RICHARD III, LAURENCE OLIVIER, 1955
After tackling Henry V and Hamlet, Laurence Olivier directed and starred in his third and final Shakespeare feature, in spectacular VistaVision Technicolor. Many consider this to be his magnum opus, and as an actor, the character he is most commonly associated with. It has inspired many actors and performances, ranging from theatrical actors to punk rock singers (Johnny Rotten). It is undoubtedly a performance for the ages.
Unlike Polanski’s Macbeth, which I recently reviewed and highlighted that the character’s speeches to the camera were handled via internal monologue as voiceover, Olivier continues the tradition of speaking to the screen/audience as the ‘Vice ‘ character. One can argue which is the preferable method, but in the mid-1950s, the sort of revolutionary direction that Polanski undertook would have been too radical. Not to mention, the film would have lost something special in Olivier’s performance. His finest moments in the film are when he is speaking to us, beginning with the “Now is the winter of our discontent” to the infamous “My Horse!” line – although in fairness, the latter plea was desperately spoken to everyone.
As Olivier puts it, he prefers to work from the outside-in. He develops the look of the character and uses that as his starting point for the performance. In Richard III, he worse a long, dark wig, a prosthetic nose and walked with a hunched gait in order to demonstrate the character’s disability, which could be seen as his evil motivation. He wore brash, ostentatious costumes, which for half of the film made him appear as if a bird of prey. His look was ferocious, and blended together splendidly with the evil nature of Richard’s inner self.
The performance is the cornerstone of this production, and Oliver shines throughout. There are a couple of scenes where he was extra impressive. The two scenes in which he is scorned by, and later seduces The Lady Anne. He goes from being spit on by her after she suspects (rightfully) that he murdered her husband, to being manipulated into loving him. This is one scene in the play, which Olivier cuts into two in order to make it seem more plausible. Even that is a reach, but through the performance and Richard’s urging The Lady Anne to end him, he makes it somewhat believable. It does not hurt that Claire Bloom is up to the task of playing opposite him.
Other scenes that stand out are when Richard goes from a measured speaking voice, to lashing out at anyone and everyone within earshot. His moods were explosive, larger than life, and he stopped at nothing to achieve his ambitions. Yet, he was also a charismatic leader, which was on display at the Battle of Bosworth Field as he gives a rousing speech to rally his troops.
Olivier was not the only star in this vehicle. Sirs John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, and Ralph Richardson. The other performances are more grounded, solemn, and more in tune with Shakespeare’s blend of theatrical acting, whereas Olivier contrasts them with his emotional and tonally flat reading. The peripheral cast are superb, but they are rigid, and upstaged by the flamboyant and electrifying Olivier. This contrast reminded me some of the British stage actors contrasting with method actors in Hollywood. Richardson’s performance in William Wyler’s The Heiress is an example of this, as he had to trade barbs with method actor Montgomery Clift. This enhanced that movie, just as the supporting performances do for Olivier’s production.
The film is not without flaws. Another contrast with Polanski’s Macbeth is that he shot exclusively on location. The majority of Richard III is shot on a stage, which gives it a more theatrical look and feel. Some of the stages were not very realistic, with obviously painted clouds as background and buildings that look like a theatrical production designer could have created them. The Technicolor, while superb for most of the film, makes these facades all the more evident, and at times it feels like we are watching a stage play that just happens to have a camera there.
There are other problems with the middle acts. The beginning and final acts are electrifying. The former is due to Olivier’s introductory speech and stage setting for what is to come, and the finale for the location shooting and the battle action. The middle seasons suffer as being plodding. Following Shakespeare dialogue is difficult without knowing the play already, and the original audience lived in a time where they would be aware of the history, which happened to be told through previous Shakespeare plays. We are not as in tune with that history, and it becomes difficult to follow the machinations of Richard as he consolidates his power by eliminating his enemies. The only obvious end is in a decapitation scene, but the outcome of The Lady Anne and the two princes are more muddled. Since Olivier had taken license with Shakespeare’s words in the beginning, he could have continued in order to make the play more understandable for a wider audience.
That leaves us with Olivier in arguably his best performance and without question his most iconic on film. The film stands up and is remembered because of him, and he carries it through the long running time of 160 minutes. Even though he is an anti-hero and easy to root against, he sparkles when he is on the screen and we want him to succeed just so we can see where his performance will head next. This is my favorite performance of his, but not my favorite film.
Film Rating: 7/10
Audio Commentary: Criterion has a good habit of using commentaries that complement the film and educate the viewer. Here they use two people involved with the theater, stage director Russell Lees and former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Wilders. While they are educated on the film language, they share details about the theatrical nuances and how they are translated to film. Lees dissects the iambic pentameter style of verse, giving some background into how and why it was used during Shakespeare’s time. He also shows how Olivier deftly plays with the verse to make it oftentimes sound like he is speaking directly, whereas the other traditional actors tend to speak in a Shakespearian manner.
