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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 3) Hot

Matthew Henerson
Written by Matthew Henerson     August 08, 2011    
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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 3)

This is the third part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read Part 1 and Part 2.


3. Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli’s 1960 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic made a star of Judi Dench, hitherto a Vic supporting player who had been critically lambasted for her Ophelia two seasons earlier to such an extent that the role had been taken from her on an Old Vic tour to America and given to the older and more established Barbara Jefford. Critics compared Dench unfavorably to Claire Bloom, the reigning Ophelia and Juliet of the 1950s, maintaining that the younger actress couldn’t speak the verse. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of Zeffirelli’s early dicta to Dench and the rest of his Romeo and Juliet cast stipulated that “Verse speakers will be prosecuted.” This is emblematic of Zeffirelli’s approach to Shakespeare: a naturalist’s concern with clarity of narrative and emotional credibility. The tension in Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare arises from the fact that Shakespeare was not, himself, a naturalist. He comes to emotional truth through language. Indeed he had few other tools, hence a balcony separating Romeo and Juliet, since Shakespeare knew—as does anybody who has experienced adolescent ardor—that if there is not some physical impediment between two consenting horny teenagers, there ain’t gonna be any language. Zeffirelli, even in his theatrical Shakespeare, regards language as an impediment to emotional clarity, or at least as a tool to circumvent emotional investment. Paradoxically, for someone whose name is closely associated with the popularization of Shakespeare, Zeffirelli has actually directed only six English-language versions of five of the plays—three theatrical productions and three films. Both his Royal Shakespeare Company Othello—with Gielgud in the title role, and what must that rehearsal hall have been like, if verse speakers were still to be prosecuted?—and his National Theatre Much Ado, the cast of which included Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Frank Finaly, Michael York, Lynn Redgrave and Michael Gambon, are little more than footnotes in the production histories of their respective plays. His films of Shrew and Hamlet are discussed primarily for their cinematography and sometimes, perfunctorily, for the performances of their movie star leads. But with Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli’s background in opera, a painterly eye for both color and detail, and a willingness to risk foregoing theatrical technique in his cast in favor of inexperience, youth and beauty all combine to reinvent a play which had, throughout an almost unbroken 400-year performance history, all but forgone the factional violence, momentum, excitement, and generational conflict which provide counterpoint and context for the lyrical duet at its center. No other major play owes, to a single actor or director, the debt which Romeo and Juliet owes to Franco Zeffirelli.

From the first frame of the film, we see Zeffirelli’s mastery of the literal “moving picture.” His Verona is hot, dusty, active and colorful. Merchants, grocers, shoppers and beggars jostle and haggle. Stalls are erected. Fowls are plucked. Sheets are shaken. There is none of the tidiness associated with the cinematic middle ages a la Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Through the streets of this bustling city state, and the crowds of merchants and housewives in their brown, tan and white homespun, stroll the sons and servants of the nouveau riche: young, arrogant, slim, handsome and gaudily dressed in bright reds, oranges and blues. They wear striped hose and carry weapons: daggers and swords. The initial brawl is protracted, violent, and expensive. We see shops thrown down, bins of fruit upset, and innocent bystanders bloodied. Again the filmic dictum “Show, don’t tell.” By the time Robert Stephens’ Escalus berates the assembled Montagues and Capulets for “civil brawls”—and, having seen the extent of the fighting, how much easier it is to understand that strange phrase both as an oxymoron and as a description of violence so intense as to threaten civilization itself—we have a visceral understanding of the price of violence, in terms of goods destroyed and time lost as well as blood shed. (By the way, it’s tempting to see a subtle dig against the Gielgud/Olivier tradition of beautifully spoken Shakespeare in the casting of Stephens, a protégée of Olivier with a flair for rhetoric, as the ineffectual and vacillating Escalus. His is the first voice, other than the uncredited Olivier himself reciting the opening chorus, we hear at any length, and he comes across, appropriately for the character, as a strident and windy political nullity.)

