Tuesday, December 2, 2008

William Shakespeare, Screenwriter

Happy 444th Birthday, William Shakespeare, Screenwriter

Let's raise a toast and watch some clips to honor this one-man movie-making machine.
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in Miramax Films' 'Shakespeare in Love'
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in Miramax Films' 'Shakespeare in Love' - Miramax Films

Mark Bourne,

With Wednesday, April 23, marking William Shakepeare's birthday, let's all raise a flagon of ale and wish a happy 444th to one of our favorite screenwriters.
Sure, the Western canon's greatest playwright may have lived centuries before movies came along, but he has proved himself time and again as one of our most prolific and popular writers for the big screen. So to commemorate his birthday, let's go to the DVD shelves and find a few of our favorites that ask "What light through yonder movie break?"

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989)
With gritty realism and lavish production values, this directorial debut of 29-year-old actor Kenneth Branagh reinvigorated Shakespeare's great play of history and warfare for a new generation -- and made Branagh a darling of critics and audiences on two continents. The Bard's dialogue remains largely intact, and the strong top-to-bottom cast -- including Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Christian Bale, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and Judi Dench -- are fully equipped for the task. There's something about Branagh's delivery of the famous St. Crispin's Day speech -- issued to his battle-weary troops in the French countryside, as king and soldiers alike are covered in sweat, blood, and earth -- that sends a thrilled shudder up my spine every time.

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996)
Of course we can't pair Branagh and Shakespeare together without giving a nod to Branagh's production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. The first unabridged theatrical film version of the play, the running time is just over four hours, but it is spellbinding and powerful cinema. Branagh is, naturally, the thoughtful prince out to avenge his father's murder, supported by Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, Julie Christie as Queen Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Richard Briers as Polonius, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, and -- in this clip -- Billy Crystal as the grave digger.

(Branagh's movie version of Much Ado About Nothing is pretty good too.)

Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995)
For some of us he'll always be Gandalf. For others, he's the evil mutant Magneto. But before Sir Ian McKellen was immortalized in a line of action figures, he was one of England's most respected Shakespeareans. His Richard III casts McKellen as the charismatic, murderous, clever, subtle, and often slyly humorous villain ascending to the throne in a Nazi-inspired 1930s England. In this brazen, fast-paced adaptation, the machine-gun pocked opening credits climax with McKellen driving a tank through a wall to kill King Henry VI and his son. One of the play's most famous lines -- "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" -- was recontextualised by the new setting: during the climactic battle, Richard's scout car becomes stuck, and his lament is cast as a plea for a mode of transport with legs rather than wheels.
In this clip, among the supporting cast we see Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, Annette Bening as Elizabeth, and Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York.
Perhaps no other title on this page better proves that Will Shakespeare would have loved writing for the movies.

Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971)
Starring Jon Finch as Macbeth, Polanski's interpretation of "the Scottish play" is as bleak and bloody as they come. You can feel the dank misery of the Middle Ages in every scene. But of course it's most remembered for the nude scene with Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) freaking out and looking for a really good bar of soap. That's not this clip, alas. Still, we have Finch's "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech (ah, flashbacks to high school English class) and a bloody good fight scene.

Julie Taymor's Titus (1999)
In Shakespeare's day, his early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus was a hit "slasher film" of the era. This most gruesome of all Shakespeare's plays -- a real "Itchy & Scratchy" of the First Folio -- was a smash success that his company trotted out many times over the years to give the groundlings brutal, over-the-top thrills -- mutilations, beheadings, even a mother tricked into eating her own children that have been baked into pies. (Step aside, Sweeney Todd.)
Director Julie Taymor adapted her own tricked-out stage version for a powerful and wildly weird film starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming. As one of the unfortunate sons, also here is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (now TV's Henry VIII in The Tudors). The setting is an anachronistic "all times, all places" world that uses locations, costumes, and imagery from many periods of history, including ancient Rome and Mussolini's Italy. This clip is from the "Iron Chef" scene:

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Whoa. After all that death and debauchery, let's move to some lighter fare. This movie adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous romance was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, with nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel describes the film as being "full of beautiful young people, and the camera, and the lush Technicolour, make the most of their sexual energy and good looks." Made at the height of the "British invasion" in U.S. pop culture, and aimed straight at the era's counterculture youth, a generation of teenagers thereafter grew up on this film. Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is notable for being one of the first filmed versions of the play in which the main actors are near the ages of their characters -- Leonard Whiting (Romeo) was 17 during filming, and Olivia Hussey (Juliet) was 15. Zeffirelli had to get special permission for Hussey to appear nude in the film. Hussey later amusingly recalled that she was not permitted to view the film because it contained her own nudity.

On the other hand, if you like your Romeo and Juliet with a modern pop edge, there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and a soundtrack that successfully targeted the "MTV Generation."

Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985)
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear, moved to a sixteenth-century Japan of warloards and fierce battles, was the famed director's last great epic and remains one of the most gripping and beautifully made of all "Shakespeare movies." With a budget of $12 million, it was the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Ran was hailed for its powerful images and use of color -- costume designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for Costume Design for her work. Kurosawa loved filming in lush and expansive locations, and most of Ran was shot amidst the mountains and plains of Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Kurosawa was also granted permission to shoot at two of the country's most famous landmarks, the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji. For the castle of Lady Sué's family, he used the ruins of the Azusa castle.

