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6 minute read
Richard Corliss

Tabloid-TV anchors announce a bloody feud between two of Verona Beach’s most notorious clans–thug royalty, whose young princes have the family name tattooed on their skulls. The streets of this resort town sizzle with ethnic enmity, with nose thumbing on a nuclear scale, with the attitude clash of drag queens and skinheads. When the hormonal humidity is this high, only fools fall in love. So the daughter of one clan has eyes only for the son of her dad’s hated rival. She searches for him in her dreams, by her swimming pool, beneath her balcony. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she asks.

Oh, it’s Shakespeare. Well, there goes the youth market, out like the life in Claire Danes’ and Leonardo DiCaprio’s bodies at the end of the turbo-glam teen weepie, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

But soft, what light through mogul’s closed mind breaks? It is the glimmer of belief that there might be an audience for movies based on the plays of William Shakespeare. Since 1993, when Kenneth Branagh’s rompish Much Ado About Nothing earned $23 million at the domestic box office on an $8 million budget, studios have begun to belly up to the Bard. “Much Ado showed Hollywood how successful and enjoyable a Shakespeare movie could be,” says Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Hollywood has flirted with the poet since its infancy; this week the American Film Institute is showing the 1912 The Life and Death of King Richard III, the oldest surviving U.S. feature film. For MGM in 1936, Leslie Howard (then 43) and Norma Shearer (36) played Romeo and Juliet. The movies have put Shakespeare in gangland (Joe Macbeth) and outer space (Forbidden Planet, from The Tempest).

But now we’re getting a plethora of iambic pentameter. Last Christmas saw a stolid Othello (with Branagh and Laurence Fishburne) and the brutal, enthralling Richard III (Ian McKellen). This week three Shakespeare films will be on view: Romeo and Juliet, Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard and the British Twelfth Night, or What You Will, directed by Trevor Nunn, the former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director who has been named boss of the Royal National Theatre. Branagh has his four-hour Hamlet ready for Christmas. Filmmakers are trying every tactic–cultural intimidation, lavish spectacle, frenzied camerabatics and the casting of young stars–to put the masses in the seats.

The Pacino Richard places its director-star front and center, performing scenes from the play, quizzing Brit theater luminaries and Manhattan street dwellers on the relevance of Shakespeare’s poetry and the ability of American actors to speak it–trying to get a handle on the murderous Godfather of the House of York. In a way, the film is a high-minded remake of Pacino’s Heat: he’s the sleuth chasing down a charismatic killer. It’s also naive, wildly self-indulgent and weirdly mesmerizing. While Pacino wrangles the text with such fellow seekers as Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder, you get a clearer feel for the star than for the author. You come looking for Richard and find Al. “I don’t like the word teach applied to this because I’m not a teacher,” Pacino says. “But we hope to guide audiences into it without their even knowing how they got there.” The quest took four years for Pacino: “I made four movies and did two plays during the time I was filming this.” He hopes his celebrity will attract new audiences to Shakespeare. “He speaks to all of us about everything that’s inside us,” Pacino says. “That’s the thing.”

The thing for studio bosses, who will never replace the NEA as arts benefactors, is to make a profit. And that can happen when it’s the directors and stars, eager to do good works and glean Oscar nods, who subsidize the projects by working for next to nothing. Branagh’s sumptuous-looking Hamlet was shot for a mere $18 million. In its domestic release, the film need gross only about $12 million to break even. Why, Robin Williams, one of Hamlet’s A-list co-stars, could earn that much on a single Jumanji-size movie.

And what of those British who weren’t in Hamlet? Nunn corralled most of them–Ben Kingsley, Helena Bonham Carter, Nigel Hawthorne–for his Twelfth Night. A comedy of Eros about loving twins separated in a shipwreck and embroiled in a game of mistaken sexual identity, the piece now begins as an upmarket Blue Lagoon, veers into elaborate farce, then darkens till it seems a lost work of Chekhov’s. It’s a handsome artifact, though, on its $5 million budget, and gives star treatment to Imogen Stubbs, who is Nunn’s wife. “It’s a welcome break from the American kind of film realism,” she says of Twelfth Night. “When acting onscreen, you’re often asked not to act; you’re exploited for some quality the director sees in you. But in Shakespeare, you are forced to act–to tell the audience, ‘This is a character. This is a play.'”

Twelfth Night is a play transferred to film. Romeo and Juliet is, defiantly, a movie–an assault on Hollywood’s conservative film language that might have come from a more playful Oliver Stone; call it Natural Born Lovers. Director Baz Luhrmann envelops Romeo and his goodfellas in portentous slo-mo for the shoot-outs, giddy fast-mo for comedy scenes. The camera literally runs circles around the lovers. When Romeo sees Juliet, his eye explodes in fireworks. The sound track pulses with rap and rock and sound effects that you’d expect in a Hong Kong melodrama; they shoot forth thunder. The style is studiously kicky, less RSC than MTV.

On its own terms (and for a thrifty $16 million or so), the ploy works: it’s the societal psychosis from which the lovers flee and to which they ultimately succumb. Luhrmann, an Australian who pretty much let his camera go nuts in the egregiously overrated Strictly Ballroom, here makes reasonable, imaginative decisions that are, arguably, true to Shakespeare. “His stories are full of sex, violence, tragedy, comedy because he was, first of all, a great entertainer,” Luhrmann says. “His audience was 3,000 drunken, fighting people, bear baiters and prostitutes.” Sounds like a Friday-night crowd at a big-city ‘plex.

R and J’s style also allows the actors to speak the dialogue (all from the play) without worrying about whether they sound like John Gielgud. “We tried to bring the language to the actors,” he says, “and not have the actors try to satisfy some spurious notion of the correct Shakespearean pronunciation.”

Danes and DiCaprio speak most eloquently with their faces (hers strong, his soft) and with the hurt and ardor that make this a Rebel Without a Cause for the ’90s–1590s or 1990s. Sometimes it takes a radical like Luhrmann to get to the root of a natural-born screenwriter like Shakespeare.

–With reporting by Helen Gibson/London, Georgia Harbison/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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