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'Othello' w/ Laurence Fishburne On Warner Archive DVD This Week (But He Wasn't The First...)

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by Sergio
January 23, 2013 6:56 PM
4 Comments
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The 1995 film version of William Shakespeare's Othello didn't light the box office on fire and was quickly forgotten as soon as it came out.

Not that it's a bad film, but it seems to lack the certain spark necessary to make a classic. But when it came out, it was considered quite important, since it was declared to be the first time that a black actor, Laurence Fishburne, played the role in a film version of the play, along with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, and Irene Jacob as Desdemona.

Until then, of course it was always white actors in blackface, like Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles in the part. However, the thing about this is that it wasn't exactly true.

There had been other black actors who had played Othello in earlier film productions, though those were smaller films, made outside the Hollywood mainstream, so in many people's eyes they didn't exist.

First there was Yaphet Kotto who played the role in an independently made film version of the play in 1980; and the next year, in 1981, William Marshall (forever to be in Blaxplotation glory as Blacula) played the role in a over 3 hour long, complete indie production that was released on video and DVD. Though there's no information on if it was ever shown in theaters anywhere or on television.

And of course there's the infamous "lost" film version starring and directed by Ted Lange. Yes that's right, Ted Lange.  The same guy who played Isaac the Bartender on the 1970's TV classic ABC's The Love Boat.  It was his long-time dream project and he actually got it made and released it in some theaters in 1989, but the film hasn't been seen since then. 

And then if we're talking about Othello inspired films, there's Richie Havens who played an Othello-type role in a rock musicial film version of Catch My Soul, which I wrote about recently HERE.

And then there's the 1962 British film All Night Long which is a jazz version of the story with Paul Harris, playing a jazz musician married to a white singer who a jealous drummer rival wants to sign up for his group, and convinces Harris that his wife is cheating on him. (The film is shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies)

But getting back to Fishburne's Othello, one of the main problems with the film, which was the cause of much criticism at the time, was with the ruthless cutting down of Shakespeare's text.

Granted most of his plays are rather long, so some editing is necessary for a film version, unless audiences want to sit though four-hour-long movies like Branagh's own (and actually really excellent) 1996 film version of Hamlet.  But in the case of Fishburne's film, it is rather extreme, retaining only about a third of the play's original text. 

The director of the film, Oliver Parker, who also did the screenplay adaptation, defended the severe editing, saying he did it because he "thought it would be interesting to make it more of a punchy, pacy number.

Unfortunately the editing actually takes a serious toll on Shakespeare's words, removing a lot if its poetic flow, and much of the characters' motivations.

However, if you want to see Fishburne give it a go as Othello, now you can, since, starting this week, it's available through Warner Home Video's very successful DVD-on-demand label  Warner Archive.

Below is a clip from the film, and for your amusement, Olivier from his 1966 film version, and Anthony Hopkins from a 1981 BBC TV production - both who ham it up like crazy.

What is it about the role that makes actors go off the rails?

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4 Comments

  • Kai Leakes | January 24, 2013 10:41 PMReply

    Fishburne as Othello was my everything at that time. Not only was he very very sexy as Othello but he brought a charisma and strength that definitely made up for the editing issues (that I did not know of). It would have only strengthen the movie in my opinion if they had honored Shakespeare's work and extended. But alas, they didn't and Fishburne was the best Othello of all time! Love this movie and currently seeking it for my DVD collection.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 24, 2013 9:14 PMReply

    Fishburne and Branagh put on a master class! I sometimes watch their scenes before writing dialogue.

  • Tamara | January 24, 2013 9:30 AMReply

    loved it.

  • CareyCarey | January 23, 2013 11:11 PMReply

    Since I am not a student of Shakespeare, from my perspective Fishburne's Othello was great (What I didn't know, obviously didn't hurt me). I found the film to be quite intriguing and very well acted. In fact, although I've been a life long fan of Fishburne's acting, this performance really turned my head. I was amazed at how he remembered all those lines... speaking them with conviction. And, Kenneth Branagh stayed right with him. But now, today, I have to say Fishburne's portrayal of Thurgood Marshall is his absolute best performance!

    RE: The British film All Night Long. Tambay suggested that film in one of his Netflex posts. I enjoyed it as well. It was patterned off Othelo so I knew the story, but I still got mad at the brotha when he fell for the okie-doke. I was screaming at the TV... "NO MAN, DON'T DO IT, DON'T BELIEVE THAT FOOL. DON'T PUT YOU HANDS ON THAT WHITE WOMAN". Well, he didn't listen but I not going to tell the ending. There is a little twist.

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