“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”.


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    1. admin

      “Henry the V” is my favorite too. I also thought “Titus” was kinda groovy in a sick way. I agree with you on “Romeo + Juliete” especially. The guns and the gangster crap annoyed the hell out of me.

    2. Sebastian

      Hi. Great to see some more writers on this site! You have a wicked wit. I find your stuff to be most interesting, although I just can’t agree with the take on the Franco Zeffirelli “Hamlet”. Its my favorite, and I thought the settings really enhanced the story, bringing more of a brooding quality. I can’t imagine anyone getting Hamlet more dead-on than Mel did. And I’ve read Hamlet several times (as well as all of his major works). That frenzy he brought to the role was solid for me.

      I can totally admit that “Romeo and Juliet” wasn’t for everyone, although it worked for me. I just think that modernizing Shakespeare isn’t a bad thing. A lot of these films helped me to really start to appreciate Shakespeare’s work (Henry V and Branagh mostly) that I couldn’t in high-school. Try watching something like the film “O”. Now that’s what I call improper Shakespeare.

      I agree with you about poor Keanu in “Much Ado About Nothing”. Poor guy can barely do modern stuff.

      As for a “Macbeth” redo, hmmm.. maybe. But “Romeo and Juliet” with Eddie Murphey is definitely a pass.

      Interesting stuff, very interesting stuff. I look foward to more!

      P.S. For a very interesting interpretation of “King Lear” see Kurosawa’s “Ran”. I love that film!!

    3. Anakin McFly

      Hi, just a correction; you said of Keanu: “How appropriate that his only foray into the Avonian genre was “Much Ado About Nothing”.”

      You’re dead wrong there. Other Shakespearian works he’s been involved in:

      Romeo & Juliet (1983 and 1985, playing Mercutio)
      The Tempest (1989, playing Trinculo)
      Hamlet (1995, playing Hamlet)

      Of Romeo & Juliet, the director Lewis Baumander had this to say of him:

      “Most of the kids coming in wanted to get any part at all. The ambitious ones tried for Romeo. Then in walked Keanu with a passion, a hunger and a zeal: he said, “I need to play Mercutio.” He did the Queen Mab speech, and was extraordinary. Only twice or three times in my life have I cast someone there on the spot, but I did it with him. It struck me that he had an understanding of the piece, and of the soul of Mercutio. There was no question to me that he was a very special young man.”
      from the book “Keanu” by Sheila Johnston

      Lewis Baumander then went on to direct Keanu on stage in 1995’s Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Winnipeg production of Hamlet, for which London’s Sunday Times theatre critic Roger Lewis declared Keanu to be “one of the top three Hamlets” he had ever seen.

      In the meantime, Keanu is generally known as a Shakespeare fanatic famous for reciting chunks of it from memory to calm himself down on movie sets or in hockey games, so your judgement of him there is a bit off.

    4. admin

      …And we have a Keanu fan! Interesting info.

    5. Jay

      (I went back and forth as to whether or not I should respond to the “Bard None” posts. After initially deciding to take the higher road, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do today. And what with being holed up at home with a bad cold, well…)

      I’m not surprised that my dismissal of Mel Gibson’s performance in “Hamlet” has ruffled a few feathers. Many love him in the role. I don’t. Sebastian argues that the frenzy Gibson brought to the role was spot on. For me, his screeching expositional stylings reminded me of Billy Mays pushing OxyClean. His musings didn’t seem introspective; rather like he was remembering the death of his first puppy. Eh, to each his own. But for Sebastian to bolster his position by boasting “And I’ve read Hamlet several times (as well as all of his major works)”. Really? Well that makes several million of us.

      As far as Keanu Reeves goes… I’ll try to be kind, McFly. This site is dedicated to “film”. “Cinema”. “Moving Picture Shows” to Canadians. (Wait, my mention of our neighbors to the north is relevant.)

