Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Ten Best Shakespeare Performances on Film

For this August post I'm sharing my choices for the Ten Greatest Shakespeare Performances Ever Committed To Film Based on an Incomplete Sample of What's Out There Because Shakespeare's Been on Film for Over a Century and I've Seen Less than Half of It. So perhaps I should call what follows The Ten Best Shakespeare Performances in Films I Have Seen and Happen To Remember. Another possibility: Random Choices of Great Shakespeare Performances I'm Thinking about Today. All are good titles, so please choose the one you like best. Now, like David Letterman, I'm going to start with my tenth-ranked winner.

10. Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 Julius Caesar.
Yes, I know. But, allowing for the overwrought style of 1950s Hollywood films (MGM, in this case), Brando's performance is remarkable, primarily for its physical component. Chiefly in the scenes immediately after Caesar's murder, he exhibits a slouching grace that contrasts wondrously with the high-alert jerky nervousness of Brutus (James Mason). Brando as Antony projects an athletic, soldierly physical self-control that extends to his facial expression, which remains set and severe except in moments when only we see him. (At one point in the famous "Friends, Romans, and countrymen" speech, when he turns his back on the mob to hide his emotion, a politic craftiness enters his face. He listens astutely for his effect on the crowd, seeming faintly pleased.) Well-cast, Brando displays a grace, beauty, and physical power that charms the theater audience just as it does the Roman crowd.

9.  Ron Cook as Richard III in Shaun Sutton's 1983 BBC Richard III. 

Cook has some stiff competition for this one, but remains the most irrepressible, charismatic Richard I've seen on film. In the lengthy early scene wherein Richard publicly insults both dowager Margaret and his own family members, Cook plays to the camera, drawing us toward his perspective as he brashly exposes his fellow royals' hypocrisy. Employing a semi-Cockney accent, he pulls off the curious mixture of aristocratic snobbishness and plain-soldier, "pack horse" pride that's the key to Richard's public persona. "Since every Jack became a gentleman, there's many a gentle person made a jack!" he merrily taunts the queen, with a sidelong look at her upstart brothers. Cook communicates Richard's boyish, charged contempt for everyone, and his affinity for insult, from his first speech to his last, that last being his angry, alliterative pre-battle harangue at Bosworth Field, when he mocks the advancing "bastard Britains, whom our fathers have in their own land beaten, bobb'd, and thump'd." His sneer is endearing.

8.  Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia in Ralph Fiennes' 2012 Coriolanus.
Vanessa Redgrave is, let's face it, a little scary. With her luminous, ethereal face, her intense "I-am-listening-very-hard!" expression, and her wide blue eyes, she looks like she's about to start speaking in tongues. I will never forget how creeped out I was by her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Fred Zinneman's 1966 A Man for All Seasons. It made me think Boleyn really was a witch. But Redgrave's intense luminosity, the impression she creates of being lit from within, works perfectly in her performance of Coriolanus's Roman mother, a woman unnaturally driven by a passion for Roman soldierly honor that she projects onto her machine-like son. Redgrave's intense pride in the reports of Coriolanus' military successes is evident in the energy with which she leans forward to hear television reports of them (the film sets the play in the present day) and the wild delight of her face. Her energy never slackens, even when it turns to a bitter upbraiding, late in the play, of Coriolanus for marching on Rome. Most memorable, however, is the image of Redgrave in masculine military garb, decked out like a captain, in the film's penultimate scene, wherein her son is rewarded for showing mercy towards the city. She stands to attention, gives a snappy salute, and looks up toward the gods, her face transfigured by visions of battlefield glory. This woman is crazy. 

7.    Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus in Julie Taymor's 2006 Titus.
Speaking of crazy -- well, anyone who's seen this movie knows exactly what I'm talking about. The play's not Shakespeare's best, but what Hopkins does with the role of Roman revenger gone mad will stay forever seared into your memory. I've rarely seen anyone enjoy a part so much. Hopkins's best scenes are those that come late in the film after his character, Titus, has lost his mind due to the savage crimes committed against his family. Playing against the Elizabethan (and no less modern) convention of the cold, anger-driven revenger, Hopkins becomes a jovial plotter, almost comically threatening flies who remind him of his enemies, shooting messages via arrow to the gods to inform them of his cause, and enthusiastically pretending to be crazier than he is when his enemies visit him in disguise one night. In his last, best scene, when he's (literally) serving up the pie into which he's baked his foes, he wears a chef's hat and impeccably acts the solicitous waiter -- right up until he stabs everyone. Hopkins balances an over-the-top play and production with a subtle and darkly amusing performance.

6.  Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet.
I believe most who have seen this scene would agree that therein, Crystal's Gravedigger wipes the floor with Branagh's Hamlet. His underplayed comedy makes the Gravedigger actually funny, which he usually isn't. Early in the scene, Crystal sarcastically slows his delivery and makes amusingly exaggerated physical gestures to get his riddles across to a dim-witted assistant, and later, after Hamlet enters, his sly expression suggests he's only making annoying jokes ("Upon what ground [did the prince] los[e] his wits?" "Why, here in Denmark!") to goad his Royal Shakespearean Questioner. After this, as Hamlet rolls his eyes and histrionically complains to Horatio ("How absolute the knave is!"), Crystal gives a little "heh-heh" to himself. Then he drops the "fool" act and hands Hamlet a skull.
    Yes, I know it's only one scene, but I needed another American.

5.  Fredi Olster as Kate in William Ball and Kirk Browning's 1976 The Taming of the Shrew (San Francisco Repertory).
And here's a third (American). (Because this is a filmed version of a staged play, I may seem to cheat a little here, but it is a film.) Olster's a master-mistress of the highly physical commedia dell'arte style that works so well to dramatize Kate's power struggle with her "tamer," Petruccio. Gymnastically, she bounds, dances, and tumbles over the stage with inspired energy, suiting her actions to her words and never missing a beat. For best in this show she's in competition with Marc Singer's Petruccio, which is, of course, a necessary equivalence for a play about Kate's competition with Petruccio. From the scene when they first meet, Olster conveys the erotic feeling that binds them (rubbing her hands with glee as she regards her suitor's physique,  but making sure only the audience sees this). Olster performs the difficult task of preserving Kate's essential independence even in the final, capitulation scene, when she champions wives' subservience to husbands. She does this by speaking her last speech with commanding authority, controlling the stage, standing and striding about the seated listeners -- and grabbing Petruccio's ass.

4.  Ben Kingsley as Feste in Trevor Nunn's 1997 Twelfth Night.
First, Trevor Nunn is the greatest living Shakespeare director, and second, this film is so perfect that it's difficult to single out one performance as greater than any other. But I love lists, so I pick the performance of Kingsley, whose dark Feste shows a vein of bitterness that's wholly justified by Shakespeare's bittersweet script. Kingsley is sometimes manic, sometimes brooding, and through his eyes and expressions never lets us forget that Malvolio has deeply insulted him by deriding his profession (household fool) early in the play/film ("I marvel that your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal"). His best scene is the night-time party, the one Malvolio eventually interrupts. There Kingsley's Feste jumps from a bitter outburst of anger as he sings "Youth's a stuff will not endure" to a mad, antic explosion of glee, playing wild piano for Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria as they dance in the parlor. He seems driven to mania to escape his own haunted melancholy.

3.  Jeremy Irons as Henry IV in Sam Mendes's 2012 Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (The Hollow Crown).
This fall, all Americans, and not just those who have friends in England who send them bootleg DVDs, will be lucky enough to see this play and the rest of the Second Tetralogy on PBS. They will find that among numerous stellar performances, Jeremy Irons's King Henry is the best, especially when, in the throne-room scene of part one, he shows sly, barely hidden amusement at the volatility of Hotspur, the son he wishes he had, and when, in part 2, he wearily asks his younger sons where the decadent Prince Hal is, and they're like "Well . . .  he went hunting," and he's like, "And how accompanied?," and then he's sleepwalking and kind of losing it and haunted by his past crimes and wants to accuse his liegemen and he's like "Which of you was by?" meaning when we deposed King Richard, and then he like totally loses it when he's yelling at Prince Hal and he says "Get thee gone and dig my grave thyself!!" and he's, like, JEREMY IRONS.

2.  Derbhle Crotty as Portia in Trevor Nunn's 2000 The Merchant of Venice (Royal National Theatre).
Okay, back to semi-coherence. Again I'm almost cheating, because this was a stage-play adapted for TV, but also again -- like Portia -- I'm working within (or darting through?) the loopholes. Crotty's performance, especially during the pivotal courtroom scene, delivers the most nuanced, complex, and riveting Portia on film. I could praise every element of this scene, including Henry Goodman's Shylock, but Crotty's achievement surpasses the rest. She enters disguised as a lawyer, radiating fear, seeming to know she's in over her head, and responds nervously and improvisationally as the scene proceeds, seizing opportunities to win her case as the dialogue affords them, but looking (Portia, not Crotty) increasingly out of her depth until, suddenly, an idea hits. She doesn't want to punish Shylock, he doesn't want to kill Antonio, but she and the rest are caught in the relentless, bitter tide released by ancient antagonisms. Crotty's numerous brilliant moments in this scene include her shocked, dejected expression as Bassanio tells Antonio he'd trade his wife for him, her look of inspiration as, seeing Shylock wipe his carving knife, it occurs to her that blood isn't part of the pound-of-flesh bargain, and finally her face of dismay when, after gleefully turning a page to conclude her reading of the Venetian law prohibiting "strangers" from threatening citizens' lives, she sees that the punishment for such strangers is death. She hadn't meant to go that far.

Now, before naming the next performance, let me admit that a certain randomness governs the earlier selections. What, no films from the 30s? Or the 40s? Not even the 60s? What about Nicol Williamson's Hamlet, or Dr. Who's? No Orson Welles? And why isn't Derek Jacobi up there? (I'll tell you why. He's being punished. He knows what for.) Anyway, despite all that, there's no randomness afoot in my first-ranked performance choice. This choice is not arbitrary, but inevitable. The quality of this performance is not strained -- okay, to start again: we are dealing now with a new domain, another species of Shakespeare performance, and with an actor who boldly goes where no Shakespearean has gone before. I think you know who I'm talking about. It's:

1. Patrick Stewart as King Claudius in Gregory Doran's 2009 Hamlet.
What is it that makes Patrick Stewart the greatest living Shakespearean actor? Two things: the profundity of his attention to what other actors are saying, and the complexity (facial, gestural, tonal) of his responses to their words. Two examples may suffice. Observe Stewart's interaction with Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) when, after the pair of them have spied on Hamlet and Ophelia, Polonius tells the king he still thinks Hamlet's madness is "sprung from neglected love." Claudius suspects another cause -- that Hamlet's onto him -- and though he's too smart to say so, the evidence of his guilty worry is found in his scornful expression as he soaks in Polonius's counsel, in his impatient, dismissive hand gesture, and in his careful last line, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go." Later, enthroned and watching his regicidal crime re-enacted in The Mousetrap, he shrinks ever deeper into his chair, staring fixedly first at the actors and then at Hamlet (David Tennant, who's filming him). His face is a mask of silent, mounting fury, and his cold, terse command that they cease the play -- "Give me some light" -- conveys a sense of emotional pressure so great it needs a Claudius to contain it.

In short: Patrick Stewart! Patrick Stewart! Not Mary Stuart! Not James Stuart! Not Jackie Stewart, nor Martha Stewart! Not Stewart Weaver, professor of American history at Rochester University! Patrick Stewart! Be my Facebook friend, P. Stewart! Follow me on Twitter! Follow me home! (No, not you, Stewart Weaver!) And that's all, til September. But do watch these films.


  1. So you prefer Ron Cook's Richard III to Ian McKellen's? A little surprising to me...but you did write that he has tough competition. Also, I believe honorable mention should go to the felines of Cat Head Theater for their fine work on Hamlet.

    1. Unquestionably, Tony. Excellent point. But they'll have to wait for my blog-post, "Greatest Shakespearean Performers Who Are Cats." As for McKellen, yes, he is great. But I have to give credit to Cook for performing the entire role. McKellen (or Richard Loncraine) chopped out a lot of it for his film, to leave time for explosions. That makes it more Hollywood-y, but less Shakespearean.

  2. It warms my heart that you chose Patrick Stewart as the greatest Shakespearean actor today. He also gets my vote for best captain of the Enterprise.

  3. Still waiting for a worthy actor like Nick Nolte to play Gloucester

  4. How about Christopher Plummer? He's great shakespearean actor, isn't it? He plays almost all shakespeare's character.