Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Movies, Part 2

Franco Zeffirelli's iconic Romeo and Juliet has been in the back of my mind ever since I started writing about the play, so today I'd like to share some thoughts about the film. I watched a few scenes back when I blogged the Luhrmann film--that was the first time I'd seen any of it since the 1970's. Yesterday I took advantage of a few unscheduled hours to watch it start to finish.

First, some historical perspective. I was in junior high when the film came out--only a couple years younger than Juliet--and let me tell you, it was huge. It's hard to imagine middle schoolers today giving a damn about some film version of Shakespeare, but we sure did. Even though most of us hadn't seen it (nude scene!), it was so culturally ubiquitous that it nonetheless trickled down to the seventh-grade universe. Why? Well, first, there was the hair! Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore her hair in the only acceptably cool way for that era. And I mean only. Every girl wanted long, straight hair parted in the middle. Girls with curly hair (of which I mercifully wasn't one) ironed their curls into submission to get those long, flowing Juliet/hippie tresses. And Romeo (Leonard Whiting) was too cute! I mean, his hair looked like Davy Jones's from the Monkees! Plus, he had the accent, which conferred instant sex appeal in those days when London was the swinging place to hang, and Yardley lipstick was in every teenage girl's purse. These two unknown actors were instant bedroom poster material, way before prefab teen stars.

Second, there were the clothes. Velvet! Satin! Jeweled little caps! A look that dovetailed nicely with the pre-Raphaelite/hippie look that was all the rage. I remember begging my mom to buy me a burgundy velvet dress with cut-out puffed sleeves right after the movie came out. I looked stupid in it, but I thought it was the height of Julietness.

Fortunately, designers ignored the men's fashions, except for the drapey poet shirts. No tights, strange wedge-shaped hats, or codpieces. Which I have to say, in this post-Python, post Men in Tights world, made me giggle. The men all looked like court jesters! And the codpieces--I felt twelve again, smirking at those.

I don't remember noticing them at the time. But then I wasn't allowed to see the movie until a few years later, because there was nakedness in it, and I was a nice Catholic girl. Yep, we get an extended look at Leonard Whiting's derriere in the aubade scene. I'd forgotten that, too.  He's lying there on his stomach for a very long time, and then gets up and looks out the window for a few moments. Nice view. I guess they knew which half of the demographic would be interested in the movie.

So, on to the actual film. The casting of the two principals elicited a storm of criticism, especially--but not only--in the British press. In preparing this post I actually did some research into old reviews of the film, and found that there were quite a few negative ones. These critics felt that Zeffirelli cut unconscionable amounts of dialogue, tampered with plot, and cast actors who hadn't the faintest idea how to speak Will's lines. Here's a quote from a review in The New Yorker (an even more elitist rag then than it is now) in 1968, by Pauline Hartzell:

[These days], movie makers drill into the "generation gap' as if it were an oil well. Zeffirelli's version is lusty and rambunctious, and busty, of course, and he provides a fashion show in codpieces...[but] the one element he Shakespeare's language....The movie is being sold, of course, on its "youth appeal"--on teenagers playing teenagers--but you can always make a movie with kids playing kids; the feat would be if the kids could read Shakespeare. The lines are unintelligible because the actors' faces and bodies aren't in tune with the words...the voices and readings are so tonelessly mediocre that one hardly hears the words at all. There's not one memorable reading; the music of the great lines is missing.

In her review and in many of the other negative ones you can almost hear the subtext: young people today are spoiled, narcissistic brats. They've taken over everything--sex, fashion, music. We're not going to let them take Shakespeare, too! Note her emphasis on "reading." I'm sure Will would find that funny. He never imagined that his plays would be "read," I bet.  And considering how anti-bookish the play itself is, you have to see this as ironic. Pauline probably thinks Paris would have made Juliet a better husband--they could read poetry together, instead of doing self-indulgent "adolescent" things in the bedroom. She further faults the film for being both "too theatrical...the insides have no outsides," and "too cinematic," focusing on visual rather than verbal drama.

