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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 2) Hot

Matthew Henerson
Written by Matthew Henerson     August 02, 2011    
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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 2)

This is the second part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the first part here.


2. Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Far and away the best American Shakespeare film ever made, the Mankiewicz Caesar combines an attention to language worthy of the Olivier films with the briskly paced, large-scale epic style which the studios would perfect in such films as Ben Hur and Spartacus. The film is also noteworthy for a consistency of both sound and style despite a mixed English and American cast including such different, powerful and idiosyncratic performers as John Gielgud and Marlon Brando. Seen in contrast to Branagh’s uneven Much Ado About Nothing, in which Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, and Michael Keaton sounded flat and tentative next to Emma Thompson, Richard Briers, and Branagh himself, Brando’s Antony, Louis Calhern’s Caesar and Edmond O’Brien’s Casca comfortably share both street and Senate House with Gielgud’s Cassius, James Mason’s Brutus, and Debora Kerr’s Portia. Indeed the American actors—both O’Brien and Calhern spent much of their careers playing thugs and political heavies—bring a latent violence to the proceedings unmatched in British Shakespearean cinema until the anarchic brawl at the beginning of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The Americans embrace both the emotional richness of the text—Brando’s savage “Friends, Romans, Countrymen...”—as well as mining the material for what little humor there is in it: witness Calhern’s waspish distinction between “...what is to be feared...” and “...what I fear...”

The camera work is equally well balanced. Mankiewicz frequently shoots two or three actors from the waist up, but the frame never appears crowded. Contrast this with similar shots in several television productions—the BBC Richard II for example—and you’ll see how easily sets can be made to look both undersized and artificial when too many actors occupy too little space. By the same token, Mankiewicz gives an impression of size without relying either on huge sets or long shots. In that portion of the play which takes place in Rome, the shots are busy, suggesting an urban environment, without being cluttered. And when the play shifts to the battlefield, the camera gives an impression of space without sacrificing identity to gratuitous environmental long shots. For comparison, consider how difficult it can be to tell one actor from another in several of Branagh’s huge Hamlet masters.

Further, Makiewicz combines his excellent camera work with first-rate dramaturgy. His cutting—far less brutal than Olivier’s on any of his three films—supports an energetic, exciting, and clear narrative. We have here, perhaps, the professional filmmaker’s comfort with and acceptance of the idea of day players, as opposed to the actor-manager’s suspicion of talented small part actors. Where Olivier eliminates Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras from his Hamlet as either too distracting or too confusing for his audience, Mankiewicz includes Titinius, Clitus, Volumnius and Strato on the theory that an epic narrative requires atmosphere. There is dramatic value in seeing several soldiers refuse to assist Brutus in committing suicide before one reluctantly consents. If the oft-repeated dictum of the film school professor is “Show, don’t tell,” the short scene towards the end of the film shows Brutus’ popularity with his men, and, in James Mason’s gentle and resigned response to their refusal, shows why such a commander would be popular.


A Shift in Emphasis

Finally, Mankiewicz’s Caesar represents a shift in emphasis relative to all three of Olivier’s films. This is a complex point which speaks to the production history of the plays in general, and the continued trajectory of filmed Shakespeare in particular. Some context: from the Restoration through the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare’s plays were virtually always staged by the actor who played the leading role. This practice influenced more than 200 years of Shakespearean production in several ways: some predictable, others less so. For example, since these actor-managers were universally male, the tragedies and histories saw far more stage time than did the comedies. Indeed several of the comedies were drastically rewritten to pad the leading male roles, and many strong supporting roles were reduced or eliminated altogether from the tragedies and histories, lest they distract from the actor-manager’s central performance. Towards the middle of the 19th Century, adaptations such as those by Tate (King Lear), Cibber (Richard III), and Dryden (The Tempest) began to fall out of fashion in favor of the Shakespearean originals, but actor-managers continued to cut the plays heavily, both to pad their own parts, and to make room for increasingly complicated scenic effects. During this period, several of the less star-driven plays disappeared from the stage completely, particularly if their protagonists behaved in ways that were neither entirely noble, nor spectacularly villainous, or their plots involved behavior contrary to the morality of the age (e.g.. Measure for Measure, Troilus, Titus, etc.). In addition, this emphasis on the great tragic roles, replete as they all are with long passages of complex and imagistic poetry, begat a style of performance which a contemporary audience might more readily associate with opera: rigid physicality, grand sweeping gesture, and a vocal delivery which privileged musicality and histrionics over emotional truth, and, often, over sense.

