Monday, April 23, 2007

Out Damn Spot: Enough Hamlet. Give Us Lady Macbeth.

This post is my contribution to the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon

I've often thought there should be a moratorium on Shakespearean film adaptations, if only for a couple of decades. Theoretically this would offer some breathing room to other famous authors in which they could increase their posthumous cultural capital. I assure you the movies would not suffer. Shakespeare is not the only great and famous playwright to have lived and not all filmmakers would be drawn to adaptations of TV shows should their favorite source of classic literature be suddenly verboten. They'd just have to be a teensy less lazy when looking for projects to adapt. When it comes to the movies, is their any author who's been more amply masticated than Shakespeare? Time to spit him out and try a new meal.

I'm aware that this proposed Bard sabbatical would never actually occur. But if we must have several new Shakespearean films per decade I wish that the net were cast a little wider. Anything other than Hamlet would give sweet relief. Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays and there are hundreds upon hundreds of film versions, so let's just zero in briefly on his tragedies and recent Engligh language cinema (1990-2007). In this time frame performers as diverse Mel Gibson (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Ethan Hawke (2000), have filled the crazy boots of that Prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Meanwhile Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus,
Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra, and Cymbeline (sometimes considered a comedy) gather cinematic cobwebs. Of the tragedies only Titus Andronicus ( Julie Taymor's Titus, 1999), Romeo & Juliet (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet , 1996) and Othello (Othello, 1995 and the indie O, 2001) have gotten popcorn play lately. Hamlet may have been an indecisive fellow but Hollywood clearly chooses him to be... their go to guy.

My personal favorite of Shakespeares tragedies is Macbeth. It has been modernized twice recently: The American indie Scotland Pa. (2001) had a clever fast food spin and a strong performance from Maura Tierney as "Pat McBeth" and there's an Aussie film Macbeth (2006) set in the Melbourne underworld. But this particular tragedy hasn't made a major cinematic stab at glory since Roman Polanski filmed it (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1972) with Jon Finch (Kingdom of Heaven) as the dagger wielding would be King and Francesca Annis (Dune) as his deliciously guilt-ridden Lady.

Since I don't get Macbeth often and since Shakespeare is so ingrained in the collective cultural psyche I often end up "seeing" his characters --particularly Lady Macbeth, a great literary figure --echoed elsewhere. To end this post, I thought I'd share three characters that resurrect Lady Macbeth vividly in my mind and hint that if we must have Shakespeare, there's considerable cinematic drama that could still be wrung out of Macbeth. Let's let Hamlet sleep this next decade out.

Lady MacBeth Revised
Glenn Close's rather grandiose acting style and intimidating persona might be too obvious a casting choice ...or a touch too steely a match for Lady MacBeth's operatic yet hidden crimes, but it was a hoot to see Close playing the famous character (albeit briefly) in Heights (2005) wherein she played a famous actress --she even has a speech about Lady Macbeth's monologue, But my favorite Close performance, and the one that brings the Lady to mind, is her work as The Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. Merteuil seems harder and less human than Lady Macbeth. Initially it's hard to imagine the Marquise feeling the levels of remorse that overwhelm Shakespeare's infamous blood spattered wife --the Merquise enjoys her string-pulling too much. But toward the end of 1988's best picture (well, it gets my vote), when her cold ambition and games have robbed her of the only two things she loved (Valmont and her social standing) ....well it's hard for me not to see the DNA of Lady Macbeth. I think of the "out damn spot" monologue as the Marquise purposefully yet catatonically wipes off that white mask of makeup. That teardrop falls. It's one of the most impactful film endings of my lifetime. Rub and cry though she might, you know she'll never feel clean again.
Here's the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand

I've often pondered whether "Faith" (Eliza Dushku) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pop descendant of Lady Macbeth. Though considerably less eloquent in her speechmaking than Shakespeare's character she too invites nearly supernatural corruption into her heart, daring evil to have its way with her. She too ends up with blood on her hands ("Bad Girls") and hides her guilt which starts to eat away at her from inside ("Consequences"). Faith doesn't die in Joss Whedon's Vampire Slayer narrative as Lady MacBeth does in Shakespeare's tragedy, but she most definitely invites it. It's up for debate whether or not Lady Macbeth's death is a suicide but in the thick of her tragic story arc, Faith's self-loathing is revealed to have quite a bloodlust: for her own ("Graduation Day, Part One" and more emphatically in "Who Are You?"). Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing the king with a dagger. Faith commits murder with her own hands but blood is blood. A rather fetishized dagger enters Faith's own story. Depending on how you read the story, isn't she goading Buffy into killing her with it?
Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done

Finally, there's The Lovely Laura Linney as "Annabeth Markum" in Mystic River (2003) to consider. For most of Clint Eastwood's acclaimed adaptation she is a sidelined character, a seemingly simple wife of Sean Penn's thuggish Jimmy. Many film fans feel that her late film reveal -- turns out she's a rather manipulative ambitious woman who doesn't mind so much that she has a killer for a husband --is too much of a shock. I'd agree to an extent. It doesn't carry the dramatic jolt it could have had the screenplay or direction, prepared us just a tiny bit more. But directorial choices aside, Linney delivers in admirable fashion adding just the right chilling note to the film's cynical denouement. Like Lady Macbeth she's 'crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty'

34 comments:

Sid said...

My favorite is Macbeth too. There was a recent Bollywood adaptation which is easily the best film to come out of India in this decade, but it didn't find an audience beyond some film festivals.

Anyway, agreed on Laura Linney's scene. I think she played it brilliantly enough for me to momentarily consider handing her a nomination that year but the screenplay faltered badly in providing any background for that character arc. And I think the scene suffers because of that.

On its own, the scene is spectacular, but within the overall narrative of the film, it seemed to make no sense.

StevieB said...

For a modern re-telling of Macbeth I would recommend Men Of Respect, well worth a watch.

BBats said...

Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is a great adaptation of Macbeth. A lot of people don't like it because its not a straight up translation, others think its revision is what makes it the best film adaptation of Shakespeare.

Stephen G said...

Props to Julie Taymor for picking a lesser-known play like Titus Andronicus to adapt. I'd rather see a flawed but ambitious take on a lesser-known play than the umpteenth competent version of a more well-known piece.

Even on the stage, in Sydney anyway, the lack of diversity is embarrassing. It's as if he only wrote 10 plays, the "greatest hits", and audiences are assumed to be too dumb or unadventurous to want to see anything else. A pet peeve of mine!

NATHANIEL R said...

sid --whats the name of that bollywood version?

stevie --thanks for the suggestion

bbats --i haven't seen it (eep. i really need to watch more kurosawa)

stephen g --i don't like Taymor's Titus at all but I completely agree with what you're saying ...although you're being generous with the 10 number ;) isn't it really only midsummer nights dream, hamlet, twelfth night, king lear, romeo & juliet and maybe richard III that get performed?

vv said...

I share your admiration for Linney's obvious Lady Macbeth in Mystic River. I remember spotting some hints of that same character in Bridget Fonda's role in A Simple Plan, not sure anyone else agrees.

NATHANIEL R said...

i haven't seen A Simple Plan so i can't say... anyone else? (I think Fonda does ice cold well though: see also Scandal

Damian said...

Although Hamlet happens to be my favorite Shakespeare play, I am also a tremendous fan of Macbeth and have been crying for another film version of it for a while now.

Incidentally, did you know that they are currently in pre-production on an adaptation (called Come Long Shadows) with Sean Bean as Macbeth and Tilda Swinton as Lady macbeth? Suffice it to say, I am rather looking forward to that.

J.J. said...

Scotland, Pa is extremely wonderful.

par3182 said...

macbeth, glenn, faith & the lovely laura - it's as if you've got a list of my favourite things above your desk...

Anderson said...

There's also a very good adaptation of MACBETH made by BBC with everybody's favourite James McAvoy as the main character (this is a very modernized version set in a restaurant!).

