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Waking Will Divinely: Shakespeare in Love

No, the affair that filmgoers have had with Shakespeare didn't begin when Joseph Fiennes outbatted Gwyneth Paltrow in the eyelash department, or when Tom Stoppard rewrote Marc Norman's dialogue into the smash hit that would have made Shakespeare into his own green-eyed monster. But the film "Shakespeare in Love" has rekindled the flames, and Shakespeare lovers cannot help but be pleased.

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In Love With Shakespeare
After 41 Hamlets & 25 Romeos, H'wood proves there's much ado about Will

By Jack Mathews
Daily News Movie Critic
February 28, 1999

Among the many observations about commercial storytelling in John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love" is the notion, expressed several times by Geoffrey Rush's character, theater impresario Philip Henslowe, that despite all that can go wrong with a production, the one under way will turn out well.

Why?

"It's a mystery," says Henslowe. Indeed it is. Whether a story is being prepared for the stage or the screen, it is at least a mystery when audiences experience an evening of genuine magic. As "Shakespeare in Love" writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard acknowledge with a scene where a nervous Shakespeare listens to an audience cough its way through "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," not even the Bard could dream of such success.

In fact, if Shakespeare were here, he'd be as surprised as anyone at the success of this outrageously clever comedy that imagines his being inspired to write "Romeo and Juliet" by his own star-crossed romance. He might find it an even bigger mystery that in the prose, poetry and nobility-deprived age of MTV, Cliffs Notes and Bill Clinton his life's work has become one of the hottest commodities in pop culture.

Shakespeare is chic, and in varying degrees, has been since movies were invented.

An Internet search of movie databases turns up a list of more than 300 film and television adaptations of his plays, the first of which — Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree's "King John" — was made in 1899. Thus, as he himself becomes the subject of "Shakespeare in Love," we celebrate 100 years of Shakespeare on film. In fact, we're in the midst of a decade-long Shakespeare frenzy that has seen 45 film and television adaptations in the 1990s alone. And there are a half-dozen more at some stage of production.

"I think now is a good time to be doing Shakespeare," says Leslie Urdang, co-producer of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," due in theaters in May. "Partially, it's because of the millennium. It's a time for looking back."

Look back no farther than Kenneth Branagh's 1989 "Henry V" for the start of the current Shakespeare cycle. That robust battle epic was a surprise box-office success, and propelled such subsequent hits as Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," with Mel Gibson, Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing," and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes urban update of "Romeo and Juliet."

Next up is Disney/Touchstone's "10 Things I Hate About You," a retelling of "The Taming of the Shrew" through a group of high school friends, then "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Michael Hoffman as a straight-ahead adaptation of the Bard's puckish comedy, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania and Kevin Kline as Bottom.

Among others in the pipeline:

"Love's Labour's Lost" — The first of three new Shakespeare adaptations that Branagh has been commissioned to make for Miramax, the distributor of "Shakespeare in Love." Being done as a 1930s musical, with the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and a cast that includes Branagh, Nathan Lane and Alicia Silverstone, the comedy has inspired several TV movies, but this will mark its film debut.

"Hamlet" — Ethan Hawke is the Dark Prince in a contemporary update of film's most often adapted Shakespeare. Set in the corporate world, it co-stars Sam Shepard as the Ghost, Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius and Bill Murray as Polonius. It's directed by Michael Amereyda, whose best known past work was the erotic vampire thriller "Nadja."

"O" — This treatment of "Othello," going into production this week, casts a contemporary version of the Moor as the only black student in an otherwise all-white prep school.

"Titus" — Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange co-star in the screen's first adaptation of "Titus Andronicus." Julie Taymor, who knocked out Broadway critics and audiences with her staging of "The Lion King," is making the film for Disney.

Farther down the road are Branagh's planned productions of "Macbeth," which will see another Shakespearean journey into the corporate world, and "As You Like It," which the director plans to set in Kyoto, Japan.

To coin a phrase, what's up with that?

The truth is, Shakespeare has never been far from the minds of film makers, for all the obvious reasons. His stories are heavily plotted, rich in character, with universal themes and plenty of sex and violence. You can adapt him without paying him or his estate a fee, or worse, gross participation in the profits, and use his name as an implied endorsement, even if you butcher his work beyond recognition.

