Friday, August 13, 2021

"Shakespeare in Love": A Viola by Any Other Name

You may think it’s a travesty that I’m dodging away from my passion for movies in order to dip into Hermione Lee’s new biography of the Czech-born British playwright, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard, though lacking any fancy university degrees, is known for his erudition and wit. These hallmarks are revealed in his many plays,  including the award-winning Arcadia and The Real Thing. But what struck me about the early pages of this biography is that as a young man coming of age circa 1960 Stoppard had many of the same cultural passions that my classmates and I did, though we were slightly younger. He admired the works of Samuel Beckett and Britain’s “Angry Young Men” like John Osbourne (Look Back in Anger). But a lot of his enthusiasms were for American cultural figures: Hemingway, Arthur Miller, T.S. Eliot. He also adored the films of Buster Keaton and the Brothers Marx. As a struggling journalist on his first trip to America, he somehow managed to meet and chat with funnyman Mel Brooks, and considered this one of the highlights of his young life.

 As a pater familias trying to support a growing household, he was of course eager to put his talents to work on Hollywood properties, in exchange for Hollywood-sized paychecks. A commission to adapt Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo for the screen came to nothing. But once his fame as a playwright was secure, he had a hand in some oddly assorted projects. In 1985, he contributed to the hilarious and disturbing dystopian fantasy, Brazil, along with Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. (The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.) In 1987 he worked on the first draft of Empire of the Sun, This film, directed by Steven Spielberg and with a young Christian Bale in the central role, was an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical account of being a British boy stuck in a Japanese-run POW camp in China during World War II. (The experience led Stoppard to relieve his own family history of seeking refuge from the Nazis in first Singapore and then India.) He also wrote the 1990 screen adaptation of John Le ’s The Russia House.

 But none of his other screen projects has been as peculiarly Stoppardian as his screenplay for 1998’s Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love. The combination of Shakespeare and Stoppard is a potent one: he had burst onto the theatre scene with his own sideways take on Hamlet, 1966’s Rosencrantz &Guildenstern are Dead. It was not Stoppard’s idea to show a  young Will Shakespeare, paralyzed by writer’s block, finding new inspiration when a lovely woman disguises herself as a man to audition for his upcoming comedy, tentatively titled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The concept, and the title of the film, came from an American TV writer, Marc Norman, who ultimately shared the screenplay Oscar with Stoppard. But clearly it was Stoppard who made the screenplay bubble over with high spirits and deep emotions. His interweaving of Shakespeare’s tragic Romeo and Juliet with the doomed romance of Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps is funny, sexy, and ultimately poignant. It also provides meaty roles for some of England’s finest players, including Judi Dench as a knowing Queen Elizabeth, Colin Firth as a crass Lord Wessex, and Geoffrey Rush as the owner of the Rose Theatre, always desperate for a lucrative comedy containing hijinks and a dog. As a satire of show biz today, as well as a romance for the ages, Shakespeare in Love  is priceless. The rivalries, the neuroses, the vanity the stage engenders—it’s all here. Bravissimo! 



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