      A) The K-man has appeared in only one (1) film (or “Talkie”) based on the works of Shakespeare: the aforementioned “Much Ado About Nothing”. McFly is padding Reeves resume by listing Canadian stage productions. For the record, his “Romeo and Juliet” appearance was at Leah Poslun’s Theatre School in Toronto in 1985 – not exactly Broadway. His “Hamlet” was a 1995 production at the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) in Winnipeg – again not the “Great White Way”. McFly is correct in stating that Roger Lewis was smitten with Keanu. (What aging theatre queen hasn’t been?) But McFly stopped short of sharing that Lewis publically compared Reeves performance to that of Lawrence Olivier. Okie-dokie. He also failed to mention that Lewis’ review was firmly in the minority. Columnist Jamie Portman: “there’s a real problem with a number of Hamlet’s speeches. […] To Be or Not To Be is perfunctorily spoken, without conviction or emotional reflection.” Kirchhoff : “if anything, [Reeves] over-enunciated; carefully pronouncing every consonant in the text”. So you see most critics were not so enamored with “Keanu was Hamlet,” but then again neither was the audience. Every time Reeves said the word “excellent” (“So excellent a king”, “this most excellent canopy, the air”, “my excellent good friends”, etc.), fits of laughter erupted from the crowd. Oh the production was considered a success, but only financially due to the throngs of teenaged girls and would-be stalkers scarfing up every ticket they could lay their hands on. And if Reeves was such a riveting Shakespearian performer, strange he’s never been cast to do more. Yes “Dog Star” is an epic tragedy, but it doesn’t technically count.
      B) McFly also recounts Reeves “Romeo and Juliet” audition before Canadian director Lewis Baumander as if he had wowed Frank Capra in the MGM cafeteria with an impromptu dramatic ordering of “fries – on the side!”. But this is the very same Lewis Baumander whose only directorial screen credit was “Future Fear” – a 1997 straight-to-DVD abhorrence that is now part of the Maria Ford “Strippers to Actors” Collection. And the provenance for this tale comes from the appropriately titled bio-love fest “Keanu” by Canadian author Sheila Johnston.

      Now don’t get me wrong. I love Canadians. I’ve been all over the country and I’m always amused when hotel shuttle drivers argue that NASA wouldn’t exist without The Great White North and that you don’t know what pain is until you’ve hit a moose on a snow mobile. I also like Mel Gibson in small doses. And when Keanu Reeves is being “Keanu Reeves” (“B&T”, “Parenthood”), I can stomach him too.
      Look, these little observations of mine, like the Psychic Friends Network or “The Anarchists’ Cookbook”, are for entertainment purposes only. They aren’t gospel, they aren’t philosophical. They are neither worthy of being dichotomized into oblivion nor are they the literary equivalent of alchemy. It’s all in good fun. Please don’t spend more time dissecting them than I have in responding to these posts. Good thing I was out sick today.

      “The only sin that we never forgive in each other is a difference in opinion.” – Emerson.

      • Sebastian

        Hahah! Most excellent reply! You have a way with words. I LOVE the Emerson quote!!

    6. Jay

      Sebastian: After reading through the post replies, my wife thinks you are a cutie and an incredibly nice guy (obviously). She also thinks I am an absolute beast for being so mean. But what’s the point of the pen being mightier than the sword if you don’t get to wave it around — even in mock menance — from time to time. Stay cool.

      • Sebastian

        Tell your wife that she is too kind. And you’re not mean, you just let it rip. Keep waviing that pen!

    7. admin

      Muahahahaha!. I knew I started this site for a reason! Muahahahahhahhahahhaha!!! Cough, cough, cough , cough…







    11. sammy

      I Think it is absolutely bad.

    12. wouttlode

      old fashion tavern fashion sport shorts

    13. M Milford

      Thank God most people don’t listen to the critics, otherwise you may have stopped millions from enjoying film versions of Shakespor. Worse, you may have stopped the use of these texts, albeit with a few flaws, from being used in the classroom. Worldwide these films are often a student’s first taste of a Shakespur text. It would be pointless to respond to your criticisms, point by point, but as someone who has just stumbled on your site, it comes across as a lot of nit picking, bordering on xenophobia. We all hate Gibson, now, and bit parts no one remembers in Branagh’s -who cares, these versions have worked wonders for us groundlings.

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