And talking about Oscar, ppl can say what they like about Cate & Judi& Fernanda losing to Gwyneth (which was preposterous indeed), but a raped Jodie Foster totally robbed Glenn Close.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you really should see more Kurosawa. His take on MacBeth is not only his best work, but the best Shakespeare adaptation I've seen - including the Russian ones. I love Ran, but Throne of Blood is superior. it is really creepy and hieratic without that Calvin Klein Samurai that sometimes threats Ran's magnitude.

If you bother to see it, make a double Japanese-tragedy session and get Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion.

Who would I cast in a Lady MacBeth adaptation?

In my opinion it'd be the ultimate challenge for Kate Winslet, her passport for best of all time pantheon of acting. I can see her doing a fantastic job with this part. Everytime she plays her bohemian roles, I can see a lingering and confrontational sense of daring - like she doesn't care about people when she has to reach her goals, understand? It is the same quality I see in Jane Fonda early turns, like They Shoot Horses and Klute. Anyway, anybody but Glenn Close's or Annette Bening's bad theatrics. So bad we haven't seen Jeanne Moreau - somebody with a real profound sense of evilness - in this role.

- cal roth

Anna! said...

Oh, yes, can we move past Shakespeare - esp. Hamlet! Love your post! Am a fan of Macbeth, though I've often thought the theatre community (and film) should be banned from doing Shakespeare for at least a generation until we are ready to breathe some new life into the old boy's plays. For what it's worth - I'm a theatre scholar - tired to death of Shakes hero-worship. Though, as I write this, I must confess to really liking Branagh's Henry V - great film.

And Tilda Swinton as Lady MacBeth?? - that I want to see - well, maybe we can ban Shakes next generation.

Thanks for your informative blog - I've been reading for awhile though never commented.

Sid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sid said...

Nat, the bollywood version is called Maqbool and is set in Bombay's underworld. Macbeth is played by Irrfan Khan and Lady Macbeth is brilliantly portrayed by Tabu (the same actors who played the parents in The Namesake).

Kamikaze Camel said...

The Australian Macbeth that was released last year was so ridiculously over-the-top and absurd that I really liked it. A lot of people hated it with the burning fireof a thousand suns. But it was visually and aurally an assault on the senses and it was definitely played to the back of the cinema, that's for sure.

The aussie accent doesn't mix well the traditional language though.

NATHANIEL R said...

welcome Anna! In my rough draft i mentioned the theater (they use Shakes even more as a crutch) but it was getting too long. But Tilda as Lady Macbeth does sound enticing.

sid --the parents were (by far) the best thing about The Namesake so i'll have to try and find this

crazycris said...

Ummmm Nat... shouldn't that be the Marquise de Merteuil? (for Glenn Close). "Merquise" doesn't exist in my French dictionary! ;o)

SamuraiFrog said...

I am one of those tireless, tedious people who NEEDS to watch every Shakespeare adaptation, but I do agree that maybe we could do with less of them lately. I also feel the same way about Jane Austen.

Goran said...

The Australian "Macbeth" has become a bit of a joke locally - I've had many people tell me it's probably the worst movie ever made and has to be seen for that reason.

On the other hand, "Throne of Blood" is the single greatest Shakespeare adaptation on film - I agree with you Nat that Macbeth is probably Shakespeare's best play, or at least it's certainly my favourite (though it depends on time of day with me - later tonight I might decide I prefer King Lear, or Titus, or Antony and Cleopatra) - and I doubt that any lady (or gentleman for that matter - a gay Macbeth - the possibilities!) will ever match Isuzu Yamada's chilling, hypnotic take on Lady Macbeth.

Then again, in Kurosawa's other Great Shakespeare adaptaion, Ran (the second greatest Shakespeare adaptation ever put on film), Mieko Harada also plays a variation on Lady Macbeth, and she's equally, fiercely magnificent.

I disagree with you that filmmakers should be banned from adapting Shakespeare - there is still plenty of potential there - though they should definitely be stopped from modernizing him in the simplistic, didactic, and inevitably hysterical ways that have lately become fashionable.

