Al Pacino’s 20 year labor of love

Commentary tracks on DVDs are often little more than thinly disguised PR for the movie in question, but you can’t say that of Al Pacino’s insights on the never-theatrically-released “The Local Stigmatic.”

Based on a one-act play by British writer Heathcote Williams, the 56-minute film was shot during the 1980s, completed in 1990, and then never publicly shown, with the exception of some private screenings for acting and film classes.

Pacino finally agreed to include “The Local Stigmatic” in a DVD package of other films he has produced independently, including “Chinese Coffee” and “Looking for Richard.”

I’ve always been fascinated by “Stigmatic” because I knew one of the actors who played a major role — the late great Joseph Maher — and had been hearing about it for years from him as the piece was being edited and re-edited by Pacino and director David Wheeler.

Pacino financed the film himself and it was shot in multiple locations — from New York City to Atlanta — as the star raised the money and when the small cast had no other conflicting (i.e.paying) jobs.

Maher and Pacino had first done the piece together on stage in 1968.

Pacino has always been famous for exploring the same stage roles again and again — the performer has done multiple productions of “Richard III,” “American Buffalo” and “Salome,” among others — but he kept returning to “The Local Stigmatic” for decades.

The play is about two nihilistic London men, simmering with rage over the advantages that celebrities have over them, who viciously assault a British stage and film star they meet in a West End bar.

On the commentary track, Pacino talks about his fascination with the play and his feeling that it has never been properly appreciated. According to the star, the original New York stage production was panned and was only able to run after Jon Voight put up some extra money.

“I don’t know why I’ve been caught by this thing,” Pacino says in the intense whisper he uses throughout his commentary.

“How do people get like that?,” he asks rhetorically of the pair of thugs played by Pacino and Paul Guilfoyle. “Can you see them as little babies?”

The star goes on to say that he believe Williams was ahead of his time to see the hunger for fame — and the undercurrent of resentment for those who have it — that is so rampant in our culture. “How could he have known this stuff in 1964?,” Pacino says of Williams’ insights into fame and fans-turned-assassins. “He nailed it.”

Ironically, the film itself is very seriously flawed. Pacino seems too old for his punk role and his cockney accent is distractingly uncertain (the star’s worst vocal work this side of the notorious “Revolution”). The piece opens with a 10 or 15-minute monologue about dog racing that is very hard to focus on.

Listening to Pacino talk about the project is another story — he is forthright, generous to the other performers, and very funny about his own obsessiveness. While the movie seems squishy and uncertain, Pacino is riveting and I was very glad to hear his take on this little-seen labor of love.