If you like Kurosawa's Ran, follow that film (after you recover) with his 1957 Throne of Blood, which transposes Macbeth to medieval Japan. It's one of Kurosawa's best films, and for many critics it's one of the best film adaptations of Macbeth, despite having almost none of the play's script. Washizu/Macbeth's famous death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and fill his body with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, a choice made to help actor Toshiro Mifune display realistic facial expressions of fear.
And talk about pop culture cool! In an episode of TV's Smallville, Lex Luthor claims that a sword hanging on the wall of his study is a prop from Throne of Blood, his "favorite Akira Kurosawa movie."

King Lear with James Earl Jones at the New York Shakespeare Festival
There have been so many King Lears on film. There are versions set in post-Chernobyl Russia, at a Yiddish seder, and in the cornfields of Iowa. We've seen existential Lears, a Soviet Christian Marxist Lear, and a punk-apocalyptic Lear. Orson Welles was a fine screen king, and at 75 Laurence Olivier won the International and Primetime Emmy awards in a 1984 TV production co-starring Diana Rigg, John Hurt, and Stonehenge.
Then again, you may prefer your King Lear served straight up. In that case, I suggest the Broadway Theatre Archive DVD starring James Earl Jones (before he became Darth Vader), from a performance filmed before an audience in New York City's Central Park and broadcast in 1974 as a PBS Great Performances presentation. The supporting cast showcases Raul Julia as the seductive villain Edmund, Rene Auberjonois as Edgar/Tom o' Bedlam, Rosalind Cash as treacherous Goneril, Lee Chamberlain's loving and steadfast Cordelia, Douglass Watson as loyal Kent, and Tom Aldredge (The Sopranos) as the Fool, Lear's voice of observant wisdom. (The only weak link is, oddly, Paul Sorvino's lackluster Gloucester.) Here's a no-fripperies, full-speed-ahead King Lear that's accessible, exciting, haunting, moving, and crowd-pleasing in ways that merely reading the play in English class will never achieve.

Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996)
Al Pacino self-produced this terrific fly-on-the-wall documentary because, basically, he's a Shakespeare buff. In it, Pacino explores not just the gold and dirt within Shakespeare's text -- we watch him also dip into the well of his own skill and craft as an actor to see if he has what it takes to make the vile (but layered and nuanced) Richard III live for modern American audiences. Pacino embarked upon Looking for Richard by recruiting fellow actors -- such as Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder -- and shooting small excerpts on film, be it conversations, debates, table-readings, or informal scenes in casual settings. Michael Mann lent some of his film crew from Heat to shoot the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field just outside of L.A. The result is a meditation on the value of the play, and of Shakespeare in general. It's a master class in acting, with behind-the-scenes conversations illuminating how much thought and planning goes into this sort of production.

Shakespeare in Love (1999)
Okay, sure, it's not strictly speaking "a Shakespeare movie," but this romance-comedy-drama does a great job taking us back to the days when Will Shakespeare -- just 29 years old with his career on the rise -- might forsake it all for the love of a higher-born woman. The witty script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard overflows with in-jokes for Shakespeare fans and theater buffs. Shakespeare in Love left the 1999 Academy Awards with seven statuettes, including the one for Best Picture. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother) is Will, and Gwyneth Paltrow (ah, my Gwyneth, shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) has never been better.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
In 1956 with Forbidden Planet, MGM did for science fiction what it had done for musicals four years earlier with Singin' in the Rain. The studio took the stuff its audiences loved, gave it that high-polish MGM razzle-dazzle, and produced an enduring best-of-breed favorite, a CinemaScope spectacle that's terrifically entertaining, smartly written, memorably cast, briskly paced, and production-designed to the hilt. Instead of Gene Kelly's tap shoes or Debbie Reynolds' pertness, this time we get Leslie Nielsen as a proto-Captain Kirk, special effects photography that still knocks our socks off, Hollywood's most famous robot before Star Wars' less imaginative and interesting droids, and (the stuff space-kids' dreams are made on) leggy Anne Francis ably modeling miniskirts a decade early. It has aged well, and any dated elements -- that great flying-saucer design of the starship, the crew's baseball-cap uniforms, the casual Rat Pack-era sexism -- only add a quaint charm to the film's robust retro-future vibe. Oh, and its plot points -- and even some dialogue -- come lifted with an Amazing Stories spin from Shakespeare's The Tempest.
The 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD is the one to get here. For a few bucks more you can get it in a big tin box with your own Robby the Robot miniature.

Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare Style
And finally, it's not a video clip, but it's too good to not mention. Via Boing Boing, we now know that Livejournal's Ceruleanst has given Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction the Bardolator treatment. Forthwith, here's the "Royale with Cheese" bit as written by William Shakespeare:
ACT I SCENE 2. A road, morning. Enter a carriage, with JULES and VINCENT, murderers.
J: And know'st thou what the French name cottage pie?
V: Say they not cottage pie, in their own tongue?
J: But nay, their tongues, for speech and taste alike
Are strange to ours, with their own history:
Gaul knoweth not a cottage from a house.
V: What say they then, pray?
J: Hachis Parmentier.
V: Hachis Parmentier! What name they cream?
J: Cream is but cream, only they say le crème.
V: What do they name black pudding?
J: I know not;
I visited no inn it could be bought.

Of course, social networking being what it is, others have joined in and further passages have been appended anon. And on and on and on. . . .

(With thanks to JJB at

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