Toward the end of the 19th Century, two men, William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker, reacting to what they perceived as excesses in the established style of Shakespearean performance, began presenting Shakespeare’s plays in what they considered a more Elizabethan manner. They did away with elaborate scenery, experimented with theatrical configurations other than proscenium, and encouraged actors to find character as well as music in the structure of Shakespeare’s language. Poel had been an actor and designer and Granville-Barker an actor, but by the early 20th Century, both men had gained prominence as teachers, scholars, and—a job description new to theatre—directors.

The experiments, and later West End productions of the New Elizabethans, as Poel and Granville-Barker called themselves, did not immediately end the reign of the actor-managers. Indeed, Victoria conferred a kind of royal approval upon established performance tradition by knighting Henry Irving, the most successful of the late 19th Century actor-managers in 1895. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sir Frank Benson continued the tradition into the early 20th Century, and their performances were among the first seen by the two classical actors who would come to dominate that century, John Gielgud (b. 1904) and Laurence Olivier (b. 1907.)

It was probably the First World War which doomed the actor-managers, as it doomed so many other individuals and institutions. Benson and Beerbohm Tree were too old to serve, but their companies were decimated by wartime casualties. Also, a new generation of playwrights—Shaw, Pinero, Rattigan, Fry and T.S. Eliot, as well as Ibsen, Chekhov and O’Neill—far more skilled and various than anything the high Victorian era had produced, were competing for a post-war audience; as were early movies. By 1929, most Shakespeare production in London had migrated from the West End to the Old Vic on the South Bank of the Thames, a theatre managed by a legendarily parsimonious South African school teacher named Lilian Baylis. Rather a cultural crusader than either an actor or a director, Baylis began producing Shakespeare at the Vic in 1914, hiring directors, then called “producers” some of whom were old-style actor-managers, but an increasing number of whom—Ben Greet, Harcourt Williams, and Tyrone Guthrie—were disciples of Poel and Granville-Barker. Between 1929 and 1937, John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness debuted at the Vic, joining Poel’s student Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndyke, both Vic veterans, in several seasons of Shakespearean roles, large and small.

This extraordinary generation of British actors represented a transitional period between the actor-managers of the 19th century and the stars trained in the great ensemble companies—Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, etc.—in the second half of the 20th. Had their number been fewer, their lives shorter, or the standard of their work less uniformly excellent, this transitional period might have been of shorter duration, but these actors, particularly Gielgud—great-nephew of Ellen Terry, Irving’s remarkable leading lady—and Olivier, had a foot in both camps. Their earliest, formative experiences with Shakespeare came from touring productions by Benson, H. B. Irving—Sir Henry’s son—and others. Then, in their late 20s and early 30s, they came under the influence of Williams and Guthrie at the Vic. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, a pattern emerged, again with particular reference to Gielgud and Olivier: both men would play a major role for the first time at the Vic under a director. Having found a given role comfortable, successful or both, the actor in question would take a lease on a commercial theatre and produce the play, occasionally inviting a director in to advise or co-direct, but as often directing the play in question himself. Gielgud, who thought in terms of seasons rather than individual plays, was the more frequent collaborator. Olivier, a less successful producer of West End fare, chose to flesh out Guthrie’s Hamlet and Henry V and John Burrell’s Richard III on film, all of which he directed alone.

If we consider Olivier’s Henry V in 1944 to be the birth of modern cinematic Shakespeare, a list of major Shakespearean films in the ten years following that birth reveals the powerful influence of the actor-manager tradition out of which the genre was born, and an early indication of the director-driven course upon which it would evolve.

1944: Henry V

directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.

1948 Macbeth directed by and starring Orson Welles.
1948 Hamlet directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
1952 Othello directed by and starring Orson Welles.
1953 Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
1955 Richard III directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.

(This same period contains a failed Italian production of Romeo and Juliet with a mixed English and Italian cast, and a more successful Russian Othello.)

