Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Richard III -- A Villain For The Ages




















If you are not familiar with William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, you are missing the greatest villain of stage and screen. To quote my own post announcing my intention to write about this monstrous man, "...Shakespeare puts most teenagers into a comatose state.” I don’t believe this would happen if people were introduced to Shakespeare not with sweet love stories or comedies, but with plays like Richard III.  As I also said, “If you like bloody battles, lustful seduction, raging jealousy ... dire prophecies ... and villainy, you will like Richard III."  Richard was so monstrous that no heir to the English throne has ever been given that name since his death.


Even Richard's coat of arms is ugly, a white boar with the translated motto "Loyalty binds me." Richard's loyalty was all to himself, and he never wavered in his obsession to grab the crown. He mowed down everyone in his path, be it brother, wife, friends, court advisors or two innocent children. He surrounded himself with men like himself, ambitious, without conscience and willing to murder in hideous ways at his behest. The best known of Richard’s murderers is James Tyrrel, a name almost as famous as Richard’s in the annals of villains of English history. Richard lived from October, 1452 to August, 1485. He only reigned for less than 2 years as king, from 1483-1485. His family, the House of York, had been at war with the House of Lancaster for 100 years, known as the War of the Roses. Richard was the last of the Plantagenet line which started in 1154 with King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart. After Richard III's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the House of Tudor reigned, beginning with Henry VII, father of the most infamous of that house, Henry the Eighth. Richard was also the last English king to be killed in battle.

As a point of history, there are two schools of thought about Richard. One is that he was indeed the great villain described in Shakespeare’s play as well as in memoirs of Thomas More and other sources. The other is that he was a much-maligned, decent man whose history was re-written by the people who defeated him, the House of Tudor. If you are interested in this argument, just pull up the websites for Richard III Society and Society of Friends of King Richard III. It is a very interesting debate. For our purposes here, however, I am writing about the Richard of Shakespeare’s incomparable play. The first, titled Richard III, was released in 1956 with Sir Laurence Olivier, the second by the same name in 1995 with Sir Ian McKellan. These are two movies of different eras, each brilliant in their own unique ways.

Laurence Olivier had produced and acted in movies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry V, all to great acclaim. Richard III was greatly anticipated, and it was released in 1955. Filmed in Technicolor, it was a cinematically beautiful movie. Olivier did take some license with Shakespeare’s play, particularly in opening the movie with some of Richard’s speeches in the previous play, King Henry IV, Part II. Olivier felt that this would give some clarity to the story as well as Richard’s personality, and though I tend to be a purist about Shakespeare, I agree that this enhanced the movie. As the court celebrates the triumph and crowning of Richard’s brother, Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Richard goes off by himself to bemoan the end of war and beginning of “…this weak, piping time of peace.”

Richard was born hunchbacked, with a withered arm and a lame leg, with fierce ambition and love of war. He was a bitter man who, in his words, was “cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” In an inspired style of film-making, Olivier delivers his lines directly to the audience, pulling them into his world and creating a bond with them. He acts with a raised eyebrow and subtle sarcasm, truly fantastic. As part of this scene, Olivier inserts from Henry IV, Part II, Richard’s hatred of his deformed body and ferocious determination to seize the crown: “What other pleasure can the world afford?...love forswore me in my mother’s womb…and am I then a man to be beloved?...I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown, and whiles I live to account this world but hell until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head be round impaled with a glorious crown….many lives stand between me and home…And I, like one lost in a thorny wood, that rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns, seeking a way….toiling desperately to find it out, torment myself to catch the English crown, and from that torment will free myself or hew my way out with a bloody axe! Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile…and wet my cheeks with artificial tears, and frame my face to all occasions….can I do this, and cannot get a crown? Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down!”