Well, a few things occur to me here. First, this woman was probably close to the age I am now...and her critique sounds a bit like mine of the Luhrmann film. Cranky middle-aged women whining about how young people today can't possibly do justice to Will's poetry. So that's a little disconcerting, because I certainly don't want to be in the same camp with this old battleaxe.

I can't agree with her in any case. Yes, Hussey and Whiting were novices--but so were Romeo and Juliet. And yes, the movie plays up the "generation gap"--a loaded term in 1968--but so does Will! Why else lower Juliet's age by five years? Why else have so many of the older generation sound more like grandparents? Sometimes I think the people who are the most incensed about these poetic infidelities haven't really read Will's plays at all.

So do Hussey and Whiting miss the mark with the language? Compared to Danes and DiCaprio, I have to say they're brilliant. Olivier, Stewart, McKellen-level brilliant. (Actually, shoot me now, but I've always found Olivier overrated). But yeah, that's relative. They are gushy, and adolescent-sounding. But the lines certainly aren't unintelligible--I understood them, and the feelings behind them, just fine. But did they give, for example, the aubade all the transcendence I hear in it? No way. Do I mind? Nope. I'll tell you why. Because in this era, you can't have it both ways. You can have grown-ups playing Romeo and Juliet--people with fabulous voices and long Shakespearean resumes--or you can have people who look and act the part. Who have the innocence and the energy to convey the two most important things about these characters: their passion, and their wonder at it. They are surprised by these feelings, as only young people can be. Love wakes them up, makes them realize how unhappy they were before, living in the middle of a violent masquerade. This is a play about youth. Maybe a great actor could make us believe that he or she is 13 instead of 35, but I doubt it. That wonder can't be acted--not really. 

Now in Will's era, I am sure you could find actors who could do both things. As I mentioned in an earlier post, adolescence as extended childhood didn't really exist back then. Twelve-year-old boys played convincing Lady Macbeths. But these days, you have to choose. You can have brilliant actors who are obviously post-wonder, or you can have youth, and beauty, and energy. And, I have to say, pretty good line delivery most of the time. They aren't reading, as Pauline would have it. They are speaking these lines, and most of the time, up until the end (about which more presently), they are believable. And we shouldn't forget that this film isn't about the language. It can't be. It's, you know, a film. Visual medium. The point is to take something off a page and make a picture. This is a very beautiful picture, and the actors do a fair job of bringing it to life. I can't help thinking that these critics just don't think "Shakespeare" and "film" belong in the same sentence. And that casting teenagers in one of his plays is like giving 16-year-olds a bottle of whiskey and the keys to the Bentley.

One thing old Pauline does like is the music--that famous Nino Rota piece that was sung as "What is a Youth" in the film, but became more famous with different lyrics.  The more popular version was called "A Time for Us"; if you had piano lessons in the late 1960's, you learned to play it in about two hours. It was stunningly easy, even for a lousy piano student like yours truly. Both sets of lyrics were horrid--here's a little snippit:

What is a youth? Impetuous fire,
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
A rose will bloom...
It then will fade
So does a youth.

Yeah, tell me about it. Here's the other one:

A time for us, someday there'll be
When chains are torn 
By courage born 
Of a love that's free
A time when dreams so long denied can flourish
As we unveil the love we now must hide...

Eeeww. Both godawful. But notice how the first one is kind of a medieval memento mori, i.e, a downer, while the second, more popular one, is (implicitly) about having all the sex you want as soon as you can liberate yourself from your parents and get your own apartment. Vive la revolution.

My goodness, this is getting long. Okay, let's cut to the chase. Things I liked:
The contrast between the lush costumes, all in jewel tones, and the grays and beiges of the Tuscan villages where the movie was filmed. Gorgeous. Of course these villages were a lot older relative to the action than they would have been in the real fifteenth century, or even the sixteenth. So the effect was of an ancient, almost crumbling civilization, an old order made manifest architecturally. Against this faded but lovely backdrop the erotic, violent passions of youth--and all those velvet costumes--stand out in sharp relief. Great move.

