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COMMENTARY : William Shakespeare, Screenwriter : Today, the Bard's gifts seem better suited to the large screen than to 20th-Century theater

December 17, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

It's often been suggested--most recently by Branagh himself--that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would have gravitated toward film: that his innate practicality and showmanship, as much as his towering genius, would have made him an ideal movie maker. Indeed, throughout "Henry V," the Chorus--a role played perhaps by the actor-writer himself--complains constantly that he cannot show us sea voyages or battles; that he is cramped, trying to represent things "which cannot in their huge and proper life be here presented. . . . in little rooms confining mighty men." He seems to yearn for the richness, breadth and spectacle that are the movies' basic advantage, to long for the 20th-Century art form that can make, just as he saw it, a stage of all the world.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 24, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Talkies--In a Dec. 17 article on Shakespeare on screen, the 1929 Fairbanks-Pickford "Taming of the Shrew" was classified with the silent movie pastiches of the plays. Actually, it exists in three versions: one silent, one early talkie and a later re-release, the last of which eliminates the notorious "added dialogue" credit for Sam Taylor.

Is all this so far-fetched? Despite Shakespeare's rank as the greatest of playwrights, few today write plays like his. Working in a theater grown parsimonious and pinched, they create smaller dramas with smaller casts and range. The great epic style of the Elizabethan drama they leave, instead, to the movies--to historical dramas, science fiction and adventure films. Sadly, those same adventure movies, in the '80s, have mostly become blood-engorged spectacles, the near moral equivalent of the bear-baiting shows which competed with the Globe plays in the 1590s.

Questions of artistic value aside, we can find more kindred spirits to the Elizabethan playwrights in "Lawrence of Arabia," "8 1/2," "Fanny and Alexander," "The Godfather" or "Citizen Kane" than in the bulk of contemporary drama. In films like these, there's a scenic or emotional grandeur that gets some of the charge Shakespeare made with stage craft and his language: its rich shimmer, its sugared gleam, its vaults and plummets of ecstasy and grief.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 "Romeo and Juliet," the most popular of all the recent Shakespeare movie adaptations at the box-office, shows how close to a modern scenario the plays, judiciously cut, can seem. And in the films of Olivier ("Henry V," "Hamlet," "Richard III") and Welles ("Macbeth," "Othello," and "Chimes at Midnight"), the most spectacular visual designs never inhibit the soaring phrases. Olivier's "Hamlet," favorite film of the young Roman Polanski, takes place in a multileveled, many-chambered castle, where the camera ceaselessly prowls through corridors and up and down staircases. Welles' 1948 "Macbeth," shot on the cheap, is a primitive Scottish nightmare in cavernous sets that dwarf the characters, who scuttle like rats within them. Welles' "Othello" cuts surreally from country to country. And his "Chimes at Midnight"--which takes place mostly in huge, drafty-looking castles, on battlefields and in a vast barn-like inn, full of nooks and crannies for fat Jack and his venal, gargoyle crew--is a hive of boisterous activity. In it, speeches either roll out in royal grandeur or tumble like jets of liquor spurting from the reveler's mouths.

Shakespeare's dramatic credo--to "hold the mirror up to nature"--might have been invented for the movies. In the camera's gaze, we get, effortlessly, that reflection of reality the writer always sought, even in his most fantastic domains. We get that consummate, close-observing realism that always lies beneath the overpowering lyricism and poetry.

Shakespeare's heart lies in that lyric gift, but also in his seeming effervescence of spirit, his capacity--more fully developed than any playwright's before or since--to pass freely among a vast crowd of characters and live within them all, cloaked in a multitude of skins and voices. That quality works perfectly for the movies. So do his scope and color, his humor high and low. Equally, his supreme gift for characterization makes the plays great magnets for actors--who love to take on all his roles, from the most famous to the most seemingly insignificant.

In the movies, there have been almost as many Shakespeares as directors to interpret him. There is the gray, Bergmanesque, post-Beckett philosopher of frost, betrayal and entropy in Peter Brook's 1971 "King Lear." There is the Italianate sun-drenched voluptuary aflame with youth, "hot days and mad blood stirring" in Franco Zeffirelli. There is the horror-soaked bloody bard of Polanski's "Macbeth." There is the sonorous dark symphonist of Grigori Kozintsev's "Lear" and "Hamlet."

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