In honor of this week’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” what’s the best cinematic adaptation of a play by William Shakespeare?
My favorite cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean play would be the 1961 “West Side Story.” Instead of the aristocratic, wealthy Capulets and Montagues in Verona, “West Side Story” was set in the working class neighborhood of the East 40s and West 50s of the Upper West Side in New York City with the Puerto Rican gang of the Sharks against the Polish gang of the Jets. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, the young star-crossed lovers were Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood). The book by Arthur Laurents was elevated by the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the original 1957 Broadway production and was brought on to direct the musical and dance sequences as well as choreograph the movie, working with director Robert Wise. The Broadway show was nominated for six Tonys, but lost the Best Musical Tony to “The Music Man.” Robbins did win a Tony for choreography. Robbins was fired by the movie production company with his assistants handling the rest of the dance numbers that Robbins’ hadn’t completed. Robbins and Wise shared the Oscar for Best Director. The movie won 10 Oscars in all, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (George Chikiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno).
The score includes some memorable melodies from Broadway including “America,” “Tonight” and “Cool.” The dance sequences brought a youthful edge and gritty darkness to the musical. While director Franco Zeffirelli brought gorgeous costumes and youthful innocence to his more traditional 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” (Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design Oscars) and Baz Luhrmann had over-the-top dramatics in his modernized 1996 version that traded guns for swords in his “Romeo+Juliet,” “West Side Story” pushed both Shakespeare, cinema and the American musical forward into new territory while maintaining a poignant emotional core. By touching on race instead of a feudal feud, “West Side Story” touched on a social problem that still plagues America today as we saw with the recent Cheerios commercial incident on YouTube and Facebook.
Oddly, Zeffirelli’s leads, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting wouldn’t find must lasting success in the movie business, but Lurhmann’s Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, and his Juliet, Claire Danes, have had more high profile careers. Natalie Wood would go on to become both a Hollywood legend and tragedy, but her co-star, Richard Beymer as Tony would not rise to the same level of stardom.
For the best traditional adaptation of a Shakespeare play, I’d choose the 1967 version of “The Taming of the Shrew” with Elizabeth Taylor as Katherine and Richard Burton as Petruchio. Director Franco Zeffirelli gives us a lusty pair ill-matched lovers and the script manages to dodge some of misogynistic problems of the play and come up with a resolution acceptable to modern tastes (despite the somewhat questionable marketing choices when the movie was first released). Danilo Donati’s costume design and Renzo Mongiardino’s production design provides us with a detailed journey back to more glamorous and dangerous times. There’s no denying the flash and fire of the combustible chemistry of Taylor and Burton.
For an adaptation that takes risks, Ian McKellen’s 1995 “Richard III” is a stylish, thought-provoking production. Directed by Richard Loncraine and the movie is based on Richard Eyre’s production at the Royal National Theatre (also starring McKellen). This version transports the play to an alternative time in a 1930s Britain that comes under the rule of a Nazi Third Reich-like party under Richard III. In comparison, Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version of “Richard III” is very dated, not only in its portrayal of women, but also in its corny death scene.