The Nurse. I talked about Patricia Heywood in this role in an earlier post.

The way Zeff dresses Juliet to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood. Growing up is all about clothes! Every girl knows there's truth in that. Juliet wears a velvet babydoll dress to the masque, but shows off some impressive cleavage as she leans over the balcony. Girl to woman, with one change of costume. This offended a few people, who found it exploitative. That's funny now, isn't it? It was an innocent time, 1968. No one would blink at a little cleavage these days. Yes, in the play this metamorphosis is a poetic transformation, not a sudden desire on Juliet's part to show off her assets--assets that boy players didn't have in any case. But I liked that Zeff did it this way. Because, you know, this is--say it with me--a film.  It was clever.

Rowdy, riotous Verona. A city at war. Zeff made this an anti-war film--for obvious historical reasons, and I like that. The rowdy riotousness of the town also pissed off some critics, because they felt that the love story took a back seat to the brawling. I can only imagine how they would have received Luhrmann's film, which was much more about violence than love. I thought this film moved well--as the play does--between violent delights and violent ends.Until the end, that is.

Things I didn't like:

Mercutio as an addled Vietnam vet type.  Obviously suffering from PTSD. He's doing great with the Queen Mab speech until he gets to the part about soldiers cutting throats. Then he seems to be back in Khe Sanh, or wherever, and has to be "talked down" by Romeo. This interpretation makes the fatal duel with Tybalt into a kind of "suicide by Capulet." Like Luhrmann's druggie drag queen, this Mercutio is more madman than poet. In the play he's a little crazy--but he has a glorious imagination, too. When he dies, the world loses something wonderful. That's missing from both films.

But poets are hard to play--and direct--in film. It could be done, I think, but no one's done it yet.

The kinder, gentler Friar. A big teddy bear, he was--so his betrayal at the end seems unmotivated. Will's Friar is full of hubris, imagines himself playing God by raising the dead. This guy was just trying to help, then got scared and ran off. No moral big lessons there.

Michael York as Tybalt. Too effete, not dangerous enough. He's been "swarthified" too, to look Italian, which is funny. I do think the hat is cute, with its little cat-ears. Prince of Cats, indeed. But he doesn't have any edge. Luhrmann's "king of the barrio" take on Tybalt was better.

All the other hats. Distracting. Silly. Lady Cap looked like one of those Star Trek aliens with her big jeweled dome. And the men's hats seem to denote social power. Size does matter, in hats. The servants have little pillboxes, the aristos have slightly bigger wedgy bowls, and the Prince is wearing a veritable sofa pillow. Better the hats than the codpieces, I guess...

Main gripe: the end. Too fast, too little motivation for any of it. Zeff cuts out a lot here, including the apothecary--we don't know how or why Romeo happens to be carrying poison when he gets to the tomb. One's tempted to assume they just handed poison vials out to Renaissance Italians, like pocket handkerchiefs. Zeff takes Paris out of the tomb scene, which I commend. That was an error on Will's part, I think, although I realize why he did it (more later on this). But it all happens too fast, and Zeff doesn't compensate with any fancy filmic metaphors or anything of that sort. I liked the creepy Capulet tomb, with all the dead bodies lying there uncovered and in various states of decay--very medieval. But that was about the only part that worked. Romeo hears about Juliet's "death" from Balthasar, gallops right past Friar John and his message, forces the door to the tomb, says a few lines, and sucks down the toxic draught as if he knows the editor's tapping his foot in the cutting room.  I actually liked Luhrmann's version better--Juliet starts waking up, Romeo's crying, about to swallow the poison, and the audience, knowing how it's all going to end, still imagines a different outcome:

Romeo, dude! Look down! She's waking up! Don't do it!

That's milking the scene for all it's worth, and Will would have loved it.

