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Now and Then: Olivier and the Bard

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! April 26, 2013 at 3:03PM

"I can smile, and murder while I smile," confides that notorious noble, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Laurence Olivier), "and frame my face to all occasions." For Olivier, pronouncing "frame" like "feign," it's an auspicious beginning. In Shakespeare's words, he finds his performer's credo.
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Laurence Olivier in his 1955 adaptation of Shakespeare's "Richard III"
Laurence Olivier in his 1955 adaptation of Shakespeare's "Richard III"

"I can smile, and murder while I smile," confides that notorious noble, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, "and frame my face to all occasions." For Laurence Olivier, pronouncing "frame" like "feign," it's an auspicious beginning. In Shakespeare's words, he finds his performer's credo.

Spoken in the opening moments of "Richard III" (1955), the third in actor/director/adapter Olivier's cinematic trilogy of Shakespearean works, they are the Bard's words, and Gloucester's, too. But they do not in fact appear in "Richard III" -- rather, Olivier's pilfered them from Gloucester's monologue in Act III of "Henry VI, Part 3." The lines flow seamlessly from the original text -- it was only in searching for an accurate quotation that I discovered the discrepancy -- and yet illuminate Richard's damaged dissembling. Olivier knew, almost preternaturally, that the interest lay in the interpretation, in twisting the page to fit the screen, though only to a point.

This refusal to treat the plays with kid gloves, while remaining steeped in their traditions, is why Olivier's remains the finest cinematic vision of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories. "Richard III," like "Henry V" (1944) and "Hamlet" (1948) before it, is Olivier's Shakespeare and no one else's.

Inhabiting the space between Orson Welles' wild, irreverent takes on "Macbeth" (1948) and "Othello" (1952), and Kenneth Branagh's turgid, grandiose, "authoritative" adaptations of "Henry V" (1989) and "Hamlet" (1996), Olivier's relationship with the playwright is a masterly feat of balance. Adding and subtracting as necessary, but ever faithful to the spirit of the original, Olivier makes the plays new without making them over.

Delicately, "Richard III" wends its way into film form without losing sight of the stage. Cutting from shadow to shadow, or from the bloody remnants of a beheading to a washerwoman scrubbing the front step, the film sutures together distinct scenes that might otherwise require a break in the action. But we're never far from the theater. The painted sets, as though pulled from the Globe, are so sparse as to give you a chill, desolate but for a coffin in a high-ceilinged room or an empty coronation chair.

It's true that the most inventive adaptations of Shakespeare can thrill us -- witness the audacity of Welles' "voodoo 'Macbeth'"; the gunslinging and bright color of Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo & Juliet" (1996); the airy charm on display in the trailer for Joss Whedon's upcoming "Much Ado About Nothing." But with Shakespeare in particular, and perhaps adaptation in general, the new must coexist comfortably with the old. We want our Bard fresh and yet familiar. 

This article is related to: Now and Then, DVD / Blu-Ray, Genres, Drama, Classics, Headliners, Directors, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.