Given the preponderance of star/director films on this list, the Mankiewicz Caesar appears initially to be a failed experiment: an expensive Hollywood epic produced primarily as a dubious vehicle for a young American movie star, Brando, a long way out of his comfort zone. Three facts, however, speak in mitigation of such an interpretation. The first is the financial and critical success of Caesar. By no means a blockbuster, the film was nevertheless nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and it even won one: Best Art Direction. The second is the presence of Gielgud in the cast, and in a supporting role, albeit a major one. Here at last was a clean break from the actor-manager paradigm made by the lineal heir to the tradition: Ellen Terry’s grand-nephew was content to receive fourth billing in a major Shakespearean event, at the height of his powers—something Olivier never did, in any medium. Finally, there is Mankiewicz’s fidelity to his source material, which looks forward to John Barton, Peter Hall and the primacy of text approach upon which the Royal Shakespeare Company and most American Shakespeare festivals are based. Sir Henry Irving would have recognized and applauded Olivier’s exorcism of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras from Hamlet, Margaret and much of Clarence and Buckingham from Richard III, and most of Henry V aside from what Henry says himself. But he would have been at pains to locate himself in the balanced ensemble of Makiewicz’s Caesar, in which so many wonderful voices, from the cobbler to Marullus to Strato—brief as their contributions might be—are given a hearing.

Towards the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, filmed Shakespeare took a back seat to several other cultural impulses around the English speaking world. In 1960, the star-driven Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford received a royal charter, a government subsidy, a new artistic director: Peter Hall, a new name: the Royal Shakespeare Company, and an ensemble of young actors which would include Denholm Elliott, Eric Porter, Peter O’Toole, Ian Holm, David Warner, Diana Rigg, Dorothy Tutin, Vanessa Redgrave, and Judi Dench. In 1962, Laurence Olivier was appointed Artistic Director of the newly formed National Theatre of Great Britain, initially housed at the Old Vic. Olivier had sought in vain for funding to film his Macbeth, and while Orson Welles would eventually scrape together enough to realize his cherished Falstaff project, Chimes at Midnight, the era of the actor-manager as film impresario had, for all intents and purposes, died. And it would stay dead until Kenneth Branagh resurrected it with limited success almost thirty years later. Olivier began his tenure at the National in 1963 by directing a Hamlet which starred O’Toole, and featured Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Rosemary Harris, Max Adrian, Michael Redgrave and Diana Wynyard. Before long Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Plowright, Jeremy Brett, Anthony Hopkins, Lynn Redgrave, Ian McKellen, and Michael Gambon would join the company as well. The National’s repertoire would range from the classics through Shakespeare to the plays of Arnold Wesker, John Osborne and Tom Stoppard, while the RSC developed work by Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Stoppard and David Storey. In Canada, the Stratford Festival, begun in 1953 with a two-play season headlined by Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, had begun making stars of Christopher Plummer, William Hutt and Martha Henry, while attracting such international stars as Paul Scofield, Alan Bates and Zoe Caldwell. And in the United States, the regional theatre movement gained momentum, and directors like Tyrone Guthrie, William Ball, Craig Noel and Michael Kahn brought productions of the classics to Minneapolis, San Diego, and Washington D.C. even as Joseph Papp brought George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, and later Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Meryl Streep to prominence at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.

In retrospect, the 1960s—a revolutionary decade in so many ways—proved to be the golden age of director-driven Shakespeare and director’s theatre in general. In England, the Gielgud/Olivier generation was aging past many of Shakespeare’s leading roles, but, unlike earlier actor-managers, who were content to play Romeo and Coriolanus into their 60s and 70s, both Olivier and Gielgud found new avenues for their considerable talents in collaboration with younger directors—Peter Hall, Peter Brook, John Dexter, Tony Richardson—and contemporary playwrights like John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and David Storey. Further, Peter Hall’s appointment as Artistic Director of the newly christened Royal Shakespeare Company was seen as a reaction to the star-driven productions which had brought the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to national prominence in the 1950s under artistic director Anthony Quayle. Hall and his contemporaries Peter Brook, John Barton, Clifford Williams, and William Gaskill were young, university-educated, and politically-minded. They were also conversant with and influenced by theatrical theorists and practitioners from Continental Europe: playwrights like Brecht, Weiss, and Ionesco, and theatrical philosophers such as Jan Kott and Antoine Artaud. Under the patronage of the new national theatres, European companies brought contemporary and classical work—some of it translated and some in the language of the visiting companies—to festivals and touring venues throughout England. "Directors Shakespeare" rapidly became a far more international product than actor-manager Shakespeare had ever been, and what would become one of its most influential voices came from a 37-year old (in 1960) Italian opera director, who would make three of the most popular, naturalistic, and heavily cut Shakespeare films in the history of the sub-genre.


Check back next week for part three of this five-part series.

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