Shakespeare's enduring appeal over the centuries is his insight into human nature, and his poetic gift for exploiting its range of emotions, motivations and foibles. Some define the strength of his work as a universal humanity; Columbia University literature professor James Shapiro says it's his use of "universal anxieties."

"Scrap the humanity stuff, that doesn't wash," Shapiro says. "Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of cultural anxieties. That's why his plays work for every generation. Those anxieties are always with us."

Why they are with us now more than ever, has to do with the changing of attitudes and of the conventional wisdom in Hollywood. Shakespeare has always been a tough sell, but now that Branagh, Zeffirelli and, in particular, Luhrmann have demonstrated its commercial appeal, the Bard is a player.

"Luhrmann's ‘Romeo and Juliet' broke the mold," says Gil Junger, the director of "10 Things I Hate About You." "He's the key player in taking Shakespeare and putting him in the mainstream as something hip and intriguing."

But before Luhrmann, there was Mel Gibson, whose decision to play Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" proved to be neither a career embarrassment nor a stunt. He did Hamlet proud, brought people to the play who might otherwise not have seen it, and his willingness to defer his normally gargantuan fee in order to test his mettle with the Bard inspired other stars to make the same deal.

Ethan Hawke has been quoted as saying he signed on for the latest "Hamlet" because "I don't want to wake up at 65 not having done it."

"Actors are attracted to great material, and there is none better than Shakespeare," says Urdang. "They also know a Shakespeare film will never be ‘Titanic,' and they're eager to participate in telling one of the Shakespeare stories without inhibiting it [with high salary demands]."

In a way, the current Shakespeare wave is a summary of all that has been done before. In the silent era, and into the ‘30s and ‘40s, Shakespeare adaptations tended to be done as literally as possible, given the time constraints of the new medium. Shakespeare did go on.

In the 1950s, as the film studios attempted to stave off the erosion of their audiences to television, Shakespeare plots found their way into other genres. "The Taming of the Shrew" informed the stage and screen versions of "Kiss Me Kate." "Romeo and Juliet" became a story of crosstown, star-crossed lovers in the musical "West Side Story." "Othello" was updated as a tale of interracial love between a singer and her bandleader in "All Night Long" (Iago is on drums). And "The Tempest" was the template for the 1956 sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet."

The gangster movie "Joe Macbeth" and the Western "Johnny Hamlet" speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Akira Kurosawa reimagined "Macbeth" as a samurai lord in "Throne of Blood," and would later do the same for "King Lear" with his last masterpiece, "Ran."

Hollywood returned periodically to Shakespeare in the '70s and '80s, but left most of the heavy lifting of the Bard to "Masterpiece Theatre" and the BBC, where, unfortunately, his modern reputation as a literary boy toy for the cultural elite was perpetuated.

It's one of the great modern ironies that history's most popular mass media — film and television — feel unworthy of its most popular storyteller. Shakespeare was merely a genius, not a snob.

"I concur with the idea that if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing movies and television," "Richard III" director Richard Loncraine told Cineaste magazine recently. "He was obviously a man of the moment, and he was not averse to commerciality."

Says Junger: "If he were here, he'd be closing a $36 million, three-picture deal right now, and driving around in a Porsche."

In his place, Branagh has a three-picture deal, with Miramax, and his willingness to put the lyrics of Porter and Berlin into the mouths of Shakespeare characters reveals no lingering embarrassment over broadening the master's appeal to contemporary audiences.

"When Nathan Lane sings ‘There's No Business Like Show Business,' audiences will love it," says Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who just returned from the English set of Love's Labour's Lost." "If Shakespeare were around, he'd be the biggest proponent of these movies."

Will "Shakespeare in Love" put even more of his plays into action in Hollywood? Count on it.

"The film business … has never been an easy marriage of art and commerce," says Loncraine. "But if a Shakespeare film makes money … then it will encourage studios to make other Shakespeare films."

Of course, the movies have to be good to make money, and there's the rub. No one can predict when or how one will turn out well, and a look at its 10-year struggle to reach the screen shows that no one knew "Shakespeare in Love" would make it, either.

