Souping up the Bard

Shakespeare is Hollywood’s latest hot ticket

Brian D. Johnson November 11 1996

Souping up the Bard

Shakespeare is Hollywood’s latest hot ticket

Brian D. Johnson November 11 1996

Souping up the Bard


Shakespeare is Hollywood’s latest hot ticket


He is Hollywood’s hottest screenwriter. His movies deal with murder, gang war, illicit romance, lethal drugs and women in drag. And he writes in a flamboyant style that can shift from screwball comedy to blooddrenched drama in a twinkling. No, not Quentin Tarantino. William Shakespeare.

He has been dead for four centuries, but three movies based on his work are playing in theatres this month—William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Looking for Richard and Twelfth Night. A fourth, a marathon version of Hamlet by British actordirector Kenneth Branagh, is due out by Christmas. Shakespeare has faded in and out of cinematic fashion since the silent era. But perhaps more than anyone, Branagh has helped make the Bard a Hollywood player for the Nineties. With his frolicsome (and profitable) Much Ado About Nothing (1993), he put the showbiz back into Shakespeare—championing the idea that a 400year-old play could be loads of fun, and instantly accessible. “None of these films would be happening without the success of Much Ado,” says Trevor Nunn, the British director of Twelfth Night.

But the latest Shakespeare films go even further to breathe fresh life into Elizabethan drama. Australian director Baz Luhrmann sets his exhilarating Romeo and Juliet among street gangs packing semiautomatic weapons on a honky-tonk strip called Verona Beach. With Looking for Richard—a dazzling mosaic of comic documentary and dramatic performance— actor-director AÍ Pacino canvasses pedestrians on the streets of Manhattan and snoops around Shakespeare’s birthplace as part of an attempt to unravel Richard III.

Nunn’s decorous Twelfth Night is more traditional. But it, too, goes out of its way to make a cinematic splash before getting down to the business of blank verse.

As film-makers cut Shakespeare’s dialogue, tart up his characters and update period settings, some scholars may take offence. But Luhrmann contends that his Romeo and Juli-

et is just the kind of movie Shakespeare might have made if he were around today. ‘What people forget,” the director said in an interview last week, “is that Shakespeare was a relentless entertainer. When he played the Elizabethan stage, he was basically dealing with an audience of 3,000 drunken punters who were selling pigs and geese in the stalls. He played to everyone from the street sweeper to the Queen of England. And his style was to have stand-up comedy one moment, a song and then the highest tragedy right next to it.” Adds Luhrmann: “He was a rambunctious, sexy, violent, entertaining storyteller, and we’ve tried to be all those things.”

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—which could just as easily be called Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet—is a luscious, balletic, candy-colored spectacle. With switchblade editing, Luhrmann cuts his way through dizzying fight sequences—Miami Vice meets West Side Story in duels of drawn guns and screeching tires. Then, he steps on the brakes, drops all the postmodern razzmatazz, and lets the drama relax into deliciously tender, languorous love scenes between his two captivating young stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Luhrmann, who made his name with the stylized dance fable Strictly Ballroom (1992), employs a visual flair that is occasionally too slick, too gimmicky—or just downright exhausting. But it is never dull. His gaudy, gangland Verona Beach is a Felliniesque carnival of extremes, with obvious allusions to riot-torn Miami and Los Angeles. In fact, the movie was filmed in Mexico, and icons of Mexican folklore, glow-in-the-dark Madonnas and neon crucifixes are ubiquitous.

This neo-Romeo customizes Shakespeare’s tragedy. But, tongue-incheek, it also toys with anachronism at every turn. The prologue, which introduces the tale of “starcrossed lovers,” is voiced by a TV anchorwoman reading the news in iambic pentameter. When gang members draw their chrome pistols, we hear the scrape of swords being unsheathed. Before attending the ball where he first meets Juliet, Romeo drops a tab of acid. His best friend, Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), is a black transvestite who dances at the ball in a silversequined miniskirt and bra.

The feuding Capulet and Montague families, meanwhile, are corporate dynasties ruled by avaricious patriarchs—Juliet’s father, Capulet (Paul Sorvino), is a classic Mafia don. Romeo’s rival, Paris, graces Time

magazine’s cover as “Bachelor of the year.” The film is riddled with playful sight gags. A sign advertises Out Damned Spot Dry Cleaners. And the letter from the Friar (Pete Postlethwaite) telling Romeo about Juliet’s faked death goes astray in a courier van labeled Post-Post Haste Dispatch.

