Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Cinematic Guide to Romeo and Juliet

Be it Charles Gounod’s opera, Serge Prokoviev’s ballet score or the Leonard Bernstein musical, nobody seems to be able to get enough of Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers. An ImDb search on the title yields no fewer than 85 entries ranging from a 1916 version with Silent-Era ‘Vamp’ Theda Bara playing Juliet to the possibly despicable, at the very least notorious, “The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet” made in (natch) 1969. Many an argument can be formed in compiling a list of highlights, so the following selection should be taken with a grain of salted popcorn.

To the modern viewer 1961’s West Side Story could seem dated, but in its day the on-location shooting in New York City and subtle altering of the story to reflect the state of race relations earned the movie kudos for gritty realism. Realism is of course, relative – Natalie Wood’s singing was really done by behind-the-scenes workhorse Marni Nixon and Richard Beymer’s singing was really done by Jimmy Bryant. No matter. The electric Jerome Robbins dance numbers were 100 percent legit. Seeing Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris and Eliot Feld charging through the streets of The Big Apple almost makes one want to join the Jets or the Sharks, but wannabes might want to wait till the final reel before deciding to make their gangsta dreams come true.

A year before the salacious “Secret Sex Lives” hit the screen, Franco Zefferelli directed the then-unknown Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in his Romeo and Juliet. The film gained notoriety for the director’s choice in actors who were close in age to the teens as Shakespeare wrote them and achieved immortality for its attention to detail, sumptuous costumes and timeless Nino Rota score. In addition to Hussey and Whiting, notables included Michael York as Tybalt and Milo O’Shea as Friar Laurence.

Anglophiles of a certain age will remember The BBC’s Shakespeare Plays series of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a quickening of the heart. Production values were disputably bargain basement, but the series boasted unforgettable performances from the likes of Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, a pre-Chariots of Fire Ian Charleson as Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well and John Cleese as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shew. 1978’s Romeo and Juliet was the very first play filmed for the series. While Patrick Ryecart as Romeo and the then fourteen-year-old Rebecca Saire as Juliet would probably pass unnoticed by audiences of today, Alan Rickman’s somewhat snarly turn as Tybalt most certainly would not. Severus Snape indeed.

Leonardo DiCaprio was the tragic teen of the nineties. Prior to professing, “I’m King of the World!” with Kate Winslet at his side on the soon-to-be-decked Titanic, he was gazing at angelic Claire Danes through a fish tank in Romeo + Juliet. Baz Luhrmann opts to bring the tale into Los Angeles circa 1996 – a world replete with gangs, guns and drag queens all throbbing to the beat of an iPod-ready soundtrack. Thrilling visuals and clever re-imagining of characters and plot often threaten to submarine the text, but it’s still garnering boatloads of fans after more than a decade.

There you have it – an extremely subjective romp through the most well-known film adaptations of one of the most well-known plays of all time. That being said, let’s take a moment for the also-rans. While not exactly teens at the time, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer made a respectable showing in the 1937 entry. The story is very effectively told using the language of dance in the 1966 Margot Fonteyn/Rudolph Nureyev pairing as well as Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling in The Royal Ballet’s 1984 undertaking. All of these and more are yours for the viewing with the help of a library card or Netflix membership. But nothing quite compares to seeing it live. For that privilege, be sure to stop by Jersey City’s West Side Theater where Romeo and Juliet will be performed from November 5-21 by Actors Shakespeare Company at NJCU. Tickets are available through http://www.theatermania.com/.

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