NATHANIEL R said...

i'm not asking for an all time best. Why deny 38 (?) pieces of fine literature. But a partial ban --it would force people to think of other pieces of fine literature. After all not every director is also a writer.

i just don't wanna see another Hamlet for a long long time. And, despite my love for Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (surely one of the "hysteric" readings you're alluding to but it's kind of you to not mention it --you know where you are ;) ) I also think on ban on Romeo & Juliet as an easy radical platform from which to tell any forbidden romance would be helpful.

but actually --a ban on shakespeare in the theater would be even more helpful: a short ban would even do it. Say 3 years. Imagine all those regional companies and all those festivals having to think a LITTLE BIT HARDER about old works and even new works that they might wanna perform, resuscitate or otherwise boost in the public consciousness.

NATHANIEL R said...

"all time best" should have read "all time ban" umm...

Nick Davis said...

I have been wanting to see Tilda Swinton as Lady Macbeth for. ever. I even drew a movie poster of her and Ralph Fiennes in the lead roles of Macbeth for a school project back in the early 90s. Sean Bean is a good switch-in for Ralph, though.

Anonymous said...

"Macbeth" is one of my favorite pieces of literature. I would love to see Jude Law and Jennifer Connelly as the leads.

Damian said...

As long as we're banning Shakespeare and Austen for a while, why not ban any more comic book adaptations too? In fact, while we're at it, why don't we just ban all forms of literature from the stage AND the screen and force screenwriters/playwrights to come up with some wholly original ideas for a change?

NATHANIEL R said...

now you're talking!

nothing but original work for the next decade. just to mix it up
imagine how many new voices would emerge.

you'd still get a lot of formula: i imagine there'd be a huge wave of buddy pictures and romantic comedies: formulas as the new adaptations --anything to avoid the risk of new voices and new stories

Kamikaze Camel said...

We'd probably get a whole lot more "original" movies that are actually based on things such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Gangs of New York. And if the Academy is blind to it then I don't see why audiences would chuck up a stink about it.

Damian said...

now you're talking!

Good grief.

Maybe shoulda kept ma big mouth shut.

NATHANIEL R said...

damian --if it helps at all i'm exaggerate to make this manifesto. I just view it like the dogme 95 experience. give Hollywood an arbitrary new set of rules and see what happens...

i think it'd be interesting. who knows maybe we'd get the next original writer/director as revelatory as todd haynes, pt anderson, or pedro almodovar out of it -- although i suppose it could also birth to more paul haggis' too...this all original manifesto.

sozzy said...

I saw Glenn Close as Lady MacBeth on stage (mid-80's) and I regret to say, she was terrible. I don't know how much stage acting she'd done before - maybe it just wasn't her medium. But she was truly bad.

Laura Linney's work in House Of Mirth is a good creditantial for Lady MacBeth.

I can't get enough Shakespeare. I've cast lots of the plays in my head and am waiting for producers to read my mind and make the movies.

blackkittycatt said...

I think Michelle Pffeifer (so sad my inability to spell) would make a great Lady M. Seductive, chilly, manipulative, passionate and very intellingent. She has an appearence that doesn't make one think of her for the role and that's exactly the reason (and there are many)why she'd be a great. She also just the right age.
Christopher

Joanne said...

There was an excellent stage production of the Scottish Play a few years ago starring Sean Bean and Samantha Bond. It got middling reviews but I loved it - Bean brought a very masculine, soldier-like quality to the Scottish guy.

My favourite Shakespeare adaptation on film is Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995, directed by Richard Loncraine). It's set in a 1930s fascist Britain, which works beautifully. McKellen is just superb as Richard and has an awesome supporting cast. Kristen Scott Thomas is particularly good, as is Maggie Smith. It's well worth seeing. Much better than the Laurence Olivier version of 1955, which is hammed up beyond belief.

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Remind Myself said...

最近保险公司和银行,将近倒闭。。。。

是谁的错。。。。? 不在这个时候扶正回来,难道要等到下几代在遇到同样的事吗?

高级管理层该不该付起责任?

上市公司的高级管理层工资是不是应该和上市公司的股票价值挂钩呢?

龙的传人应该没这么好骗吧!。。。。先学基本面分析法,才来学技术性分析法。。。。

如果认为有理的话,请支持与告知,让更多人戒乱玩股票,力量才会大。。。。。。还有拨个电回家报平安吧。


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