Hollywood and Literature Criticism: Theater And Hollywood - Essay

Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boose, Lynda E. and Richard Burt. “Totally Clueless?: Shakespeare goes Hollywood in the 1990s.” In Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, pp. 8-22. London: Routledge, 1997.

[In the following essay, Boose and Burt discuss Hollywood's influence in the popularization of Shakespearean drama in the late 1990s, noting the changes wrought by filmmakers in an attempt to appeal to contemporary audiences.]

A short sequence in the 1995 summer film comedy Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling) offers what might be considered a mini-allegory of Shakespeare's circulation within the popular culture of the 1990s. Based on Jane Austen's Emma, the film narrates the coming of age of “Cher,” a Beverly Hills high school ingenue and media-savvy teen queen who reformulates the pleasures of discourse into side-by-side telephone conversations conducted on mobile telephones. In the manipulation of cultural capital as a means for asserting status, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) clinches her superiority inside of a contest that defines itself through Shakespeare. When her stepbrother's excessively Harvard girlfriend misattributes “to thine own self be true” to Hamlet and Cher corrects her, the girlfriend then rejects Cher's substitution of “that Polonius guy” and slams home her apparent victory with the smugly dismissive line, “I think I remember Hamlet accurately.” But Cher beats her, point, set, and match, with the rejoinder that while she, by comparison, may not know her Hamlet, she most certainly does know her Mel Gibson!

We begin with Clueless because it complicates present moves in cultural studies about Shakespeare. With its Los Angeles location and youth market for Shakespeare, Clueless offers an opportunity for certain kinds of questions. For openers, just who is its Shakespeare joke on—the girlfriend, Cher, or just whom? Just what is the high-status cultural currency here, and how does “Shakespeare” function as a sign? Does the fact that Cher knows Hamlet not via the presupposed Shakespearean original but only via Mel Gibson's role in Zeffirelli's movie signify her cultural illiteracy—or her literacy? Or does this exchange perhaps point us away from any presumptive original, be it Jane Austen's or Shakespeare's, and direct us instead toward a focus on just its mediating package, what might be called the Hollywoodization of Shakespeare in the 1990s? In a postmodern way that effectively mocks all the presumed distinctions between high and low culture, Clueless does not merely relocate high culture to a low site (Los Angeles): after all, this is Beverly Hills, not the Valley, and no one is more vigilant than Cher and her friends about maintaining standards and eschewing tastelessness. Instead, Clueless elaborates on films like L. A. Story (dir. Steve Martin, 1991) in which Steve Martin begins by reciting a speech in praise of L.A. that parodies John of Gaunt's deathbed speech to Richard II, substituting “this Los Angeles” for the concluding words, “this England”; and on Jean-Luc Godard's Lear (1987), in which William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth goes to Hollywood to produce his ancestor's plays, which end up being edited by Woody Allen. Like these two films, Clueless's repeated reference to technologies such as movies, televisions, mobile phones, head sets, car radios, CDs, computerized wardrobes, intercoms, and other devices that record, transmit, amplify, and likewise reshape meaning formulate the mediating power of Los Angeles as the contemporary site where high/low distinctions are engaged in endlessly resignifying themselves.

Cher's recording of Hamlet could be located in a wider range of 1990s Hamlet(s). The Hamlet created by the 1990s wasn't big just among the literati—he was so big that he was making guest appearances in all sorts of unexpected places, with different implications of its gendered reception. In 1991, Oliver Stone cast the Kennedy assassination through the lens of Hamlet in JFK. In 1994, Danny DeVito and the US Army found Hamlet to be the perfect force for transforming wimps and misfit soldiers into the STRAK army company that concludes Renaissance Man (dir. Penny Marshall) reaffirming the male bond in “Sound Off” lyrics that inventively substitute “Hamlet's mother, she's the Queen” for the usual female object of cadenced derision. Similarly, Disney's 1994 The Lion King (dir. Roger Allers and Ron Minkoff), reworked Hamlet for a younger generation. In 1995, Kenneth Branagh released his A Midwinter's Tale, a film about a provincial English production of Hamlet, and then in 1996 and 1997 his own full-length and abridged versions of Hamlet.

Ultimately, however, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1992 film, The Last Action Hero (dir. John McTiernan), that most clearly allegorized the transformation of Hamlet from melancholy man into an image that could be valued by the young male consumers to whom the newly technologized violence of the 1990s was being played. In a displacement explicitly fictionalized as the direct product of a young male viewer's contemporary fantasies of masculinity, on screen the image of Olivier hesitating to kill the praying Claudius literally dissolves into a Schwarzenegger Hamlet who is actively engaged in “taking out the trash” of the something-rotten Denmark into which he is thrust. And in a clever bit of metatheatricality, the substitution of Schwarzenegger, America's highest paid actor of the early 1990s, is situated as the ultimate insurance that movie houses will stay open and movies will keep on playing. Kids like the film's ardent young filmviewer will keep right on getting sucked into the action-packed worlds of heroically imagined male violence that is both promulgated by American film and simultaneously guarantees the industry its seemingly unassailable hegemony. Though ironic, it is nonetheless true that the Hamlet(s) of the 1990s construct a world even more obsessively masculine than did the Hamlet(s) that preexisted any articulated feminist critique of popular culture. Mel Gibson as Hamlet means Hamlet as Lethal Weapon Four. But Mel also means Hamlet as Hollywood Hunk, an object of desire who, like Glenn Close's Gertrude, projects an image implicitly accessible to female and male viewers alike.1 Zeffirelli's film may well be Lethal Weapon Four; but Hamlet-as-Mel suggests Shakespeare's prince as a 1990s model of unrestrictedly appropriatable desire, and it was through an appropriation of Mel-as-Hamlet that Cher triumphs over her truly clueless adversary, eventually winning a college guy (read: Harvard Law) boyfriend at the film's close.

