Sunday, January 30, 2011

William Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier

Here's an interesting stat that, while I have not confirmed it, I defy anyone to prove me wrong - William Shakespeare is the most credited writer in film/television history. IMDb credits the bard with 831 titles, dating all the way back to an 1899 short film.

Shakespearean best picture nominees include A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Henry V (1946), Hamlet (1948), Julius Caesar (1953), and Romeo and Juliet (1968). Hamlet won best picture. As did 1961's musical West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet and 1998's Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes depicting the struggling young playwright as he writes Romeo and Juliet.

Arguably (or undoubtedly) the most famous writer in world history, his influence is undeniable. Acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa earned a best director nomination for Ran (1985) a version of King Lear staged as a samurai war epic. Kenneth Branagh earned the same for his 1989 version of Henry V.

I have now seen all of the bard's best picture nominees having recently watched the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet and Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

George Cukor (who directed several best picture nominees) helmed Romeo and Juliet and did an excellent job playing up the humorous moments in the play without sacrificing the emotion of the famous tragedy. I would say that appreciation of Shakespeare grows greatly with familiarity, both on the whole and with individual works. I'm so used to the story of Romeo and Juliet that I had no trouble following the dialogue of the entire thing. I think the biggest hurdle in enjoying Shakespeare is simply how the shades of meaning of so many words have changed (or become obsolete altogether) in 400 years . For instance, Olivier's Henry V was harder to follow as I haven't seen Branagh's version in over 15 years and, aside from the St. Crispin's Day speech, I didn't remember much at all.

Olivier, for all his talents, is remembered first and foremost as a Shakespearean actor. Of his ten Oscar acting nominations, four of them were for playing Shakespeare heroes (including Othello). Olivier's lone acting win was for Hamlet, although he also earned TWO honorary Oscars. The first "for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen" in 1947 and a second in 1979 for life-time achievement.

In addition to Henry V and Hamlet, Olivier starred in four other best picture nominees: Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940's best picture winner), 49th Parallel (1941), and Nicholas and Alexandria (1971). He also, fittingly, did the narration of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

Above is a picture I took last summer in London of a statue of Olivier.

80 to go...

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