Copyright © 1999 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
Once upon a time a young man named Orson Welles set out to make a film, which turned out to be just about the greatest film ever made by an American, Citizen Kane. That film, by the way, never won an Academy Award, but the film’s key word "Rosebud" has won a special place in our language—as a dog’s rear-end in a novel by Walker Percy (The Movie-goer, natch!) and as an ongoing punch-line in the comic strip Peanuts. Of course, just about everyone knows the significance of "Rosebud," but—if you don’t, I won’t spoil the fun for you, if you promise to go to the video store and find out just how great a film can be.
Writing about Shakespeare in Love doesn’t involve squashing any rosebuds, since by now we all know that it won the Oscar as Best Picture of 1998. Let the grumbling begin! As I mentioned in an earlier article, the Academy Awards are not so much about quality as about politics and personality. The truth is, Shakespeare in Love is a charming comedy, but from many points of view, it just doesn’t make it as the Best Picture of the Year.
What happened? I can’t say, but the film and its many awards do something pretty important. Shakespeare in Love calls attention to a major figure in literary history, the man in love, the man in the title, the terror of the English classes, William Shakespeare, ironically, the man whom Hollywood has an ongoing affair with.
The earliest Shakespeare film I have seen is Max Reinhardt’s 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, guess what? This summer, a new Dream is coming out, with a whole new generation of players. How many Hollywood loves have lasted sixty-four years? But, the earliest Shakespeare film I can find a reference to is Sam Taylor’s 1929 Taming of the Shrew, and just this week, 10 Things I Hate about You, an updated teenager version of the play opened, seventy years later. Along the way, there was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 outing with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (playing themselves?), as well as George Sidney’s 1953 musical, Kiss Me, Kate.
Is a pattern emerging? There are some titles here that very few English teachers and no bards would recognize. Laurence Olivier’s 1946 Henry V leaves nothing to the imagination, but Gus Van Sant’s 1991 My Own Private Idaho gives no clue that it is a retelling of Henry IV, Part I. Come to think of it, My Own Private Idaho sounds more intriguing. And, speaking of titles, last year’s What Dreams May Come took its title from Hamlet.
Perhaps the most filmed of Shakespeare’s works is the play central to the plot of Shakespeare in Love--Romeo and Juliet, from George Cukor’s 1936 version to Buz Luhrmann’s 1996 souped-up Miami sound machine. Between the two, there have been several films of Prokofiev's ballet and Robert Wise’s 1961 West Side Story. Lights, camera, and Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican! But, when can I see it again?
Well, let’s rove back to the films I began raving about; Citizen Kane and Shakespeare in Love already have a connection. Simon Callow is a terribly wasted talent in the second film, although he does have what will become one of the landmark lines in the history of the movies: "That woman… is… a woman!" Callow is also a scholar who has written The Road to Xanadu, the first of two volumes on Orson Welles, the director and star of Citizen Kane.
Shakespeare in Love takes as one of its subplots the supposed conflict between Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. At the time of Marlowe’s death, those critics who like making such comparisons say, he had in fact written better plays than Shakespeare (both were born in 1564). One wonders: if Marlowe had not been killed in a mysterious barroom brawl in 1593, had lived on until 1616 like Shakespeare, would we now have a film Marlowe in Love?
The truth is, and you are reading it here first at Peanut.org, Shakespeare did not die in 1616. He has lived on through the years, as predicted by his friend and fellow poet Ben Jonson, who in 1623 wrote to Shakespeare: thou "art alive still while thy book doth live." He has not suffocated under footnotes and lesson plans. He lives on whenever in a darkened theater an audience is moved by his words, his imagery, his sheer imagination. He took the limits of his medium, the technically poor stage of his time, and made it something that continues to challenge the most technically savvy practitioners of the corresponding medium of our time. That medium is film—the movies, half-crazy, user-friendly, ready to sell itself (themselves?) to anyone with the price of a ticket, and don’t think about what you’ll get if you can afford a box of popcorn.
At http://www.imsa.edu/mitch/directors/welles.html, you can learn more about Orson Welles. Try http://www.imdb.com, for information on all the films referred to, as well as many more. No movie-goer should leave home without it.
At http://www.tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/works.htm, you can find Shakespeare’s complete works on-line. For other Shakespeare matters, look at http://www.shakespeare.com.
While people in Kosovo cry and die, we watch movies, and read and write about them. Let us reserve at least one noble thought for gratitude for our good lives, as we rove and rave through this next week, keeping our feet dry and our hearts full of noble thoughts.
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