieratic, erotic and climaxes with Jessica Chastain, impossibly sensual, bestowing a bloody kiss upon the severed head and licking her lips. It’s not for the faint of heart, but Chastain’s performance is unforgettable. It’s like Pacino has been shielding the sensual equivalent of highly radioactive plutonium for the six years since the performance was filmed, almost afraid to unleash it on the world.
After I saw it, I asked Pacino, “Where did you find Jessica Chastain?”
He smiles. “I had heard about her from Marthe Keller [an ex-girlfriend and co-star in Bobby Deerfield]. She told me, ‘There’s this girl at Juilliard.’ And she just walked in and started reading. And I turned to Robert Fox, this great English producer, and I said, ‘Robert, are you seeing what I’m seeing? She’s a prodigy!’ I was looking at Marlon Brando! This girl, I never saw anything like it. So I just said, ‘OK honey, you’re my Salome, that’s it.’ People who saw her in this—Terry Malick saw her in [a screening of] Salome, cast her in Tree of Life—they all just said, ‘come with me, come with me.’ She became the most sought-after actress. [Chastain has since been nominated for Academy Awards in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty.] When she circles John the Baptist, she just circles him and circles him...” He drifts off into a reverie.
Meanwhile, Pacino has been doing a lot of circling himself. That’s what the second film, Wilde Salome, the Looking for Oscar Wilde-type docudrama, does: circle around the play and the playwright. Pacino manages to tell the story with a peripatetic tour of Wilde shrines and testimonies from witnesses such as Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal and that modern Irish bard Bono.
And it turns out that it is Bono who best articulates, with offhand sagacity, the counterpoint relationship between Salome and Wilde’s tragedy. Salome, Bono says on camera, is “about the destructive power of sexuality.” He speculates that in choosing that particular biblical tale Wilde was trying to write about, and write away, the self-destructive power of his own sexuality, officially illicit at the time.
Pacino has an electrifying way of summing it all up: “It’s about the third rail of passion.”
There’s no doubt Pacino’s dual Salome films will provoke debate. In fact, they did immediately after the lights came up in the Santa Monica screening room, where I was watching with Pacino’s longtime producer Barry Navidi and an Italian actress friend of his. What do you call what Salome was experiencing—love or lust or passion or some powerful cocktail of all three? How do you define the difference among those terms? What name to give her ferocious attraction, her rage-filled revenge? We didn’t resolve anything but it certainly homes in on what men and women have been heatedly arguing about for centuries, what we’re still arguing about in America in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey.