Looking for Richard (1996), Director Al Pacino

Laura MacDonald

Prologue

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
                        Richard III, 1. 2

As anyone who has lived with me can attest, I am a notoriously grumpy movie watcher and as this video was popped into the DVD player I muttered, “There better not be any special features.  This movie is, like, all special features.  All behind the scenes stuff…grumble, grumble…”

To which my much better half replied, “That’s pretty much what a documentary is, sweetie.”

I responded with silence (silence and the sound of a chip bag being opened).

Looking for Richard and Finding Al

It’s a docu-drama type thing.

Al Pacino

Spot on, Al.  Spot on.

Touted as a behind-the-scenes look at the production of an American film version of Richard the III, featuring one of Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains, we watch the tension, the struggle and the efforts to understand Shakespeare from a modern day perspective and yet, here’s the catch: there is no movie being filmed.

This is the movie.  Richard the III is not.

Looking for Richard is a movie about Al Pacino playing Richard.  Cultivating the perfect scenario where he can rule the Shakespearean landscape as he sees fit, cutting and pasting the text to meet his aim, charming famous actors into joining him in his ill-defined endeavour, ruling the silver-screen…his way.

Sound familiar?  Richard as King, Al as director.

Hmmmm…

Now, after tactlessly implying that Al Pacino is an amoral, murderous, covetous scoundrel, I will follow up by saying that I really did enjoy some of his directorial choices.   The aim, as stated early in the film, is to make Shakespeare accessible to an American audience.  I believe that they have achieved this in Looking for Richard – that by the end of the movie we, the audience, do find him.

By allowing us to sit in on the table readings and the discussions and debates that ensue, we learn about the play along with all the famous players in this film (Hey! That’s the premise for the Bard Brawl).  As audience members, we aren’t intimidated because we can see that we are not the only ones who are confused.  Even the seasoned actors are more than a little bit muddled. We are merely joining the ranks of centuries of confused Shakespeare-o-phobes.

We are also given a glimpse at the common-folk as Pacino and co. take a casual walk down a New York street falling into lockstep with locals who give their two cents on Shakespeare.  They meet resistance (“It sucked”).  They meet clichés (“To be, or not to be”). They meet pragmatic Brits (“He’s a great export”).  They also meet a wise-beyond-his-toothless-grin man who believes that Shakespearean language gives us access to our feelings and that, “if we felt what we said we’d say less and mean more.”

Yeah, what that guy said.

Pacino also does a beautiful (albeit an overt) job of juxtaposing the urban New York landscape with the opening lines from Richard the III and we start to see how that Shakespeare can thrive in modernity.  Thrive but not without obstacles.  We watch as Pacino and his gregarious cohort Frederick Kimball try to seek inspiration by travelling to England to visit the actual birth room of Shakespeare only to be interrupted by the sound of sirens.  Alternatively, there is a lovely brief moment when Pacino is walking down some city street and we can hear the sound of horse hooves clopping by.

It gives a whole new meaning to the word timeless.

Another shining moment in the film is when Kimball is explaining iambic pentameter by comparing an iamb to an anteater:

And five of them: Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da.  Make a pentameter line, five iambs.  An iamb is like an anteater. Very high in the back and very short, little front legs: da-DA!

You just can’t beat a solid anteater analogy.

What falls short in Looking for Richard are the scenes from the “movie they are filming”; all the characters seem considerably more believable with their backwards baseball caps, messy hair and civvies.  Their Elizabethan garb becomes a distraction and actually goes against their effort to make Shakespeare accessible to an audience that is not familiar with the plays.  This is not to say that it never works but, in the context of this film, when we are being thrown from rehearsal to table work and back, from in-costume to baseball cap to in-costume again; from trendy Ray Bans to bejeweled crowns, it is a lot to take in .  Pacino, speaking about the language of Shakespeare, asserts that it is not difficult.  He just says, “you have to tune up”.  I would suggest that he take his own advice when it comes to the costume as well – our eyes need to get accustomed to the floppy hats, over-sized crowns and Alec Baldwin in a puffy Seinfeldian shirt.

Truth be told, I started getting anxiety while watching Looking for Richard but was too scared to ask if the movie version of Richard III was ever really produced because if it was, I might have to watch it.  One of the scholars in the film stated that “The action of the play, the sense of exciting movement is Richard’s finding out the point beyond which people won’t go.” I believe that sentiment holds true for this film as well.

Epilogue

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.
                        Richard III, 4. 4

In terms of introducing an unfamiliar play to the general masses, Pacino was on the right track by stacking the deck with so many familiar faces: Alec Baldwin, Derek Jacobi, Sir Arthur John Gielgud, Winona Ryder, Kenneth Branagh, the principal from The Breakfast Club (though he has no lines, let alone a gem like “Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns”) and Kevin Spacey, to name a few.  We get a peek at the struggle and discovery involved in putting up Shakespeare for a modern day audience.  Or at least the struggle involved with thinking of putting it up.  And since struggle and discovery are the ingredients to every good quest, I say it’s worth embarking on the journey…as long as you have plenty of chips.

Laura Macdonald

Richard III (1955), Laurence Olivier (director)

Daniel J. Rowe

Though in a certain sense dated, Olivier’s Richard III is a great piece of film largely thanks to the director/star’s scene chewing greatness.

When looking at William Shakespeare’s work on film, one will, in a very short time, collide with “cinema’s first great Shakespearean artist“, the godfather of them all, Sir Laurence Olivier.

Richard III is the final of his three directorial efforts (he acted in eight); the other two being Hamlet (1948) and Henry V (1944). He began what Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh continued. Branagh, like Olivier, started his bard-on-film odyssey with Henry V. Sir Kenneth followed that promise by bumbling through roles he had no business playing (Hamlet, Iago), and hasn’t done much for a while. Here’s hoping he doesn’t decide to cast himself as R III.

Olivier’s Richard III suffers from one thing: age. It is hard for a contemporary viewer to appreciate the film when Richard Loncraine’s 1995 adaptation is staring us in the face. Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard is just so sexy. The ascetic of Olivier’s R III suffers datedness in three respects: costumes, set and music. Oh the music. So bad.

By the way, are we a little fast and loose with the knighthoods Windsors? I guess all it takes is making a few Shakespeare movies and you’re in.

The “it’s dated” criticism, even with the billowy tights and static sets, misses the forest for the trees however (ask Macbeth the consequences of that). Richard III is always about the title character. If Richard is good, so goes the production. Olivier is, surprise, surprise, very good. He bounces through his manipulation of the Yorkish court with the cheshire cat grin of a true sadist. He loves what he’s doing, and dreads it in the same scene at times. His soliloques to camera are chilling, as are his “friendly” moments with his nephews. Olivier, as per normal, chews up the scenery.

His directorial choices, as well, work. He splits speeches and changes the order or scenes to make the very confusing plot of the play make a little more sense. He opens with the court, so we can at least see the characters of Richard’s opening soliloquy. Of course the opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” loses a little power if not performed loud and proud on fade in.

The use of shadows is a little obvious. Yes we get it, Richard is a shadowy figure whose only pleasure is to “spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.” The director’s choice is understandable, as is the Edward court brightly lit, Richard court gloomy lit decision.

A particularly good scene is Richard’s coronation. Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) plays torture victim off Richard’s Machiavel creating a gut wrenching balance of hell that is the last York king’s court. The murder of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud) is harsh, hard to watch and perfect in its callousness. Gielgud, another knight, it should be noted, was called the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century; he was in Branagh’s Hamlet and died in 2000. He directed his own version of Hamlet in 1964.

The historical Richard III has recently found his way into the headlines with the discovery of a skeleton thought to be his under a carpark. His historical footprint has been as much outlined by Shakespeare as any scholar, and thus the play remains important.

Olivier’s Richard III is worth the watch. Richard ranks with Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello as Shakespeare’s finest and most difficult characters. Any bard brawler must appreciate the role, and catch a master knee deep in the guck. Olivier is a master.

Note to Queen Elizabeth II: We bard brawlers are part of the commonwealth and waiting for our knighthoods.

Daniel J. Rowe is c0-creator of the Bard Brawl.DSC_0180

10 Things I Hate about You (1999), Director Gil Junger

Laura MacDonald

The Taming of the Shrew is not exactly the first Shakespeare play that would come to mind if you wanted to make a modern-day rom-com romp aimed at (let’s face it) teenage girls. And yet, somehow, director Gil Junger managed to make it work with 10 Things I Hate about You; a loosey-goosey adaption of the play. While you may not have known it is an adaptation of Shakespeare, you most certainly would have known it as the movie that first introduced us to the late Heath Ledger’s dreamy smile.

Why so serious, indeed.

Oh, and there were other people in it too.

The Taming of the Shrew is a notoriously misogynistic play. I mean, the rampant sexism is left unmasked even in its title. Critics and directors have taken different stances when it comes to Kate’s final speech, some reading it as a literal proclamation of submission to the husband, others reading it with an air of mischievousness and controlled rebellion. How you read it is up to you, but presumably the writers saw a glimmer of hope in Kate and were inspired to revive the play and transform it for an audience with more modern sensibilities.

Within the first few minutes of the film we are given the obligatory teen movie walk through their high school campus and all its clique-dom. This scene is an almost carbon copy of a scene from Clueless (1995) which is, interestingly enough, an adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma. Modern sensibilities, my butt! These tongue-in-cheek tours around the campus work to reinforce the established social hierarchies in the same way that Shakespeare’s introduction with Christopher Sly immediately brings them into the foreground in The Taming of the Shrew.

The teens in Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are reminded, as people have been reminded for centuries, that there are just some people who you cannot touch.

In this case, those people are Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) and Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles). They are reminded for two very different reasons; Bianca in that she is beautiful and fills out her floral sun dress nicely and Kat because, in short, flowers wilt when she walks by. We are first introduced to Kat with Joan Jett’s “I don’t give a damn about my reputation” blasting from her car radio. Apropos? Yes. Heavy-handed? Perhaps. But we get the point. She is not to be trifled with.

The shrew has balls. The shrew is also beautiful and indiscriminately bares her navel. The Joan Jett song, while effective, is actually misleading; Kat’s reputation, albeit as a “muling, rampalian wench” has been carefully cultivated over the years.

Ms. Perky: People perceive you as somewhat…
Kat Stratford: Tempestuous?
Ms. Perky: “Heinous bitch” is the term used most often.

For good reason, as it turns out. We are offered an explanation for her “tempestuous” attitude. And therein lies the inherent difference between The Taming of the Shrew and 10 Things I Hate about You – you respect Kat. You like her. And, by the end of the film, you understand her anger. I mean, sixteen year old me wanted to be her; to sit on my couch wearing a crop-top reading “The Bell Jar” or to be so waifish that I could balance (comfortably!) on a balcony railing doing something awesome like sketching or reading “The Feminine Mystique.”

Unfortunately, the feminist angle doesn’t stand up to the test of time. Watching it this time around I had to ask myself why, to show that she is letting her guard down, did she have to be seductively dancing on a table. I mean, how many strip clubs has this feminist high school student been to? And did she really have to cry in front of the whole class when she read her version of sonnet 141? In The Taming of the Shrew even Kate’s final speech is delivered sometimes defiantly, sometimes stoically, always confidently; never snivelling. Especially since Patrick Verona was no Petruchio.

Patrick (Heath Ledger) takes on the role of Petruchio rendering the violent misogynist into a tough-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside kind of scone (with Vegemite on it, of course). His bad boy persona quickly falls to the wayside as he undertakes the impossible feat of dating Kat Stratford. Cue Hollywood formula – he ends up kinda, sorta, didn’t-know-he-was-gonna, falling for her. A huge divergence from the play is that he is trying to relate to her, not break her. This is what ultimately softens her; there is a mutual respect.

While I love the movie, it is ultimately unbalanced in its love of all things Shakespeare. The colloquial/valley girl/teen lingo is punctuated with well placed quotes from Shakespeare such as, “I burn, I pine, I perish” (Act I, i). This works. The high school English teacher rapping Sonnet 141 – amazing. The song “Cruel to be Kind” by Letters to Cleo as a reference to a line from Hamlet, I can dig it. But then, it is revealed late in the movie that Kat’s best friend (who up to that point has barely been in the movie, by the way) is a Shakespeare devotee claiming that she is not simply a fan but that they are “involved.” This reference to the bard feels a little heavy-handed and I personally would have been happier if it had been left as simply a poster of Shakespeare in her locker where Jonathan Taylor Thomas should have been. Sometimes less is more.

I wonder if he ever got my letters.

And now is the time that I devolve into the obligatory “Things I hate” segment of the analysis (sorry, folks, I had to).

10 things I hate about this movie (even though I love this movie):

I hate that Patrick does not hold Kate’s hair back when she is hurling. She had a lot of hair.
I hate that Kate goes in to kiss him after hurling; it doesn’t seem to bother him. Gross.
I hate that Bianca and Cameron kiss tenderly despite the fact that his nose is bleeding.
I hate Kate’s version of sonnet 141 (and the poem the movie is named after) essentially sucks right up until the last couplet. And it makes her sound like a flake.
I hate that we don’t see the porno-writing-guidance counsellor with her “quivering bratwursts” nearly often enough.
I hate that we don’t see Larry Miller as the overbearing OB/GYN father nearly enough “Kissing isn’t what keeps me up to my elbows in placenta all day long.” Brilliant.
I hate that this is yet another teen movie that perpetuated the myth of the grand gesture (picture John Cusack standing in the rain with ghetto blaster over his head – now think back on your own life).

Laura MacDonald

I hate that there are too many navels in this movie. Too many.

I hate that I couldn’t make this rhyme.

But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate this movie. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Why not watch the whole thing?

Laura still plays for the Bard Brawl farm team and studied English Literature and Playwriting at Concordia University.

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