That is Richard. Everything he does stems from this description of himself and his desires. As fourth in line of succession, the King’s two very young sons and Richard’s own brother, the Duke of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud), stand in the way. Gielgud gives a remarkable performance of Clarence, particularly when he describes his prophetic dream about his own death while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard is also determined to marry the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), of Lancaster royal blood, partly from lust, partly from desire for a further royal alliance to strengthen his aim. The fact that Richard had just killed Anne's husband in battle did not sway him from seducing Anne right by the coffin of her dead husband. Anne, a devastated wife and frightened, weak woman, allowed herself to be seduced by Richard's "honeyed words." This tells us that despite his appearance and villainy, Richard could charm like a snake. Richard even goes so far later in the story as to try to marry his own niece for further royal affiliation. As he moves inexorably toward his ultimate aim, Richard is assisted by the Duke of Buckingham (Sir Ralph Richardson) and the aforementioned murderer Tyrell. Horrific events abound, and the story is told superbly to its bloody end.

Olivier’s Richard III, with its stellar cast, superb performances and stirring music by Sir William Walton, was delivered to the public in a most unusual way. It was released in the United States on afternoon TV and at movie theatres simultaneously. An unfortunate effect of this first-ever type of release was that the box office revenue at theatres was dismal. It is hard to believe, but Olivier was then unable to get his next project off the ground, filming of Macbeth, because of the bad revenues and because his only backer, producer Mike Todd (husband of Elizabeth Taylor), was killed in a plane crash. However, when Richard III was re-released in 1966, it topped box office records in most major American cities, and today it is considered a masterpiece. Richard III was nominated for only one award, unbelievably, which was best actor for Olivier, but he lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I.

In 1995, Sir Ian McKellan, known to younger audiences from his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, decided to make his own Richard III. McKellan is a classically trained actor of stage and screen, and added his own unique touches to Richard. He also used the technique of speaking directly to the audience. However, McKellan’s Richard is put into a modern setting, bringing it to life in the 1930’s with a suggestion of Richard and his cohorts in Nazi-type uniforms, and the Tudor heroes in British-style uniforms. The costumes, particularly those of the women, are gorgeous, and the music is jazzy and contemporary with the 1930’s. Shakespeare’s language is intact, thank heaven, and is strangely unmarred by the modern setting. Perhaps this is because we have seen in the 20th century many monstrous rulers like Richard, particularly Hitler. It is familiar territory to modern audiences.





McKellan’s Richard is viciously gleeful, acting the atrocious events with laughter and a twinkle in his eye. He is simply marvelous. Some of the updated scenes are humorous, such as the beginning speech which takes place in the men’s bathroom. He does not insert the scenes from Henry IV, Part II, as Olivier did, except for the lines about being able to murder while he smiles. He grins and says “Plots have I laid”, then crooks his finger at the audience, compelling us to follow along. Another witty update portrays one of the most famous lines from the movie -- “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” --- which here is Richard’s broken-down jeep in the midst of battle. The palaces are lovely, but the main setting for the film is dark and bleak, with strange buildings and landscape that create a chilling atmosphere.

The cast, which does not boast of as many “Sirs” as Olivier’s version, is sometimes unusual and works beautifully. Annette Benning plays Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wretched widow queen trying to protect her 2 sons, with great elegance and style, showing real acting chops. Jim Broadbent as the evil Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-chomping, pot-bellied businessman who helps Richard with a smile and a wink. Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence is pitiable, and performs the famous soliloquy in the Tower of London with subtlety and grace. Kristin Scott Thomas is the Lady Anne, devastated by her husband’s death, seduced by Richard, and pitifully aware of her downfall. Robert Downy, Jr. is a surprise as Elizabeth’s brother, Lord Rivers. Downey apparently wanted the part so much that he cleared his calendar after the offer from McKellan. He does well playing the part of Rivers as a loving brother and appealing drunk. I must say that one of my favorites of this great cast is Adrian Dunbar, who plays the murdering Tyrrel. In Olivier’s film, Tyrrel was willing to do the deeds, but seemed much more reluctant and sensitive about it, particularly with the little princes. But Dunbar’s Tyrrel is not reluctant or sensitive. Richard, having been told Tyrrel is the kind of man he is looking for, meets him in a hog barn where Tyrrel is feeding apple pieces to the pigs. Richard asks him “Darest thou resolve to kill a friend of mine?” to which Tyrrel answers in a blasé tone “Ay, my lord, but I had rather kill two enemies.” (It is plain Richard means the two little princes.) Richard then throws a piece of  apple into the pen, hits a hog with an apple hard enough to make him squeal, and the two men smile.   The ending of the film is done with dark humor, as we see Richard for the last time, going to his death laughing, to the strains of an old recording of Al Jolson's "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World."  Marvelous.

