Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Many important people were born on April 23rd: President James Buchanan, Shirley Temple, Roy Orbison, Vladimir Nabokov, Me. But the person I want to discuss today is William Shakespeare, who was both born on this day in 1564 and then died on this day in 1616, which was the same day Cervantes died as well. Small world.

Truth be told, the exact date of Shakespeare's birth is unknown, but it is commonly observed on April 23rd, possibly do do a typographical error, but it fits because we know he was baptized on the 26th. This day stuck probably because it added to the romance of the man's life to think that he died on the same day he was born. Also, it happens to be my birthday, so I think that's cool. And forget about the silly notion the Oxfordians and anti-Stratfordians have put forth that the actual historical figure William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to his name, since there is no actual evidence to support those claims. But that's a post for another time, since what I really want to talk about today are a few of my favorite films based on the works of William Shakespeare.

In no real order...

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
This isn't really adapted from one of Shakeaspeare's plays so much as a pastiche centered around two of the supporting players in Hamlet. It shows the famous play from the perspective of the titular characters, who are engaged by the king to spy on their good friend Hamlet. It was directed by Tom Stoppard and based upon his own stage play, and it is very clever, very funny, and features two great performances by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.

But that's not why I put this movie on my list. I love this movie mostly for Iain Glen as Hamlet. It's a surprisingly small role in a film based on Hamlet, but Glen gives my all time favorite screen performance as Hamlet.

Throne of Blood (1957) / Ran (1985)
Both of these films were directed by Akira Kurosawa and transpose the stories of Shakespeare to feudal Japan. Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth while Ran is based on King Lear. Both are brilliant, boldly adapted with stripped down language and stunning visual, and capture the tone of themes of the original plays better than most straight adaptations have.

Ran in particular is extraordinary, since it is maybe the director's best work and the last of his major epics. Go rent it.

Macbeth (1971)
I remember watching this for the first time in school, which is crazy because of all the gore and nudity. I went to high school Europe, so I'm guessing any teacher who tried to show this in America would be shown the door before the end of act one. But I loved it then and I still do now, probably because of all that gore and nudity. Also, because Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare's plays and this is a pretty great (if not all together faithful) adaptation with a stellar lead performance by Jon Finch. Whatever happened to that guy?

This was the first film Roman Polanski directed after his wife Sharon Tate (among others) was murdered by the Charles Manson cult, so that helps to explain why it is so dark, bleak, and maybe off-putting to most audiences. Boy is it dark, but then, it's a dark play to begin with.

Othello (1952)
Here is a film by the greatest film director all time adapted from the play of the greatest writer of all time. Othello is neither my favorite of the plays of Shakespeare nor my favorite of the films of Orson Welles, but it's still extraordinary. It's well worth seeking out, even though it is one of the more elusive films from a director whose entire career was based on films that have have been reshot, recut, or just lost completely.

If you manage to find a copy of this film, chances are good the audio will be muffled and hard to hear and the picture quality will be mediocre. There recently was a restored version released on DVD, but it was recut from the version originally edited by Welles. However... it's worth watching even then because it's one of the most gorgeous films he's ever directed, featuring an incredible performance by Welles as Othello, as long as you can get over (and forgive him for) his black face.

Romeo +  Juliet (1996)

Baz Luhrmann's modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet was loud, irreverent, over the top, and campy. In other words, it would've made William Shakespeare proud. This is just a fun movie that has a great cast, a clever setting, and a great visual style. I love it, and so will you.

Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh was all wrong in the titular role of the brooding Danish prince, but everything else about this film is magnificent. To begin with, it is the only film version of the play that is completely uncut (and since it's 242 minutes long, it's easy to understand why everybody else trimmed so many scenes down!), it has an epic cast including such actors as Derek Jacoi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Jack Lemon, Brian Blessed, Charlton Heston, and about a billion other famous and notable names, and is absolutely gorgeous to look at.

Branagh shouldn't have have cast himself as Hamlet, however, even though I don't blame him for wanting to play the role. He was just too old for the role. When Hamlet is a young man dealing with the murder of his father and the usurpation of his title to the throne, it's tragedy at its best. When it's a guy who's pushing forty, he just comes across as a psychopath. So this is a wonderful film in most ways, except the central character is unlikable.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
And if you love Shakespeare (and the movies based upon his plays), this film is just a treat, since it is a funny, clever, entertaining look at the man's life and inspirations. It wasn't terribly accurate in terms of his life, of course, but it captured the time perfectly and the man as well as I could've imagined. I don't know if Joseph Fiennes really captured the true William Shakespeare, but he was perfect in the role as popularized in our culture. Best of all was seeing the plays of Shakespeare performed in the same way that they were when he originally wrote them.

Happy birthday, Bill!

1 comment:

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I'm surprised you didn't have a bunch of fanatics coming over here to tell you how stupid you are for thinking that William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him.

Oh, by the way, happy birthday!