Luhrmann has cut Shakespeare’s text by almost half. He has preserved the Elizabethan English of what remains—although there is not a plummy English accent in the cast. Nurse (Miriam Margolyes) delivers

her lines with a heavy Hispanic inflection that sounds entirely appropriate. And as young actors jive through Shakespeare’s verse in American accents, it is not as incongruous as it seems. “In truth,” says Luhrmann, “the idea of a society where youth go around speaking in rhythm with metaphor and simile happens today in the streets of America.”

Of course, the bottom line in filming Romeo and Juliet is the casting of the two leads.

As director Franco Zeffirelli proved with his lush 1968 version, they must be young, beautiful and visibly enchanted with each other. DiCaprio and Danes more than qualify.

DiCaprio has the insouciant charm of James Dean’s frisky kid brother; there is sweet delinquency about him. Danes, acclaimed for her role in the short-lived TV series My SoCalled Life, is a 17-year-old whose innocence is offset by an air of dreamy wisdom. The lovers first gaze at each other through an aquarium. They first embrace in a swimming pool. And with Luhrmann filming their love scenes in lingering close-ups, they kiss and kiss and kiss—as only young lovers do.

Looking for Richard is equally audacious. And considering just what Pacino has undertaken, his success in coming up with such a huge-

ly entertaining movie is an even more impressive feat. Pacino had played Richard onstage. But instead of simply filming his performance, or taking it outdoors, he spent 10 years, off and on, filming his attempt to film it. Out of that obsessive labor of love, Pacino has crafted a remarkably coherent and compelling movie, a vividly annotated Shakespeare. It is as if Scarface had suddenly turned into the world’s coolest English teacher.

Richard III features Shakespeare’s most infamous villain, the hunchbacked conspirator who murders his way to the English throne. It is one of the Bard’s most-performed works, and a film version appeared just last year, with Ian McKellen playing Richard as a 20th-century fascist. But, with its convoluted string of murders, Richard is a difficult play. And the comedy of Pacino’s film revolves around his exasperated quest to crack it. “It’s very confusing,” he says. “I don’t know why we’re even bothering to do this at all.”


Elizabethan fare features gang war, murder, and cross-dressers

Over the decade of filming, Pacino is a

time-lapse portrait of changing facial hair. Hamming it up in his backwards baseball cap, he seems a little disingenuous as he strolls the streets, Letterman-style—a Hollywood royal asking the simple folk what they know about Shakespeare. But he is a talk-show host who pulls in some fascinating guests. Kevin Kline remembers being taken to a stuffy production of King Lear as a teenager and “making out with my girlfriend in the back row.” Vanessa Redgrave and Kenneth Branagh plumb the secrets of iambic pentameter.

Meanwhile, Pacino works his way through the play’s major scenes, cutting between the actors thrashing out line-readings around a table to richly costumed performances. Powered by a strong cast—including Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder and Alec Baldwin—the momentum builds, until the sinew of the play begins to emerge, almost magically, from the chaos of deconstruction. The film’s cut-and-thrust editing, a brilliant kind of cinematic swordplay, escalates to the climactic battle scene (“My kingdom for a horse!”). And Pacino’s Shakespeare class explodes into pure

explodes pure movie-making. Looking for Richard is one of the year’s best films.

Twelfth Night, a genderbending comedy of mistaken identity, is less thrilling, although director Nunn has fashioned a handsome production. Fleshing out the play’s background, he opens the film with the shipwreck in which identical twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh) are separated. Viola assumes her brother is dead. Washed up on an alien shore, she disguises herself as a boy, enters the service of a duke, and ends up wooing the countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) on his behalf. As the romantic intrigue thickens, a slapstick power struggle ensues in Olivia’s household, resulting in a humiliating prank against her ill-tempered steward, Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne).

It is a solid, well-acted production. Bonham Carter is a serene presence, Hawthorne acts his pants off, and Ben Kingsley invests the minstrel’s role with sphinxlike gravity. Placing his characters in lovely landscapes and 19thcentury costumes, Nunn directs with a breezy élan that recalls Branagh’s Much Ado. But he lacks a galvanizing performance. And this upstairsdownstairs farce, Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, lacks punch. Now that

gender-bending has become such a sophisticated conceit in film-making—with such landmarks as Orlando, The Crying Game and M. Butterfly—Twelfth Night’s fake-moustache masquerade appears awfully tame.

Still, Nunn’s sunny, athletic adaptation adds to the vigorous diversity in the current crop of Shakespeare movies. Great directors, from Orson Welles to Roman Polanski, have risen to the challenge of filming Shakespeare. And after almost 400 years, the source appears inexhaustible. □