1966 Interview: This is from the BBC series Great Acting, where theatrical critic Kenneth Tynan interviews Olivier as a career retrospective. Olivier is a great subject out of character and talks candidly about various subjects. He does discuss the differences between his and Gielgud’s style, which he defines himself as ‘earthy’ and his rival as ‘spiritual.’ He also speaks about how significant his Richard performance became, and how he modeled the look and demeanor after Jed Harris in as uncomplimentary a fashion as possible.
Restoration demonstration: Martin Scorsese talks about the challenges with restoring this film. One was with the VistaVision print, which most labs cannot scan. Another major problem was that there had been cuts to the film, most notably for the American TV audience. They had to find a Premier print and use that as a guideline for what should be included in the original film, and then re-insert those scenes. In addition the normal scratches and blemishes, there were chemical stains and color fading, all of which had to be corrected digitally. Fortunately we are living in a golden age of film restoration, otherwise we might not be able to see the film as Olivier intended.
Criterion Rating: 8/10
MACBETH, ROMAN POLANSKI, 1971
This entry will be a little different. I won’t try to establish and discuss the major themes of this work. Scholars, far smarter, more educated, and better read than I, have been exploring Shakespeare for centuries. Plenty of ink has been printed on the subject to Macbeth, and my take having is far from academic having read some of the play in High School and now seen interpretations from Polanski and Kurasawa. Instead I’ll look at this as a unique representation of the bard, and as a large-scale epic, which is truly unique compared to other Shakespeare adaptations.
Polanski’s take is far more accessible than most Shakespeare on film, and has more in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Game of Throne than it does a traditional Olivier Shakespeare adaptation. It is a medieval epic on a grand scale with plenty of action, royal intrigue, brutality, and yes, even nudity (although not what you’d expect). The dialog is directly from Shakespeare, but it is spoken in a different manner. Rather than have the actors digress with poetic speeches, they use much of Shakespeare’s words as voiceover to show their interior dialog and establish their thoughts and motivations. As a result of these slight diversions, the material is more consumable and flows smoothly. It’s more engaging and less perplexing, yet it still isn’t dumbed down for a mainstream audience. It is distinctly Shakespeare, but presented through the lens of a young, trouble director in Polanski.
The elephant in the room is that this was Polanski’s first work after his wife and friend were savagely and brutally murdered by the Manson family a couple of summers ago. Some of the violent choices he made for this movie are curious given what he was dealing with. Some of the departures from the original are to show more violence. There is one scene in particular when a family gets slaughtered in their own home that had to have been inspired by the events of that fateful summer. You have to wonder whether this was a cathartic way of dealing with the tragedy. The one thing we can tell is that there is a personal edge that comes through the brutal telling of the story.
Despite his personal tragedies, this is a period of transition in the career of Polanski. He was already among the top directors at the time, having churned out a number of hits. Some of them were artistic (Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac), while he had also experimented with mainstream genre (Rosemary’s Baby). Macbeth was not only more literary than his previous works, but also his first attempt at an epic. He does quite a bit with a small budget, using elaborate, genuine costumes, glorious sets, and amazing cinematography. We can see here the filmmaker who would eventually make Tess and even The Pianist, many years later.
As a piece of art, Macbeth is up there with the best of the Shakespeare adaptations, and it’s a shame that few director’s (no offense to Branaugh) have been up to the task of putting together such an ambitious and daring treatment of the material since.
Film Rating: 8/10
Toll and Trouble: Making “Macbeth.” This new hour-long documentary touches on a lot of interesting subjects. One of which was how the film got made in the first place. No major studios were interested, so the surprising financier was Playboy. That led to a little bit of pressure and some stigma that would be added to the film, but also made it a little unique. Eventually they gave Roman plenty of artistic freedom. Also featured are Francesca Annis who played Lady Macbeth. She talks frankly about the mood on the set and her thoughts of doing nudity for the production. Martin Shaw talks at length about the project, and speaks about how Jon Finch came to be cast as Macbeth (he met Polanski on a plane), and how good he turned out.
Polanski Meets Macbeth: This documentary shows plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the production, ranging from directing large scale acting scenes, to seeing how the cast and crew are fed (and hearing the complaints of the people who feed them.) This documentary isn’t enthralling, yet it is neat to see how much footage was captured from the shoot.
Dick Cavett Interview with Kenneth Tynan: This interview was conducted prior to Macbeth’s release, and most of the interview is not about the Polanski project. They discuss it briefly toward the end.
British Television “Acquarius”: Polanski and theater director Peter Coe discuss their Macbeth projects. The former is of course the Polanski epic, while the latter is “Black Macbeth” which couldn’t be anymore different.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10