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“Bard None: A Cinematic Guide to Really Bad Shakespeare” by JAY

Posted on April 16th, 2009
Posted on April 16th, 2009


Terrence Howard is Macbeth. That’s not a typo. The “Hustle and Flow” star
recently announced plans to not only bring the seminal Shakespearean tragedy
to the big screen but to set it in the Caribbean confines of Puerto Rico and
cast himself in the title role. No start date has as yet been set for
“Macbeth, Mon” but I’ll wager it’ll be a favorite of the Sundance set come
2010. Oh, and Eddie Murphy has decided to reinvent the wheel by taking
“Romeo and Juliet” and shifting the focus of the story to Mom and Pop
Montague and Capulet; thereby turning the treasured tale of unrequited love
into “Meeteth the Fockers”. Now I’m no Shakespearian scholar but I am for
lack of a better description an enthusiastic advocate, and I take offense
when prima donnas riding a popularity wave or comics in the middle of a
career free-fall think the next logical step in their thesbianistic
evolution is to do some “serious acting” by ripping pages out of the First
Folio. To all those who dare tread this slippery slope, take heed: the road
to cinematic Shakespearean stardom is littered with the corpses (so to
speak) of those with sterner stuff. So in hopes that Terry and Eddie might
stopeth before it’s too late, let’s have a look back at several previous
failed attempts at bringing Billy Shake’s works to the silver screen.


(Hamlet: 2000)

I’m not the prudish sort that thinks that Shakespeare is only viable when
done “in period”. But if you’re gonna modernize it; you better know what
you’re doing. Apparently Michael Almereyda approached his version of
“Hamlet” as if it were the back end of a bad acid trip. His casting is a
schizophrenic hodge-podge of talent (Liev Schreiber and Diane Venora) and
flavor-of-the-month populist studio bent (Bill Murray and Steve Zahn); an
impossible attempt to meld oil, water and ether. But Ethan Hawke as Hamlet?
Really? His overly weepy and demonstrative approach to acting always leaves
me feeling like he’s trying to convince his girlfriend not to break up with
him. Watching him fumble about with the complex emotional layering inherent
in the Danish prince’s psyche is like a watching a drunk trying to talk his
way out of a DUI arrest. And, I’m sorry, but Kyle MacLachlan was in
“Showgirls” and is therefore not allowed to read Shakespeare let alone
interpret lines from any of his plays.


(Romeo + Juliet: 1996)

I usually level an immediate strike against any Shakespearian production set
in modern times. Now I’m not saying that all of Bill’s stuff should be done
“in the round” or traditional in the purest sense, but I draw the line when
the artistry of epee work is replaced with Jamie Kennedy brandishing a Glock
and delivering his lines from rote as if dissing a Crip by shouting
“boy-ee!” Baz Lurhmannis the anti-Ridley Scott; casting by reputation and
popularity alone. (Yes, Baz, you can still insist that SAG actors submit to
a screen test.) Brian Dennehy, Paul Sorvino, John Leguizamo, R.U.
Kiddingmee? Even Leonardo DiCaprio is guilty of Joey Tribiani “Smell the
Fart” acting during his protracted monologues by staring insipidly at the
off-camera boom mic while trying to remember his next line. BTW, I HATE the
pretentious “+” in the title.


(Hamlet: 1990)

Of course there are productions who go to the other extreme; filming on
location in derelict keeps and ruined battlements as if that’s what they
looked like in the era in which the play was set. Franco Zeffirelli might
as well have set his adaptation of the Danish prince in a cave rather than
the burned out, decorally devoid interiors of Dunnottar, Stonehaven and
Dover Castles. To his credit, Zeffirelli managed to marginalize the script
in order to accentuate the female characters and their contribution to the
story; although Helena Bonham Carter makes Ophelia look like a composite of
the teen bitches from “Heathers”. But most distracting of all is Mel Gibson
reprising his role of suicidal homicide cop Martin Riggs, which doth not a
convincing Dane make. During the climactic fight scene, Nate Parker
(Laertes) looks as if he is genuinely frightened of being harmed; not by
Hamlet but by an inexperienced sword-welding Aussie with a cocaine problem.
When it comes right down to it, Hamlet was not a road-weary 35+ year-old
narcissist suffering from pressure of speech. And stop touching your
mother, perv!


(Hamlet: 1996)

Despite what you might think, I’m not picking on “Hamlet”; it happens to be
– in my humble opinion – the greatest human drama ever penned. And as far
as screen adaptations go, I can think of none better than Kenneth Branagh’s
1996 version. The setting, while modern, is just historically ambiguous
enough to lend an air of authenticity and realism to the subject matter.
But wait, isn’t this post supposed to be about “bad” Billy? Yep. Even such
influential retellings such as this are not immune to off-the-mark casting
choices. Submitted for your disapproval is Robin Williams as Osric. While
Billy Crystal was fantastic as the Gravedigger, Mork offered nothing new to
the role of the enthusiastic fencing referee – retreating instead to his
“happy place” as an overly-effeminate hair dresser and stopping just short
of harping “oh no you di’int, Laertes!”. If Terrence Howard is looking for
a profane Scotsman who is defuddled as to the origins of golf, then Smoochy
would be a shoo-in for Banquo.


(Much Ado About Nothing: 1993)

Perhaps my favorite farcical treatment of a Shakespearean comedy, Branagh’s
“Ado” still suffers from two unfortunate casting choices. While I consider
Denzel Washington one of our finest modern actors, I still found his stilted
Don Pedro a tad below board. His conspicuous American staccato stood out
against the symphonic high British of the rest of the cast like pepper on
rice. But if you want to talk pure Shakespearean tragedy, then look no
further than Keanu Reeves as Don John. Mary Mother of God what was Branagh
thinking?! The boy has enough difficulties in transposing “See Spot Run” let
alone the protracted intricate embellishments of Shakespearean prose.
“…let me be that I am and seek not to alter me, dudemeister.” How
appropriate that his only foray into the Avonian genre was “Much Ado About
Nothing”. Whenever his most excellentness hijacked a scene, it reminded me
of being cornered by that “special” cousin no one wanted to interact with at
a family reunion. How Reeves became the period actor of our generation will
certainly rank among such mysteries as Flight 19 and “Where’s Lord Lucan”.


For the record, Branagh’s “Henry V” is without a doubt the best screen
adaptation of Shakespeare to date. It was Derek Jacobi’s portrayal as the
chorus in that film that convinced me to change my collegiate major from
Physics to Theatre. It just goes to show that when it’s good, Shakespeare
is able to lift the soul and make one’s spirit soar. But when it’s bad, it
makes one want to slap Keanu Reeves. Either way, “’tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished”.

-Jay

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