Rather than assessing the various new Hamlet-sites in terms of possibilities for contradictory readings or as evidence anew of an American cultural imperialism, we are more interested in the critical developments that such a proliferation may signal. In the wake of the present displacements of book and literary culture by film and video culture and the age of mechanical reproduction by the age of electronic reproduction, the traditional literary field itself has already, to some extent, been displaced as an object of inquiry by cultural studies. And the Shakespeare moment in Clueless perhaps interests us for the very way it enacts this displacement, invoking the high status literary text only to dismiss it in favor of the actor's performance. For Shakespeare studies, what the transition from a literary to an electronic culture logically presages is exactly what, in fact, seems to be happening: an increased interest in the strategies of performance accompanied by a decreased focus on the poetic and rhetorical, the arena where New Criticism once so powerfully staked its claim.2 If Michael Berube (1995) is right in assessing that the move to cultural studies primarily involves taking a less serious relation to criticism and its subjects, then Shakespeare (and Renaissance) Studies appears to be following suit, its dialogue lightening up a bit. New ways of reading the transvestism of the Renaissance stage, for example, are being discovered by contextualizing the cross-dressed Shakespeare heroine alongside pop culture figures like Michael Jackson and Madonna (see Garber 1992, 1995) and films like The Crying Game (dir. Jordan, 1992; see Crewe 1995).

It could be said that this shift to a cultural studies approach opens new possibilities for a kind of Shakespeare criticism with wider appeal to a non-academic public (which presumes, of course, that the Shakespearean academic necessarily wants such a popular audience.) It must also be said, however, that the shift raises a number of new questions, many of which relate to the new influence that Hollywood, Los Angeles, and American capitalism are already exerting on the popularization of Shakespeare. The media in 1990s America—film, video, television, and advertising—seemed suddenly prepared to embrace the Bard with all the enthusiasm (and potentially crushing effect) that such whole-hearted American embraces have come to harbinger for much of the world. Thus the question of potential diminishment that has always been raised about putting Shakespeare on film reappears, reinvigorated by the very technologies that make Shakespeare more accessible. We have yet to imagine how Shakespeare will be staged on the Internet, but for many of those who, unlike Cher, do know their Shakespeare, the transfer from “live” theater to the absent presence of the technologically produced filmic (or digitized) image invites a distinct ambivalence much like that which betrays the voice of New York Times writer Frank Rich, here writing in 1996 about Fredericke Warde, the star of the recently rediscovered silent 1912 Richard III. Noting that Warde blamed what he perceived as a “fall off” of Shakespeare theatrical productions on schools and literary societies for turning acting texts into objects of intellectual veneration, Rich, for whom the discovery of this venerable old Shakespeare film seems to have acted as catalyst for his own lament for a lost golden age, characterizes Warde as a thoroughly clueless innocent, someone who “didn't have a clue that movies were harbingers of a complete cultural transformation that would gradually lead to the desensitized pop media environment of today.”3

In the larger sense, however, Shakespeare's disappearance, his status as ghostwriter, precedes the 1990s. In some ways, the present historical moment only clarifies the way Shakespeare has always already disappeared when transferred onto film. Taken on their own terms, films like Greenaway's Prospero's Books, Derek Jarman's Tempest, and Godard's Lear involve not merely the deconstruction of Shakespeare as author but his radical displacement by the film director; and the interest in any of these films could legitimately be said to lie less in its relation to Shakespeare's play than in its relation to the director's own previous oeuvre. Even films which adapt the Shakespeare script as faithfully as does Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing speak within a metacinematic discourse of self-reference in which, through film quotation, they situate themselves in reference as much to other films as to a Shakespeare tradition.4

Yet judging from the commentary and the advertising matrix surrounding the release of the most recent Shakespeare adaptations, the fact that Shakespeare is the author seems to be becoming not only increasingly beside the point but even a marketing liability—an inference that Los Angeles Times movie critic David Gritten quite clearly picks up from the voices of both the director and producer of Ian McKellen's 1995 Richard III:

Here on the set of Richard III, a film adaptation of one of the world's best known plays starring a bunch of distinguished classical actors, it comes as a surprise that everyone is trying to play down the S-word. The S-word? That stands for “Shakespeare.” He's the guy who wrote Richard III some four hundred years ago, in case you weren't quite sure. In truth, the people behind this Richard III … are hoping to attract those very people who aren't quite sure of the film's provenance. “I'm encouraging everyone working on this film not to think of it as Shakespeare,” says director Richard Loncraine. “It's a terrific story, and who wrote it is irrelevant. “We're trying to make the most accessible Shakespeare film ever made,” says producer Lisa Katselas Pare.