An obviously deliberate casting coup revealed in the opening brawl is Michael York’s incredibly handsome and youthful Tybalt. York was 25 at the time of shooting. Here is our first glimpse of youth in action, the true heir to the aggressive and moneyed Capulets. He is aristocratic and entitled, violent, intelligent and gorgeous. As he squares off against Bruce Robinson’s equally young but far less handsome Benvolio, he resembles nothing so much as the captain of a high school basketball team—or if you’re English, a popular and athletic Prefect—doling out abuse to the class bookworm. Audience response to him is immediately ambiguous. However stridently a viewer may condemn the bully in him, 90% of men want to be him, while the other 10%, and 90% of the women, want to do him. We even find ourselves excusing his homicidal violence as youthful excess. And, later in the film, we’re outraged along with John McEnery’s Mercutio when Leonard Whiting’s Romeo, equally attractive, but doe-eyed and beautiful rather than virile, tries to make nice rather than fighting him. After all, Tybalt himself has recently demonstrated how a real man declines a challenge. This is exactly the way Tybalt should function dramaturgically, and this is the way Tybalt is most often cast in contemporary productions of the play. An audience should admire the character’s courage, even as they deplore his aggression. They should mourn a handsome, young man cut down before age and wisdom could season the violence and arrogance in him. Look back, however, at Stratford and Old Vic yearbooks from the 50s, and you’ll see men in their late 30s and early 40s with long, straight black-banged wigs and goatees. Watch George Cukor’s 1936 film, and see a handsome middle-aged Basil Rathbone (44 at the time of shooting) sneering theatrically down his long aristocratic nose at Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. This conception of Tybalt, entirely counter to the text as written, has held sway for most of the play’s 400 plus years of existence: a minor villain, conveniently and agreeably dead and forgotten before either protagonist gets into the play’s most beautifully pathetic language. Zeffirelli is most likely the first director to use Tybalt to deepen the tragedy. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are tragic in themselves, but York’s Tybalt, in his youth and his power, adds a generational dimension to the play’s losses, standing for scores of likely young people, with no particular rhetorical gifts to justify a play of their own, cut down by the malice of meaningless grudges and feuds.

Before leaving Zeffirelli’s extraordinary movie, something must be said about the performances of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, 17 and 15 respectively at the time of shooting. Their youth and inexperience is often cited as a reason for dismissing the Zeffirelli film as populist or even Cliff-Notes Shakespeare. Of course this kind of carping hasn’t prevented director after director from replicating the experiment. Cedric Messina, casting the play for the BBC in the late 1970s turned to the 14-year-old Rebecca Saire, who gave a featureless performance in a listless production. And while Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were far more experienced actors than Whiting and Hussey, neither had done Shakespeare before, and DiCaprio in particular couldn’t make reliable sense of his text. More to the point, Luhrmann’s film, while a remarkably consistent re-imagining of the play, doesn’t have anything like the emotional power of the Zeffirelli. And while Zeffirelli all but excavated the play’s original dramaturgy from centuries of sentiment and pathos, Romeo and Juliet cannot work without some contribution from Romeo and Juliet.

They were both beautiful, and both had that unique beauty only possible in the truly young. Hussey was the slightly more experienced performer—also dramaturgically appropriate—having played one of Vanessa Redgrave’s students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And they were neither of them stars. I’m trying to make a highly speculative point here, and one which, in the case of Zeffirelli’s film, amounts to an exception that proves a rule. I have worked with directors who, in a failure of imagination, cast an actor for some personal trait which the director feels is integral to a given role. An example from personal experience: I was cast as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, a role I’ve played several times, as it happens. This particular director was tremendously excited about the actor he’d cast as Andrew Aguecheeck. He kept telling me what a wacky guy—his words—this actor was. And since the director conceived of Andrew primarily as a wacky guy, he assumed the actor he’d cast would be perfect in the part. In my experience, that kind of thinking is an almost foolproof recipe for disaster. And yet; of the four major films of Romeo and Juliet (Cukor, 1936; Renato Castellani, 1954; Zeffirelli, 1967; Luhrmann, 2002,) only Zeffirelli used unknowns for his leads. And there is an innocence to both performances (Whiting’s and Hussey’s) which I expect established stars would find difficult to deliver. They’re soulful; they’re simple. They are, for all intents and purposes, children. And Zeffirelli’s camera treats them with the reverence reserved for the dogs and children with whom veteran performers proverbially never wish to appear. In a paradox which holds true neither for Rebecca Saire nor Leonardo DiCaprio, Whiting and Hussey are moving not because they can play inexperience, but because they are inexperienced. And these improbable performances are the legacy from and the gift to Franco Zeffirelli who fumbled Shrew, flattened Othello, buried Much Ado, and decimated Hamlet, but who rediscovered, both on stage and screen, the passion and the power of Romeo and Juliet.


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

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