Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Baz Luhrmann Brushes Up on His Shakespeare with “Romeo + Juliet”

When I was college-age and in love, the movie to see was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The art direction was lush; the secret lovers were gorgeously young (Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey a mere 15); the cinematography and musical score were swoon-worthy. Though the screen showed us a  convincing depiction of Old Verona (as well as young bodies), we could surely identify with the social concerns of these lovers and this timeframe. In the Zeffirelli film, dying for love seemed both sad and inspiring, especially for those at the right age to discover love, and sex, and the burdens of family obligations, and the rules that govern a community.

 Somewhere along the line, I watched the most admired screen Romeo and Juliet of my parents’ era. That would be an MGM spectacular, directed by George Cukor in 1936. This elegant but stodgy black & white rendering of the immortal love story featured Leslie Howard (age 43) and Norma Shearer (age 36) as the “young” lovers: Shearer was the much-adored wife of producer Irving Thalberg, whose pet project this had long been. Roadshow screenings of this extravaganza sold elaborate program booklets, and ads of the era touted the Howard/Shearer paring as a repeat of their romantic chemistry in a popular melodrama called Smilin’ Through. There’s no way that my peers and I could have connected with Howard and Shearer. But the virile young Whiting and the gloriously delicate Hussey were to us completely captivating. (I’ve talked to men of my generation who first discovered, on watching the bridal-bed scene, that their tastes ran more to Romeo than to his fair young bride.)

 I suppose every era must have its own Romeo and Juliet. In 1996, along came Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, fresh off the success of an outrageous little dance movie, Strictly Ballroom (1992). It was a gigantic jump from a Down Under production full of no-name ballroom dance aficionados to a major Hollywood release, but Luhrmann clearly enjoys the bursting of boundaries. He brought with him the concept of a Romeo and Juliet set not in a musty Italian city but rather in a gaudy neverland named Verona Beach. His rival Montagues and Capulets are gangs of punk rockers and Hawaiian-shirted bros, brawling in the service of the adult gangster-types who run things. There are guns, cigarettes, tattoos, and swimming pools, along with a flamboyant Catholicism when religion is required. In defiance of the “whites only” classical productions of Shakespeare, here actors come in many colors, John Leguizamo swaggers through the role of Tybalt, and Juliet’s nurse has an unmistakable Latino accent But somehow the language of Shakespeare holds, though the Bard’s verbal formalities are often used ironically.

 What of the central love story? Luhrmann certainly chose well. His Romeo is a baby-faced  twenty-two-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, speaking eloquently while looking really cute. Opposite him is Clare Danes, age 17, as earnest and wide-eyed as a Juliet can be. Though some of their scenes together take on a surreal quality because of their location (part of the dialogue from the famous balcony scene is played in a fabulous swimming pool), young love is definitely in the air. (The word is that Danes developed a genuine crush on DiCaprio, who wasn’t interested—so much for youthful ardor.) I’m not sure I can forgive Luhrmann for tweaking some details of the play’s ending. At any rate, high school teachers reportedly adore this version because it speaks so vividly to their students. And I can hardly complain about that.


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