(Gritten 1995: 39, 41)

The similar trend that Don Hedrick points out in an essay in this collection—that any mention of Shakespeare is exactly what was under avoidance in the marketing of Branagh's Henry V—is a truism equally applicable to Zeffirelli's Hamlet. Likewise, Gus Van Sant (1993: xxxviii) notes about the making of My Own Private Idaho that while the foreign producers wanted to put in as much Shakespeare as possible the American producers wanted to cut out as much as possible.5 Yet just when we might assume that the Bard's name was truly a marketing liability or that veneration of Shakespeare had come to be regarded in popular contexts as uncool,6 the notably cool film director Baz Luhrmann put out a new Romeo and Juliet that is unquestionably situated in the pop culture, made-for-teens film market and is called William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.7

The popularization of Shakespeare on film, video, and television—which began inside the stalwartly liberal tradition of noblesse oblige attempting to bring culture to the masses—now finds itself, in America at least, in a strictly market-responsive milieu in which literary knowledge is in general a decidedly low capital, frequently mockable commodity, caught within the peculiarly American ambivalence about intellectualism, and therefore to be eschewed at all costs. When Gus Van Sant imports the various Hal and Falstaff scenes from the Henry IV and Henry V plays and sticks them into My Own Private Idaho's world of contemporary Portland gay hustlers and street dwellers, neither the film nor the characters speaking the lines register any acknowledgment that they are drawing upon Shakespeare. If this film is a Shakespeare spin-off, no one has to admit knowing it. But as a market screening device, the omission must have worked, since only those people who had read the Henriad or read commentary on the film in specifically “intellectual” magazine and review venues seemed conscious of any Shakespeare connection. The same might be said of L. A. Story. While many members of the audience may have picked up the allusions to Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays, only a Shakespearean would have read the movie as a rewriting of the play. Likewise, the connection between Clueless and Jane Austen's Emma got intentionally excluded from the film's promotional packet and was left to become known via strategically leaked news items designed to be circulated by word of mouth to intrigue the elite without turning off the intended teen market.

But while pride in anti-intellectualism has long roots as an American tradition and is a force which the 1980s and 1990s have seen assume a renewed political ascendancy, quite the opposite has historically been true of British cultural life, where Shakespeare and the English literary tradition have long been a rallying point of national superiority. The quotation of Shakespeare lines seems, in fact, to be used in Britain as a special, high-status kind of sub-language, a signalling code of sorts that regularly shows up in the language of even British detective novels. It is thus frankly impossible to imagine the making of a British film like Clueless in which success would be correlated with a pride in not knowing one's Shakespeare. Nonetheless, the apparent dominance of Hollywood capitalism so thoroughly determines the market that Britain's famous Shakespearean actors now find even themselves playing roles within plays which require that they “not think of [the play] as Shakespeare.”

But Hollywood's relationship to Shakespeare is marked by more than just the avoidance of the S-word. When Gus Van Sant turned to the Shakespeare narrative that he then consciously veiled in My Own Private Idaho, he even approached it through a layered mediation, essentially rewriting not Shakespeare's second tetralogy but Orson Welles's version of the second tetralogy, Chimes at Midnight. Van Sant's film thus participates in a peculiarly American norm by which Hollywood, up until Branagh's box office successes of the early 1990s, chose to maintain a significant distance from the direct—or “straight Shakespeare”—adaptational model that made both Olivier and Welles famously associated with all that was once included in the meaning of “a Shakespeare film.” And while American television has shown some “straight” American versions of Shakespeare that do not modernize the verbal idiom or rewrite the story (most notably, televised versions of filmed theatrical productions, such as the American Conservatory Theater's famous 1971 The Taming of the Shrew), apparently the last instance in which a definably Hollywood film seriously tried to produce Shakespeare straight was Stuart Burge's 1970 Julius Caesar—itself an attempt to remake Joseph Mankiewicz's far more successful 1953 Julius Caesar. And although Japanese, German, Russian, Swedish (and etc.) straight Shakespeare films apparently feel perfectly comfortable doing Shakespeare with casts made up from their own national back lots, when Hollywood has made that same commitment, the casting list betrays a special American insecurity in its inevitable compulsion to import a large number of Royal Shakespeare Company actors to surround the American star.

Perhaps because Shakespeare is such a signifier for British cultural superiority, America's relationship to the Bard has frequently been marked by all the signs of a colonized consciousness. All in all, the preferred American approach to Shakespeare has been decidedly oblique; up until the sudden, Branagh-inspired boom in straight Shakespeare of the mid-nineties, Hollywood has distinctly felt more comfortable reworking Shakespeare into new, specifically American narratives such as Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) or Paul Mazursky's Tempest (1982), for example. America's best made for film Shakespeare productions may, in fact, be the musicals Kiss Me, Kate (dir. George Sidney, 1953) and West Side Story (dirs. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), where the Bard is recreated within a particular theatrical idiom that is thoroughly home-grown.

