Monday, April 23, 2007


Tales Told By Idiots: Bad Bard, Bad Bard, Whatchagonnado?

This post is part of the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Check there for links to other posts.

By Odienator
Shakespeare wrote some of the most stirring and beautiful lines trapped in paper, but you wouldn't know it listening to some of the actors who tried to speak them. For every Gielgud, O'Toole and Olivier, there are double the number of actors who just couldn't get their mouths around that iambic pentameter. Why do they even try? Is it the paycheck? Or the notion that reciting Shakespeare will win you an Oscar, as it did for Sir Larry O and Richard Dreyfuss?

In honor of the Shakespeare-Blog-a-Thon, here is a brief list of actors who should never have attempted to tell us what a piece of work man is, or who did so for nefarious Oscar purposes. Who should have taken Shakespeare's "and the rest is silence" seriously?

Opening Act:
Stunt Casting, Thy Name is Kenneth Branagh

I used to think Kenneth Branagh was a great Shakespearean actor, but I am starting to question if he seemed so good because he cast people who were so bad and played scenes with them. I appreciate how he tries to bring Shakespeare to the groundlings of today, and I've liked most of his adaptations, but he sure likes his stunt casting. The phenomenon is not new — John Wayne as Genghis Khan, anyone? — but Shakespeare's dialogue is a perilous mixture of rhythm, elocution and emotion. It is not about the physicality of the actor, it is about their vocal delivery. Director Branagh, in his admirable desire to make the teenagers saddled with reading Shakespeare grow to love it, apparently ignored the train wrecks he witnessed in his viewfinder. For every great performance he recorded (Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson), Branagh gave us:

Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing

Believe it or not, Keanu Reeves can be an effective actor. I'm not one of those people who pick on "Mr. Whoa" because it's fashionable; credit is deserved where it is due. While he is nowhere as bad as some have reported, he is still out of his league. Reeves has a perpetual scowl and a flat delivery; he is a verbal deer caught in the Bard's headlights. Reeves would have benefited greatly if Ted Logan had met Shakespeare in that time-travelling phone booth. I had an easier time buying that Reeves and Denzel Washington were brothers than anything coming out of Reeves' mouth.

Jack Lemmon in Hamlet

Jack Lemmon was so effective in Glengarry Glen Ross because his vocal pauses, stammers and ticks fit well with Mamet's "cuss cuss cuss pause cuss cuss pause pause cuss cuss cuss cuss pause" style of writing. Like the Bard, Mamet's dialogue is musical and needs the right interpreter to make it sing. Can you imagine Bob Newhart doing Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar or Christopher Walken doing Hamlet? ("What ... a piece of work is man How noble ... in reason...") Lemmon's tics and Shakespeare's verse fit as well as Slowpoke Rodriguez singing a rap by Krayzie Bone, or Shirley Bassey doing Metallica. Every line is delivered differently as Lemmon tries in vain to bend the Bard toward his Lemmon-isms. It's painful to watch him flail. As much as I love Jack Lemmon, his performance here lives up to his last name.

Gerard Depardieu and Robin Williams in Hamlet

In the court of Hollywood, I propose the Cruz-Depardieu Law, which states that Gerard Depardieu and Penélope Cruz should NEVER act in English. In Hamlet, Depardieu becomes Depar-don't, an amazing feat since all he has to say is "Yes, my lord" about 12 times. While I'm proposing laws, might I add the "Williams Anti-Caricature Law," which states that, if clueless on how to play a role, Robin Williams must never fall back on stereotypical racial and homosexual voices. Williams' Osric has an odd gay vibe that thankfully distracts from his horrendous line readings. Perhaps he was trying to get an Oscar; it worked for Richard Dreyfuss' Chelsea boy Richard III.

Closing Act:
As Felix Unger Would say: Oscar! Oscar! Oscar!

Sometimes actors think they can tackle Shakespeare simply because they have been praised or honored for other work. Others believe their star is so big that they are invincible. Still others believe that Shakespeare is the way to that elusive Oscar. This is why some of these actors tried their luck at the Bard.

Jessica Lange in Titus

Look up "feast or famine" in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of Jessica Lange. Either she's superb (Men Don't Leave, All That Jazz, Frances, Tootsie) or superbad (God, where do I start? Hush, Big Fish, King Kong). The failure of Titus rests on the shoulders of director Julie Taymor whose film completely misses the point of the Bard's play: this is a sick parody. She turns it into a sick ABC Afterschool Special Done by MTV. The play's violence is so gruesome and over-the-top, and the situations so telenovela-dramatic that it is impossible to take with the seriousness and the underlying social commentary Taymor tries to push. If any Bard adaptation screamed out for the geeky, caressing hands of Quentin Tarantino, it's this one. After Lange played Blanche DuBois opposite daughter cusser-outer Alec Baldwin, she started adding Blanche to almost every role she played afterward. As the Queen of the Goths, she looks less Goth and more Glam, like Ziggy Stardust crossed with Divine, and she attacks her lines as if she were the Queen of the Southern Gothics. Vengeful lines come out goofy, seductive lines come out cold, and she is histrionic in all the wrong places. There is no rhythm nor rhyme to her performance, and for Shakespeare, that's the kiss of death.