Juliet does a little better in her death scene, but not much. It's hard to stab yourself convincingly, even as theater (much harder in real life, I'm sure). It totally doesn't work for me here. Again, Luhrmann has the technological advantage. Guns are just more efficient, and require much less acting. Bang, you're dead.

The funeral was pretty stagy, but it worked fine. I thought it interesting that there was no reconciliation between the houses in Zeff's version. Old Cap and Old Monty look at each other, then exit separately. It's the younger people who shake hands and seem ready to make peace. As if only the young get it. Again, very 60's.

It was interesting watching the film after so many years.  I remembered it as more moving than it was this time--but then I know a lot more Shakespeare and (dare I say) more life now, so that stands to reason. In this, at least, it was faithful to the play--it's a story of and for youth. A far better play, and better story, is Will's Antony and Cleopatra. But I don't see much of a seventh-grade audience there.

Next:  Sleeping Beauty


  1. Zeffirelli is a fascinating character. He's a major pal of Prime Minister Berlusconi, and a right wing figure with fascist leanings. His Metropolitan Opera productions are notoriously overblown as his celluloid. One of the major controversies in the Opera world right now, is the Met's abandonment of his classic Tosca production in favor of a pared down version which was been roundly booed. Franco Zeffirelli is nothing if not a crowd pleaser.

    His Romeo and Juliet was the first Shakespeare movie that connected with kids in my cohort. Of course we had no clue as to authenticity either Shakerspearean or Italian Rennaisance--but it was authentically hormonal. Shakespeare suddenly meant something worth paying attention to, instead of exercises in scanning lines of vaguely meaningless poetry.

    I never thought about Olivia Hussey's hairstyle, Gayle, but you are right! Emmy Lou Harris rocked that look, all the good looking hippie-era girls had that look now I know why!!

    I really appreciate the films, because as much as I'd like to see all the plays live, it's just not possible. The films, at least approximate, peformance, which is how I presume Shakespeare intended his work to be seen as opposed to text. But we kid ourselves if we think this movies are an analog to the theatrical experience--so, let me request that you talk about live performances you've seen and enjoyed and those you've not enjoyed.

    Great post!


  2. Wow, that's interesting about Zeffirelli--I didn't know if he was even still alive. The European right wing sees itself as the guardian of cultural history in Europe...pretty different from here, where large segments of the right are so rabidly anti-intellectual.

    This post was necessarily more about culture than Shakespeare, since this film had such a huge cultural impact. It's interesting to know that guys went to see it, too. It was uncanny--familiar and strange--to see it again after all these years. I still liked it, but it wasn't a visceral experience the way it was the first time I saw it. I agree about films, though--it's the only way many of us can see Shakespeare at all. I'm afraid my experience of actual performances is really limited. As an adult I've lived in college towns, mostly (still do) and with the exception of New Haven, there wasn't any good theater to be had. So that's a real limitation of this blog--I can't say that much about performance. I had a reader, back when I was doing Richard III, who was from the UK and had studied Shakespearean theater and seen some wonderful stuff--we had a cool ongoing discussion about performances of the play that was really eye-opening for me, made me think about the kinds of things you can do with a stage play that you simply can't with a film. I don't know if he still reads the blog, since I haven't heard from him since starting R & J, but it was really fascinating to hear that perspective.

    I wish I did have more readers who could weigh in about performances...that's the only thing I miss, with my small readership here. Not the sense of a large audience, which I don't care about, but the dialogue with people who have different understandings and experiences of Will's plays. I am hoping to learn as well as teach here...

    Thanks, as always, for's cool that we're of an age, so you know exactly what I mean about the cultural impact of this film.

    Btw. I saw a recent photo of Olivia H. when I was trolling for images. She still looks great.

  3. Still one of my favorite movies. I was in high school when I first saw it. Had to get a "permission slip" signed first. I always wondered how the knife made it thru the heavy layers of fabric in her outfit. Oh--and I too played the song in piano lessons. Great music. Great post.