Even on the English side of the Atlantic, where Shakespeare has been apotheosized into the primary signifier for patriotism, nationhood, and national culture, the end of a tradition of turning Shakespeare plays into big fuss, high culture, capital-letter films has already been allegorized in the film The Playboys (dir. Gillies MacKinnon, 1992). An Irish acting troupe touring Ireland in the 1940s witnesses its Americanized production, part Othello, part adaptation of Gone With the Wind, be displaced and their troupe broken up by the arrival of the real thing, the Hollywood movie and a newly opened movie house in the town they have just played. To be sure, the late 1980s saw the English tradition of Shakespeare film refurbished by Kenneth Branagh into an enterprise comparable in energy to that of the 1940s when Sir Laurence Olivier was making Richard III, Henry V, Hamlet, and, in 1955, starring in Stuart Burges's Othello. But what Branagh has done is infuse the filming of Shakespeare with a marketeer's sense of popular culture. In his productions, high and low culture meet in moments where Shakespeare's scripts get subtly reframed inside of references to Hollywood pop culture: Branagh's adaptation actually rewrites Henry V as Clint Eastwood's “dirty Harry,”8 and his Much Ado about Nothing opens with a witty visual evocation of The Magnificent Seven.

The sudden contemporary renaissance in filmed Shakespeare is British-led, but by 1995 even British casting practices had changed to reflect the exigencies of market capitalism. Following in the direction that Zeffirelli had been the first to seize upon, the new British productions were now promoting their global commerciality through a mixture of what has been derisively referred to as a cast made up of “British actors” and “American stars.”9 Branagh's 1989 Henry V had been filmed with a British cast. But by the time of Much Ado About Nothing, the British principals were surrounded by American pop film stars that made brothers out of America's most popular black actor (Denzel Washington) and America's most popular teen heart-throb (Keanu Reeves). There were, admittedly, some problems with casting Americans: in Branagh's Much Ado, Don John's line about Hero, “She's a very forward March chick,” was cut for fear that Keanu Reeves would appear to be reverting to American slang rather than reciting Shakespeare.10 And as Alan Bennett, who, when making a film of his play The Madness of George III, had to retitle it as The Madness of King George because American backers feared their audiences would think they had missed the first two parts, ruefully comments: “apparently … there were many moviegoers who came away from Branagh's film of Henry V wishing they had seen its four predecessors” (1995: xix). Yet the trend of using American stars continues, sometimes with particularly fortuitous implications that suggested new levels of narrative. In a production released in 1995, the presence of American actors Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr in Richard Loncraine's World War II-era rewrite of Richard III provided a fitting way for the film to mark Edward IV's queen, Elizabeth, and her brother, Lord Rivers, as distinctive outsiders to the royal family, and, through dress and hair-style, encourage visual allusions that suggested Bening-cum-Elizabeth, outsider wife to Edward IV, as that famous American divorcee and outsider wife to another King Edward, Wallis Simpson. By 1995 Branagh, too, had gone American: Hollywood's Lawrence Fishburne played the Noble Moor to Branagh's Iago; and in 1996 Branagh's Hamlet included such box office draws as Billy Crystal (first gravedigger), Robin Williams (Osric), Charlton Heston (the Player King), and Jack Lemmon (Marcellus). Yielding to the implicit logic of such casting, Baz Luhrmann simply invited the stars of his Romeo and Juliet “to speak the famous lines in their own American accent.”11

In what seems relatively new to British filmed Shakespeare (albeit certainly not to staged productions), the plays were also being cut loose from the tradition of the pseudo-“Elizabethan” setting and relocated in the viewer's own milieu: a 1991 British film of As You Like It featured Rosalind in levis, and 1995 saw Britain rehistoricizing its own history by taking Richard III into the modernized territory that 1980s stage productions of the histories (especially the English Shakespeare Company's “Wars of the Roses” extravaganza) had shown to be highly viable. Thus, shortly after Great Britain solemnly celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the end of World War II, Richard III replayed that history by reinscribing it into the cycle of dark days that had eventually led to the Tudor triumph, British mythology now promising an Elizabeth (II) for an Elizabeth (I). By the end of 1995, it was increasingly clear that the trademarks of pop culture were determining the productions of not only such well-known popularizers as Zeffirelli, but had caught up with the Shakespeare industry at large and were putting it into the fast lane. According to the L. A. Weekly's review of the 1995 Othello:

Writer-director Oliver Parker has opted for a spin on Othello that would make Shakespeare himself dizzy. With more pop than poetry, more snap than savvy, this variation of the tragedy finds the ever-appealing Lawrence Fishburne center court. … The production may be trashy and too fast by half—it makes Mel Gibson's galloping Hamlet seem sleepy—but the tenderness in Fishburne's eyes is startling. … While there's nothing wrong in mucking around with the classics when it comes to adaptations, the selectiveness of Parker's approach puzzles. Why, for instance, is there something so creepy and so very O. J. in the initial love scene between Othello and Desdemona … ?

(Dargie 1995: 67)

Similarly, Margo Jefferson noted that Shakespeare's “metaphors and cadence … passions, convictions, and conflicts must meet up with ours in a world of rock, rap, gospel, and schlock pop, all just a radio station away from Prokofiev and Mozart. Shakespeare must adjust to city street and suburban mall English” (1996: C11). All in all, the message from the mid-nineties would seem to be that Shakespeare was busting out all over: Branagh having shown Hollywood that there was a market, production money seemed suddenly to be flowing; Branagh released his complete, uncut Hamlet (1996); Trevor Nunn—having demonstrated his entitlement on stage by directing big bucks productions of Les Miserables and Cats—directed a new Twelfth Night that debuted at Telluride (1996); another Romeo and Juliet in addition to Baz Lurhrmann's 1996 production was on its way out; the Loncraine/McKellen Richard III (1994) had broken new ground in terms of reframing Shakespeare inside of pop-culture strategies; and, using an inventive new format for producing a Shakespeare film, Al Pacino had allegorized his own experience of playing Richard III in a documentary called Looking for Richard (1996).