Inspired by a passing comment from his son, veteran screenwriter Norman took the scenic route through development hell, watching helpless on the sidelines as the project lurched along on the news that Julia Roberts would play Viola … no, Winona Ryder, no, Jodie Foster, no, Meg Ryan.

Would "Shakespeare in Love" have worked as well with any one of those actresses? Surely, Gwyneth Paltrow art more lovely. If Stoppard, a playwright with a proven record of matching wits with the Bard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"), had not been brought in to add most of its inside-theater dialogue, would the film's fans still include dazzled Shakespeare scholars? If original director Ed Zwick, a man with a passion for action and spectacle ("The Siege," "Legends of the Fall"), had made it, would it have been as warm and wise?

Would we still be talking about its 13 Oscar nominations, its healthy popularity at the box office and the likely forward momentum it will give the current renaissance of filmed Shakespeare?

The certainty is that any change in "Shakespeare in Love's" creative pedigree would have produced a different movie, one that would have had to defy all odds to turn out half as well. The defining moment of "Shakespeare in Love" comes near the end, when Henslowe's promised mystery unfolds, and a knocked-out audience at the afternoon premiere of "Romeo and Juliet" realizes what they've just seen.

Their reaction to the play is our reaction to the movie. It's a moment of perfect theatrical symmetry — fictional and live audiences in sync. Shapiro credits the brilliance of that moment to the staging of "Romeo and Juliet" that precedes it.

"The five minutes of ‘Romeo and Juliet' in the movie are the finest five minutes of Shakespeare I have ever seen, or ever hope to see," says Columbia University's Shapiro.

Shapiro and other Shakespeare scholars have embraced the film both for its entertainment value to them, and for its inevitable impact on the culture. It's an old saw; anything that introduces Shakespeare to a reluctant mainstream audience is good, even if Shakespeare, a man of ambivalent sexuality, is reinvented as a horny, literary pack rat who can't get his pen moving without a proper muse.

"My sense is that once in a decade, a Shakespeare movie comes along that changes the way we think about Shakespeare or one of his plays," says Shapiro. "I'm waiting to see which of the [coming films] is going to emerge from the pack. But for now, ‘Shakespeare in Love' stands outside of it."

And it's almost pointless to wonder why.

"You need every miracle, every lucky break, and in the darkest hour, you can't panic," Weinstein says. "And when it all works, you still don't know how it happened."

It's a mystery.

‘Hamlet' rules!

Sarah Bernhardt was the first and Ethan Hawke will be the next to play the Danish prince in "Hamlet," which, with 45 film and television adaptations, leads the list of most frequently adapted Shakespeare.

1."Hamlet" (41 adaptations)

2."Romeo and Juliet" (25)

3."Macbeth" (24)

4."Othello" (22)

5."A Midsummer Night's Dream" (18)

6."King Lear" (16)

7."The Merchant of Venice" (12)

8."As You Like It" (10)

9.(tie) "Much Ado About Nothing"
"Antony and Cleopatra" (1)

Will and Oscar

The 13 Academy Award nominations for "Shakespeare in Love" are the most for any movie about or adapted from the works of William Shakespeare. But it will have to win almost all of them to depose "West Side Story" as the all-time Shakespeare Oscar winner.

1."West Side Story" (1961) — Eleven nominations. Ten wins, for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (George hakiris), Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music and Sound.

2."Hamlet" (1948) — Seven nominations. Four wins, for Best Picture, Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Art Direction and Costume Design.

3."Julius Caesar" (1953) — Five nominations, including Best Picture. One win, for Art Direction.

4.(tie). "Romeo and Juliet" (1968) — Four nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Two wins, for Cinematography and Costume Design.
"A Double Life" (1947) — Four nominations. Two wins, for Best Actor (Ronald Colman) and Music.

5."A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935) — Three nominations, including Best Picture. Two wins, for Cinematography and Film Editing.

6."Ran" (1985) — Four nominations, including Best Director. One win, for Costume Design.

7."Henry V" (1989). Three nominations. One win, for Costume Design.

(Thanks to Paula Brait)

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