Ronald Colman in A Double Life

I once heard this anecdote about A Double Life: during the course of the film, one of the audience members turned to his wife and said "So when does he sing 'Mammy?'" Whether this is true I've no idea, but Colman's performance as an actor driven mad by his performance in Othello couldn't have been any worse had he done Jolson's signature tune. While there is less Shakespeare in this film than in the aforementioned adaptations, what's here plays an integral part in this loony film noir directed by George Cukor. Colman plays the original Method Actor, a man who becomes the characters he plays. Knowing this, someone still suggests he tackle Othello. (Why not Joan of Arc? At least he wouldn't kill anybody.) Colman starts spouting Othello's lines at inopportune moments, then takes his delusion to its logical conclusion by giving Shelley Winters a really effective neck rub. Colman's Othello is so hammy it makes Vincent Price's turn in the superior Theater of Blood look like vintage Gielgud, and I found myself feeling envious for Shelley — at least she didn't have to listen to him anymore. Oscar fell for it, and they gave him Best Actor. Colman strangled the Oscar onstage during the ceremony. (Just kidding.)

Gheorge Muresan in My Giant

Unless you can give me another reason why the Washington Wizards player even attempted Shakespeare in this film, I'm going to have to go with the Dreyfuss Defense: Quoting Shakespeare gets you an Oscar nomination! At least he didn't play a rapping genie like that OTHER basketball player.

Calista Flockhart and David Straithairn
in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Both Flockhart and the usually reliable David Straithairn have a hard time convincingly spouting their dialogue. Straithairn is stiff and uncomfortable and Flockhart is an 18th century Ally McBeal clone, as if that series had been reimagined as Black Adder. Her last scene in the film made me want to poke my eyes out and ram Q-tips into my ears.

Peter O'Toole in Venus

Peter O'Toole CAN do Shakespeare. My beef (and I realize I'm cheating here) is that he does it solely to get an Oscar nomination. There is no need for him to do it in this film, and considering that we already know how great he is at it, I saw his Venus recitation as a shameful pander. There really is nothing here that is Oscar worthy — O'Toole playing a dirty old boozy pussy hound actor is akin to me playing someone with a Y-chromosome — so this is thrown in to remind us how good O'Toole once was and why Oscar should be shamed into giving him the Oscar he so richly deserved elsewhere. Thankfully, it didn't work.

There are many others (Bruce Willis in Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare" episode, to name one) but as Polonius said, "brevity is the soul of wit," so I shall exeunt here. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

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Branagh's stunt casting did get to the point of being ridiculousness in Hamlet (almost as ridiculous as his nomination for adapted screenplay, when he filmed the play without any cuts). However, one bit of stunt casting did surprise me with its success: Usually I think Charlton Heston is wooden and awful in just about anything, but as The Player King, I actually thought he was good.
Odie, I agree with you on the stunt casting in the Shakespeare films Branagh made after Henry V. But I still defend Henry V as excellent.
EC, I'm in complete agreement with you about Chuck Heston. He's surprisingly effective.

Shamus, despite my complaints I still liked Branagh's Hamlet and Much Ado, and he deserved his Oscar nods for Henry V. That role seemed to fit him better than Hamlet.
I think Henry V was his best. In fact, I prefer it to Olivier's version. I liked Much Ado About Nothing despite the stunt casting (Keanu Reeves should never be in a period piece and Michael Keaton really got on my nerves), but his Hamlet was so stock-full of casting mistakes I couldn't get past it, despite the performers (such as Kate Winslet as Ophelia) who performed well.
I loved Branagh's Henry V and the cast was great, but I'm not sure what's gone wrong since then. I had such high hopes for the guy after seeing Henry V and it just seems like he keeps rolling downhill. I always thought the casting problem might have been the studio/producers asking him to cast big name stars who would get the average public into a Shakespeare adaptation, but I don't know. I'm still waiting for Branagh to get back together with Emma Thompson and make his big comeback, but I don't see that happening in my lifetime.

And I couldn't agree with Edward more...why do people even consider Reeves for period pieces He's so flat. Watching him act is like watching paint dry most of the time.
"...he is a verbal deer caught in the Bard's headlights"

I'm no defender of Reeves, but I would be doey-eyed, too, if I saw the Bard's headlights. I realize the Globe probably got cold now & then, but I never knew he had such a rack! Now that I've completely jumbled up my metaphors...nobody's brought up Paul Scofield who mumbled his way through King Lear, if I recall (it's been forever since I've seen it).

Regarding Branagh: I would add that he was too old to play Hamlet, though I'd admire the boldness of that film.
I never heard that anecdote about A Double Life. Certainly by the mid 20th Century, the idea of white actors playing Othello in blackface needed to be reconsidered.

As for Heston, he graduated from the respected theater program at Northwestern University, but I was glad he had a late opportunity to show off his acting chops. He did a filmed version of Julius Caesar which I haven't seen.
Jeffrey: I realize the Globe probably got cold now & then, but I never knew he had such a rack!

Why does this surprise you? You mean to tell me your high school English class didn't have a bust of Shakespeare sitting on the desk?

Peter, I read somewhere that Laurence Fishburne was the first Black actor to play Othello in a Hollywood production. I wonder if that's true. I was always too distracted by the blackface to even pay attention to the dialogue.
I liked Henry V well enough--Branagh's--but for the final battle he cribs thoroughly from Chimes. That said, the realpolitik here absent in Olivier's is appreciated. Can't say this is better (I love Olivier's Henry, and he films the great speeches right)--they should really double feature.
Branagh's "Henry V" was great for one reason: casting. Same reason his subsequent Shakespeare reeks. (Keanu Reeves? How about Michael Keaton? That cantering-about-on-a-fake-horse routine was right out of Python.) Having a marginally better Denzel Washington play Reeves' brother is the kind of casting that only works in Central Park. Did anybody catch the musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost" (and I use the word in the "catch a disease" sense)? To be fair, KB's non-Shakespearean films have also been lousy. But I do love "Henry V," overblown Paddy Doyle score and all.

I understand Reeves played Hamlet in Winnipeg. I can't even imagine what that was like. Perhaps an eyewitness will file a report.
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