Just how Hollywood's new interventions in a territory hitherto tacitly conceded to the Brits must look to the newly colonized former colonizer forms the potential subtext for Ian McKellen's remark about the difficulty he had in finding producers in Hollywood to fund the kind of Richard III film he wanted to make: “Of course, if Ken or Mel, or best of all Arnie or Sly were cast as Richard, it would have been easier” (McKellen 1996: 25-6). Baz Luhrmann (an Australian) put “William Shakespeare” in the title of his William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, almost as if to insist on its authenticity. And as if to emphasize some kind of essential difference between the English kind of Shakespeare and the kind implicitly associated with American models, the Telluride announcement for Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1995) asserts, with a barely concealed sneer: “the film succeeds in part due to Nunn's decision to ignore the box office lure of Hollywood stars, and to cast all the parts with outstanding British actors who can actually speak Shakespeare's lines with proper cadence and clarity.”12 Perhaps because he rightly sensed that strategies such as the above would fail, Kenneth Branagh made a more canny compromise, casting American stars not as leads but in multiple cameo parts for his 1996 Hamlet.13 In these terms, the film promo that was most risky of all is that for Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1996), the cast was made up not of Hollywood stars but a core of the same actors who played in the (1995) Royal Shakespeare Production. Perhaps for this reason the film's US release was delayed.

However much a British director might wish to preserve a British Shakespeare, American production money is the hidden engine that drives Britain's Shakespeare films. The disappointing overall outcome of the 1980s televised BBC Shakespeare series was due, at least in part, to Time-Life Corporation's determination to produce televised “classics” that would exhibit a uniform fidelity to imagined assumptions about Shakespeare's text and times.14 Doing “culture” for an educational enterprise apparently provoked one extreme of the American colonial response. But Hollywood hegemony over the global market combined with the new, bottom-line-only mentality of the 1990s may now threaten Shakespeare from quite another direction. In light of Hollywood's 1995 decision to revise the heavy puritanism and somber morality of The Scarlet Letter (dir. Roland Joffe, 1995) into a film that would be more fun for an audience and would get rid of that “downer” of a Hawthorne ending, can a film of Nathum Tate's King Lear, in which Demi/Cordelia lives and marries Bruce/Edgar be far behind?

Of all the films of the 1990s, some of the most innovative come from an avant-garde tradition whose energies are infused both by popular culture and an international mode of film production. Through avant-garde filmmaker Peter Greenaway's very attempt to unpack the place that intellectual and aesthetic elitism has played in Western culture, Prospero's Books (1990), forms in many ways an important investigation of the idea of “the popular.” A meditation on The Tempest, the film reproduces Shakespeare's play as caviar to the general and grants few if any concessions to the popular; Greenaway's revision of The Tempest relocates Prospero in the image of the elite filmmaker bidding farewell to a tradition that he himself, as technological magus, participates in destroying. In a science fiction bound together by a technologically produced iconography of western culture stretching from the pages of Renaissance humanism to computer-generated models of virtual reality, the revels seen as ending in this latest rendition of Shakespeare's final play are played out as a kind of intellectualized, nostalgic farewell to even the existence of a culture that might be called learned or elite. The book disintegrates, and before us we see a virtual meltdown of all that symbolizes the learned tradition, even the word itself. Yet in a kind of acknowledgment—indeed, almost an allegory—of the end of the twentieth century's new culture and its new possessors, it is Caliban, its implied inheritor, who reaches into the flood and saves the First Folio from the literary armageddon on screen before us. Meanwhile, at the margin, orchestrating the deluge, stands the figure of the maker—the Gielgud who is Prospero who is Shakespeare who is Peter Greenaway—mournfully bidding culture—at least as he and we have hitherto imagined it—into oblivion. Elite reproductions, whether avant-garde or devoted to the “classics,” as well as popular productions, then, meet in the disappearing of Shakespeare.

Dealing with specifically filmic reproductions or appropriations of Shakespeare means that “the popular” must be thought through not only the media and institutions in which Shakespeare is now reproduced—mass culture, Hollywood, celebrity, tabloid—but above all, youth culture. For as Shakespeare becomes part of pop culture and Shakespearean criticism (especially film criticism) follows suit, both move into an arena increasingly driven by a specifically youth culture, and Hollywood has clearly picked up on that fact. The animated versions already released for more than a dozen of the plays and scheduled for additional releases are only the most literal version of this development. Clearly playing to the potent consumerism of what is recognized as a notoriously visual subculture, all four of the so-called “big” tragedies have recently been reproduced in sophisticated comic-book form, appropriate for college students; major Shakespeare critics are turning their talents to readings of MTV videos; and teen idols like Keanu Reeves are being lifted out of movies like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989) to play Van Sant's modern-day Prince Hal in America's contemporary Shakespearorama.15 But the production that went the furthest in enunciating itself as a teen film was the 1996 production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, orchestrated by a director whose claim to fame rested in his previous direction of Strictly Ballroom (1992) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo (star of the sit-com “Growing Pains,” co-star of What's Eating Gilbert Grape [dir. Lasse Hallstroem, 1994] and star of Basketball Diaries [dir. Scott Kalvert, 1995]) plus Clare Danes (star of MTV's “My So-Called Life”) as Juliet. Two journalists (Maslin 1996: C12; Corliss 1996: 89-90) compared the film to an MTV rock video; MTV News did a segment on it; MTV itself aired a half-hour special on the film three times the week before its United States release; and, also the week before release, the film sponsored the TV show “My So-Called Life,” ads blaring forth clips from the soundtrack CD with music by bands such as Garbage, Radiohead, Everclear, and Butthole Surfers. As has become standard for all films, even a website was announced.16 Perhaps the ultimate statement of just how thoroughly William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet had constructed itself as a youth culture film lay in the way it was market-tested. At the screened tests done at U.C. Berkeley the summer before its opening, studio moguls handed out market surveys that specifically asked that those who filled them out be only those viewers who were thirty-nine or younger.17 The marketing campaign proved successful: Romeo and Juliet came in first at the box office the week of its release in the United States.18

