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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Brush Up On Your Shakespeare (originally published 9/01)

After 400 years of Shakespeare productions, any director of a new revival of the Bard's work will of necessity be hard pressed to come up with a completely original concept. One way to do it is to jettison the Shakespeare text altogether and just use the basic storyline for a whole new script. The recently released "O," for example, transplants the plot of "Othello" into contemporary America, substituting high school treachery for Venetian intrigues. For a sampling of how earlier films have attempted offbeat variations on Shakespearean material, look for these titles on home video.

"West Side Story" (1961). Director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins brought "Romeo and Juliet" into the Twentieth Century with this tale of rival street gangs and star-crossed lovers. The Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the American "Jets" stand in for the feuding Montague and Capulet families as an ill-fated romance develops between an American boy and a Puerto Rican girl.

"Kiss Me Kate" (1953). One simple way of creating a variation on a theme by Shakespeare is to make a film about actors staging one of the Bard's plays, showing how the actor's own lives parallel the action of the play they are presenting. This Cole Porter musical revolves around a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" in which the lead roles of Kate and Petruchio are played by a pair of feuding ex-spouses. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"A Double Life" (1947). Ronald Colman stars in this much darker treatment of an actor whose Shakespearean role parallels his own life. As Tony John, Colman plays a stage actor who can't quite leave his work behind when the curtain falls. When performing in a light comedy, he is charming and witty offstage. On the other hand, when he takes on the role of the tortured Othello, the doomed Moor's brooding jealousy becomes part of Tony's personality. Like Othello, it is only a matter of time before Tony is driven to violence by his groundless feelings of betrayal.

"Forbidden Planet" (1956). For a truly out of this world variation on Shakespeare, try this science fiction classic. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Morbius, a brilliant eccentric living on a remote planet with his daughter Altaira and their robot servant, Robby. The plot is lifted almost intact from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with Morbius as Prospero, Altaira as Miranda, and Robby a somewhat unlikely Ariel. Even Caliban turns up in the form of a monster that terrorizes the planet.

"Men of Respect" (1991). Back in 1955, a British production called "Joe Macbeth" took the plot of "Macbeth" and translated it into a modern day gangster story about a mobster who murders his way to the top. That film is not available on video, but "Men of Respect," which is based on the same concept, is available. John Turturro plays the Macbeth role, a hood named Mike Battaglia. Egged on by his wife, and emboldened by a fortune teller's prophecy that he will run the mob, he bumps off his boss and takes over his territory. Now he only has to worry about the other half of the fortune teller's prophecy - that he will be succeeded by the son of a fellow hitman.

"My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Writer/director Gus Van Sant's stylistically mind-bending drama of two street hustlers challenges viewers on many levels. The one that seemed to blow more critics' minds than any other, however, was the middle section, in which Van Sant shifts into a bizarrely Shakespearean mode. Because one of the main characters is actually a member of the privileged class who is temporarily slumming - his father is a wealthy politician - Van Sant draws a parallel with the royal Prince Hal from "Henry IV," who goes slumming with the dissolute but charming Falstaff. The dialogue becomes quasi-Shakespearean, with quotes from "Henry IV" rewritten to suit a modern American setting yet close enough to the original wording to be recognizable.

Clearly, even after four centuries, Shakespeare continues to influence today's filmmakers. Not surprisingly, the Bard's own words say it best: "He was indeed the glass wherein the noble youth did dress themselves...He was the mark and glass, copy and book, that fashion'd others."

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