Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Great performances: Olivier's Richard III

Great performances come in various shapes, few as stunning at the spider-like, stunted king who dominates Laurence Olivier's 1955/56 film of RICHARD III, which he produced and directed, as well as starring as the much-maligned monarch. Now that Richard's remains have been found (under a car park in Leicester!) and authenticated there is revived interest in the fate of this king - was he really as dastardly as Shakespeare painted him? 

Yes, this is the work of a ham in full overdrive mode - all rubber nose and moptop wig and a cushion up the back of his shirt, but nobody before or since has told the tale with greater clarity. By making Richard so comical and witty and clever and running rings around everybody else as he exacts revenge for his deformed body by killing his way to the Throne of England, Olivier's performance still resonates now. The stellar cast Olivier surrounded himself with - Gielgud, Richardson, the silent Pamela Brown as the old king's knowing mistress, Stanley Baker, Laurence Naismith, Cedric Hardwicke and particularly Claire Bloom as Lady Anne - none of them steals Larry's thespian thunder. 

From his first approach to the camera as he draws us into his confidence with those lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York" - to that final "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse" on the battlefield before he is hacked to death - this is a performance for the ages. I saw it as a child when most of the verse would have been over my head, but that scene where the murderers (Michael Gough and Michael Ripper - both very appropriately scary) drown Clarence (Gielgud) in the vat of wine is one moment that stayed with me, they also get the princes in the tower. It all looks great too, with fascinating costumes, music score by Sir William Walton, production design by Roger Furse, 

There was though another King that year: Yul Brynner, also mesmerising, in THE KING AND I and it was he who won the Best Actor Oscar (the others nominated were Kirk Douglas for LUST FOR LIFE and both Dean and Hudson for GIANT. It must be tough for an actor to have maybe one's greatest role the same year as a standout turn - but this was Brynner's breakout year (he also had his imposing Rameses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and ANASTASIA out there), like 1954 was Brando's. 

This though was Olivier's greatest decade - he went on to direct and star in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL with Marilyn, his icy Crassus in SPARTACTUS, his great THE ENTERTAINER, TERM OF TRIAL and running the new National Theatre and that other towering Shakespeare role in OTHELLO and blacking up again for KHARTOUM (see Olivier label); his energy must have been prodigious. 

Ian McKellan's modern-dress 1995 version which I did not see seems unobtainable now (unless for very silly money). 

A lot more Shakespeare to investigate over the coming months: 6 cinematic HAMLETs: Olivier again with his Oscar-winning 1948 version, the Russian 1964 one by Grigori Kozintsev with the brooding Innokenty Smoktunevsky as the Dane (that impressed me once at the BFI and I have now got the dvd); then there's Tony Richardson's 1969 one with Nicol Williamson, Derek Jacobi for the BBC in the 80s, Zeffirelli's with Mel Gibson (it also features Bates and Scofield) in 1990 and the 1996 Kennth Branagh all-star one (Julie Christie as Gertrude!) - then there's 6 Hamlets I saw on the stage: Peter McEnery (1968), Michael York (1970), Alan Bates (in '72 with Celia Johnson as Gertrude), Jonathan Pryce (Jill Bennett was his Gertrude in 1980), Stephen Dillane in the '90s and David Tennant's understudy, a few years ago. Couple of MACBETHs too: Orson Welles in '48, Nicol Williamson for the BBC, Polanski's in 1972 and another television one with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. and of course Welles' 1966 CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is stunningly marvellous, as is his OTHELLO, both made on very shoestring budgets ..... Its going to be a winter of drama then .... I imagine Zeffirelli's HAMLET should look as good as his TAMING OF THE SHREW and ROMEO AND JULIET.

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