Yet the strategies of casting teen idols and the co-construction of youth culture as popular culture were themselves part of the box office stroke mastered some time ago by Zeffirelli in both Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. Indeed, as Robert Hapgood aptly suggests in an essay that is part of this collection, if Zeffirelli's Hamlet was less of a success than were his earlier Shakespeare films, it was because his Hamlet was far less oriented to a young audience. In all American-made film versions of Romeo and Juliet, the culture has inscribed itself into forms of racial tension replayed within an ethnically marked youth culture, as in West Side Story, Valley Girl (dir. Martha Coolidge 1988), Love Is All There Is (dir. Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor 1996) and the Luhrmann production, which was set in a Cuban-American community, Verona Beach. The trend toward making films directed almost exclusively at youth culture is a global one, and the 1987 Finnish-made film, Hamlet Goes Business (dir. Aki Kaurismaki), confirms its relevance through the film's staging of Ophelia's suicide: after gazing at a photo of Hamlet, Ophelia drowns herself in a bathtub while listening to a teen pop lyric in which the boyfriend wishes only to make up with his girlfriend so that all his dreams will be fulfilled. Yet while the inventiveness of some of these popularizations should rightly be applauded, at some point the devolution of Shakespeare to pop culture/youth culture (for which we may also read masculine culture) must give some critics, particularly feminists, pause: if we may read the increasing portrayal of regressively stupid white males (Forrest Gump [dir. Robert Zemekis, 1994] and Dumb and Dumber [dir. Peter Farallay, 1994]) as a kind of Hollywood pandering to the anti-intellectual machismo of its adolescent buyer, just what kind of an American Hamlet is destined to succeed Mel Gibson's action hero is indeed a topic to puzzle the will.

Given that popularization is linked to youth culture, the crucial question for cultural critics rests, finally, with the pedagogical implications of Shakespeare's popularization on film, TV, and video. Popularization has meant the proliferation of representations, on the one hand, and thus an enlargement of what can be legitimately studied as part of the Shakespeare canon. But it has also meant the disappearance of (what was always the illusion of) a single, unified Shakespeare whose works could be covered. Students in today's average, college-level Shakespeare course are now more often shown select scenes from two or more versions of a given play than they are a single production in its entirety (productions like the 1980s BBC Shakespeare renditions, initially aired on a PBS series, that were ultimately designed and marketed specifically for classroom purpose). CD-ROM editions of the plays necessarily further this fragmentation.19 With film and/or digital image as the version through which Shakespeare is primarily known, Shakespeare's accessibility is guaranteed, but along with this move to film comes a perhaps inevitable new sense of Shakespeare's reproduction, one which offers certain challenges to cultural criticism of Shakespeare as it is now practiced.

Consider, once again, the scene of Shakespeare pedagogy as narrated in The Last Action Hero. In this film, the kid who plays hookey in order to see action films starring Schwarzenegger grudgingly returns to class in time to hear his teacher regaling the students with the pleasures of Hamlet. The scene offers a bit of caviar to the theater-going elite in the private knowledge that the teacher is being played by Joan Plowright, Olivier's wife of many years and herself a renowned Shakespearean actress. The in-joke is included, but it is at the same time made purely extraneous to the pleasures of The Last Action Hero, where pleasure is distinctly located in the smash-bang thrills of pop culture. As the truant takes his seat and the teacher informs the students that they may recognize the actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, from his work in a television commercial or from playing Zeus in Clash of the Titans (dir. Desmond Davis, 1981), the relevance of Shakespeare seems most vividly represented by the comically outmoded 16mm projector through which the old Olivier film is being shown. The old-fashioned, dated feel of Olivier's film may be accounted for, at least in part, by the way the scene in The Last Action Hero marks a new relation between the plays and their audience, one in which the aura that pervaded the filmed Shakespeare “classics” is gone, and, with it, the sense of embodied intimacy between the audience and Shakespeare himself. The displacement of Olivier by Arnold Schwarzenegger marks the disappearance of an older sense of the actor as someone who actually knew Shakespeare, who communed with him, understood his mind, and perhaps at times even thought that he himself was Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, this film marks neither the unequivocal triumph of a new American cultural imperialism nor the displacement of a Shakespeare understood to be English by one who has become brashly American. As much as the film would seem to dismiss Shakespeare, it may also be understood as playing out one more version of the way that America, through the aesthetic medium that is as peculiarly American as the stage is English, tries to come to terms with its own, unregenerate fascination with the Bard of Avon. As apparently irrelevant as The Last Action Hero would seem to make Shakespeare, in this and all such recent filmic moments in which the Bard is suddenly invoked, William Shakespeare is still somehow a necessary signifier. He is that which must be posited and the debt that must be acknowledged before—and in order for—popular culture to declare itself so unindebted to the S-guy that it may get on with the production of itself and its own narratives.