McKellan’s Richard III won two Academy Awards, for costume design and art direction. McKellan was not even nominated for best actor, in my opinion an inordinately brainless decision on the part of Academy members. As movie lovers know, that wasn’t the first Academy blunder, nor will it be the last. It is really shameful that McKellan’s performance was not given the kudos it deserved.

As for the historical arguments about Richard, well, we may never know if he was an ordinary guy or the nasty scoundrel of Shakespeare. And that is just as well. I would hate to lose Richard, the greatest villain of all.

14 comments:

  1. Becky, Awesome review! It certainly was worth the wait! This is the first time I have read a movie review about Richard III. He does sound like.. the greatest villain of them all!

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  2. This is perhaps your best critique yet! Very well researched and informative. This critique deserves attention from none other than Robert Osborne.

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  3. That's interesting how they released Richard III on television. The Technicolor used in Olivier's Richard III did indeed magnify the costumes and palace tapestris, etc.

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  4. Thanks Dawn and Pat! And yes, I thought it was kind of strange actually that they would release it on TV. Color TV did not yet exist, and the movie's Technicolor beauty would not be seen at all that way.

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  5. Wow grandma thats alot of infomation I havent read it all yet but I will. Love you, Tony

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  6. I don't believe I've ever seen an adaptation of RICHARD III. Your solid analysis is making me consider a double feature with Olivier and McKellan. I think Sir Ian McKellan is one of the best! Have you seen Al Pacino's LOOKING FOR RICHARD (1996)? It's a documentary/study of RICHARD III, and I didn't know if that would be worth watching as well.

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  7. Tony, I'm so glad you are reading my article. Take your time with it. It is a lot of info!
    Sark, I don't know how I missed it, but I have not seen Looking for Richard! I am going to watch for it and not let it get away again. I have heard it is really excellent. You should definitely have a double feature of the Richards, and you will love Ian McKellan's. I agree, he is one of the best, and his Richard is right up there with Olivier, which is saying a lot!

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  8. Becky, finally got around to reading your wonderful article on Richard III. As a historian, I thoroughly appreciate how much research you put into this. I've only seen the Olivier film version (as well as a few interesting stage productions). His Richard made my skin crawl...which is what the real Richard did to a lot of the people he came into contact. Great post.

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  9. Becky, this is an outstanding post about one of the great villains of English literature. I throughly enjoyed it. I haven't seen McKellan's reimagined version (though I always thought it sounded intriguing). I first saw Olivier's on PBS when I was teen and I loved it. Now, the funniest performance as Richard III belongs to Richard Dreyfuss in THE GOODBYE GIRL.

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  10. Thanks Rick! And you are quite right -- Richard Dreyfuss was hysterical in The Goodbye Girl. I remember when he was having an anxiety attack about playing Richard, the 2nd greatest part of the stage, like "a fresh California fruit salad." At least that's pretty close to what he said if I remember. Poor guy!

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  12. WOW BECKY!! you sure do know your SHAKESPEARE...I happen to like the SIR IAN version more...and i am a big fan of LARRY!! just don't mention THE CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT...

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  13. Oh another favorite, Henry V. Poor Falstaff -- the Kenneth Branagh Henry V did that scene beautifully. It just broke your heart. Soon I'm going to do another Shakespeare on film in a similar fashion with Olivier's Henry V and Branagh's Henry V. Hope you like it!

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