  1. The issue of just whose sexual fantasies Gibson's image plays to is itself an example of the contradictory impulses that the culture's new sophistication about media now allows. On the one hand, in vehement defense of the hunky hero's body as an object for female fantasies only, Mel's spokesMEN have gone so far as literally to deny the right of any fanzines (the new, technologized fan magazine produced by fans and circulated on Internet) to produce gay narratives about Gibson—the narratives that are, of course, encouraged by the distinctly homoerotic overtones of the male partnered relationship in the Lethal Weapon film series—overtones that have indeed become progressively more blatant as the rejection of them has become simultaneously more vocal. For more on Mel, see Hodgdon (1994). If there is any gender equality to be offered at all, it is probably to be found only in the newly explicit bisexuality of pop culture's film star images that sexualize us all into universal consumers. In particular, see Marjorie Garber's chapter on “Bi-sexuality and Celebrities” (1995).

  2. It appears that Shakespeare's legitimacy, at least in the United States, depends on his status as screen writer rather than playwright. In a program on Shakespeare in the weekly television series Biography This Week, with interviews of British scholars like Andrew Gurr and Stanley Wells, the narrator concluded by remarking that “Shakespeare is now Hollywood's hottest screenplay writer” (broadcast November 9, 1996, on A& E). And Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, which includes footage of Pacino at the reconstructed Globe and interviews of Branagh and Gielgud, nevertheless focuses on the American film stars acting in the play.

  3. See Rich (1996): Rich goes on to say, “But if audiences inevitably giggle a bit at the 1912 Richard III, they should also look at it as a window on an even more distant past when Americans didn't have to be spoon fed a great dramatist but were united in their passion for one who gave them characters who mirrored their own complex humanity, not to mention sublime poetry, along with the requisite dose of sex and violence. Exciting as this extraordinary find is [i.e., the movies], we will see in its frames the ghosts of something far larger that we have lost.”

    We would add as well that the use of American film stars in Shakespeare film productions is nothing new. Witness the Max Reinhardt A Midsummer Night's Dream with James Cagney and Mickey Rooney or the Joseph Mankiewicz Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando; and of course, there is a long tradition of Shakespeare burlesques in America and elsewhere. See Levine (1988). What has changed, in our view, is the reception of American stars in Shakespeare, both among the viewing public and academia. Moreover, the present moment of Shakespeare reproduction includes new spin-off products from films in addition to videos, many of which are regularly cross-referenced: CD-ROMs; laserdiscs; soundtrack CDs; MTV specials; Internet websites.

  4. The opening sequence with its quotation from The Magnificent Seven of the four riders galloping abreast, for example.

  5. Hollywood's skepticism about Shakespeare is of course nothing new. Shortly before his death in 1984, Richard Burton commented “Generally if you mention the word Shakespeare in Hollywood, everybody leaves the room, because they think he's box office poison” (Levine 1988: 53). As we make clear, the Brits' responses to this skepticism differ in the 1990s.

  6. That it is uncool is clearly the message in John Power's (1996) review of Al Pacino's Looking for Richard: “Through it all, the movie spotlights Pacino's dewy eyed reverence for Shakespeare, which is touching in its unadorned dweebiness. … Most stars would sooner die than look this uncool.”

  7. Several months prior to opening, the Luhrmann film had apparently been market tested on the summer Shakespeare classes at U.C. Berkeley. According to one of the teachers, the questionnaire the viewers were asked to respond to actually included a query that asked “whether the Shakespeare language in the film had bothered you or not.” Our thanks to Grace Ioppulo for telling us about the market survey.

  8. See Don Hedrick's essay in this collection.

  9. Consider that as recently as the mid-1980s the notion of casting Hollywood rather than British actors in Shakespeare film was still a joke. In Dead Poets Society, a teacher played by Robin Williams mimics Marlon Brando playing Antony in Julius Caesar (which Brando had done) and John Wayne as Macbeth (a conjunction apparently only imagined, to our knowledge).

  10. Our thanks to Lance Duerfahrd for bringing this change to our attention.

  11. See “Production Notes,” 2.

  12. John Storey, Telluride publicist.

  13. The Nunn strategy distancing his film from American efforts went wholly lost on the American journalists/publicists. The New York Times ran a full-page ad with a blurb from a critic comparing it favorably to “To Wong Foo” and “The Birdcage,” a comparison that was, in fact, echoed by Time Magazine's David Ansen (Ansen 1996) and in the film's own website.

  14. Even the BBC felt the pressure of contemporary popular English culture. Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who, played Dromio in The Comedy of Errors, and John Cleese of Monty Python played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

  15. The choice for defining pop film's Shakespearean daughter is another face familiar from L.A. teen films, Molly Ringwald, who played both Miranda in Mazursky's Tempest and Cordelia in Godard's Lear.

  16. An ad for a website appears on the video of the Parker Othello, and a website address appeared at the end of movie theater trailers of Branagh's Hamlet.

  17. According to one teacher, the questionnaire included a query that asked “whether the Shakespeare language in the film bothered you or not.” For other adolescent responses, see Smith 1996. Of course, age may take its revenge on youth through the use of Shakespeare. Consider the rehabilitation and recovery of George III and with him the institution of the monarchy through the use of King Lear and Henry IV, Part 2 in the 1994 film of The Madness of King George (dir. Nicholas Hytner).

  18. E! Television, November 4, 1996.

  19. From MLA and Shakespeare Association conventions of the past few years, many academics are familiar with the brilliant scholarly tool into which Pete Donaldson has turned the multi-media, multi-production model. See also Al Braunmuller's excellent CE-edition of Macbeth. Further electronic Shakespeare can be found in the CD-ROMs released by Fox International of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Castle Rock Entertainment of Oliver Parker's Othello. In 1997, Stephen Greenblatt's Norton edition of Shakespeare was published both as a book alone and as a book with a CD-ROM (one CD-ROM for students and another for professors).


Ansen, David (1996) “It's the 90s, So the Bard Is Back,” Time, November 4, vol. 128, no. 19, 73-4.

Bennett, Alan (1995) The Madness of King George, New York: Random House.

Berube, Michael (1995) Public Access, New York and London: Routledge.

Burr, Ty (1996) “The Bardcage,” Entertainment, November 15, 353: 49.

Corliss, Richard (1996) “Suddenly Shakespeare,” Time, November 4, vol. 148, no. 21, 88-90.

Crewe, Jonathan (1995) “In the Field of Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying Game,Representations, 50: 101-23.

Dargie, John (1996) “Othello,L.A. Weekly, December 27.

Garber, Marjorie (1992) Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, New York and London: Routledge.

———. (1995) “Some Like It Haute,” World Art, 1, 30-3.

Gritten, D. (1995) “Shakespeare Is One Happening Dude,” Los Angeles Times, December 27: 39, 41.

Hodgdon, Barbara (1994) “The Critic, the Poor Player, Prince Hamlet, and the Lady in the Dark,” in Shakespeare Reread: the Text and New Contexts, ed. Russ McDonald, London and Ithaca: Connell University Press.

Jefferson, Margot (1996) “Welcoming Shakespeare into the Caliban Family,” New York Times, November 12: C11, C16.

Levine, Lawrence (1988) “Shakespeare in America,” in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maslin, Janet (1996) “Soft, What Light? It's Flash, Romeo,” New York Times, November 1: C1, C12.

McKellen, Ian (1996) William Shakespeare's Richard III, Woodstock, New York: the Overlook Press, 25-6.

Powers, John (1996) “People Are Talking About Movies,” Vogue, vol. 186, no. 10, October, 210.

Rich, Frank (1996) “A Banished Kingdom,” New York Times, September 21, 19.

Smith, Lynn (1996) “Language Barrier Can't Keep Apart Lovers of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Los Angeles Times, November 7, F15.

Van Sant, Gus (1993) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and My Own Private Idaho, New York: Faber & Faber.

Christopher C. Hudgins (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hudgins, Christopher C. “The Last Tycoon: Elia Kazan's and Harold Pinter's Unsentimental Hollywood Romance.” In Hollywood on Stage: Playwrights Evaluate the Culture Industry, edited by Kimball King, pp. 158-83. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Hudgins presents an analysis of Pinter's script for The Last Tycoon, characterizing it as an effective study of the Hollywood film industry as revealed through the life of its main character.]

Early in the first chapter of The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes these lines for his narrator, Cecilia: “You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can...

(The entire section is 11966 words.)

R. Barton Palmer (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, R. Barton. “Hollywood in Crisis: Tennessee Williams and the Evolution of the Adult Film.” In The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, edited by Matthew C. Roudané, pp. 204-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Palmer traces the impact and influence of Williams's writing on the development of American theater and film.]


In the English-speaking world, the two principal performance arts, theatre and film, have developed together in the twentieth century. An important common element of the British and American commercial theatres is that each...

(The entire section is 12297 words.)

Varun Begley (essay date May 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Begley, Varun. “On Adaptation: David Mamet and Hollywood.” Essays in Theatre 16, no. 2 (May 1998): 165-76.

[In the following essay, Begley explores David Mamet's relationship to the theater and film industry, using one of the author's many adapted works as an example.]

“If it's not quite ‘Art’ and it's not quite ‘Entertainment,’” says Hollywood producer Bobby Gould at the opening of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, “it's here on my desk” (3). For more than twenty years, audiences have been similarly situated with respect to Mamet's work. The Mamet persona of the 1980s—evoked in plays, film scripts, films, GQ commentaries, essay...

(The entire section is 6578 words.)

Joseph H. O'Mealy (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Mealy, Joseph H. “Royal Family Values: The Americanization of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III.Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1999): 90-96.

[In the following essay, O'Mealy presents an analysis of the screen adaptation of The Madness of George III as an example of Hollywood's tendency to downplay and simplify the political and constitutional issues explored in the original play.]

When the film version of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III appeared as The Madness of King George, the story circulated that the American backers had insisted on the title change because they feared the sequel-saturated...

(The entire section is 4849 words.)