As I’ve mentioned before, every story has been done in Hollywood. Many of the original plots come from re-packaging classic stories in different cultural settings. Of course, it doesn’t help that a long time ago one guy wrote a lot of plays that essentially covered all the best stories. This guy was William Shakespeare. In fact, even if a plot is original, it is often compared to the works of this prolific playwright. As such, why not just make a film about the plays directly? That way the movie is directly compared to the source material and how closely it has adapted the written word. And if that doesn’t work, why not make a story about the guy who was the best at making stories? This week’s two films just so happen to be Best Picture winners that either used William Shakespeare’s work as a foundation, or his life as an inspiration.
West Side Story
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours
In order for some of the timeless themes of Shakespeare to be fully understood by modern audiences, they must be put in modern packaging. No one really cares about the King of Denmark, the Emperor of Rome, or some silly teenagers whose families are fighting. This is why there have been a few adaptations of some of Shakespeare’s well known plays into modern settings. Films like 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) adapt the romantic comedies of Shakespeare into high school themed interpretations in order to connect with audiences that could care less about the Victorian era. This doesn’t mean that the classic interpretations of Shakespeare’s work aren’t successful, since Romeo and Juliet has been nominated several times for Best Picture and Hamelt has won. However, West Side Story modernized Romeo and Juliet, and actually won.
For this version of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer), a white teenager and former gang member of the Jets (= the Montagues) that mainly occupy Manhattan (= Verona). Juliet is Maria Nuñez (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris) (= Tybalt), the leader of a rival gang of Puerto Ricans, the Sharks (= the Capulets). When Tony and Maria meet at a dance, they immediately fall in love, despite the fact that they are deep within the entanglements of gang warfare. As the two lovebirds plan a way that they can be together, harassment from both gangs lets them know they need to do so in secret. And while West Side Story does not have the exact same ending as Romeo and Juliet and some racial tensions have been thrown in the mix, it is still a good interpretation of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers.
Shakespeare in Love
Length: 123 minutes / 2.05 hours
Even though modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays can make it easier for those who don’t want to watch something by The Bard to sit through some classic literature, sometimes you just need the classic approach. Certain actors like Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh started their acting careers on the Shakespearean stage and have taken that talent to the screen as well, since both have appeared in more than a few faithful film adaptations of his plays. And yet, there is one film that expertly combines many of Shakespeare’s plays together in one semi-fictional story, and that film is Shakespeare in Love. Oftentimes authors will draw from their experiences and the people around them, so this film merely imagines that William Shakespeare wrote in much the same way.
While West Side Story is the story of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love is the story of the writing of that story. Will (Joseph Fiennes) has just found out that his benefactor has stolen his girlfriend. As such, Will burns the play he was writing for said patron, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. What was once going to be a comedy will now be rewritten as a tragedy. Unfortunately, since much of the script is unusable as a comedy, Shakespeare gets a serious case of writer’s block. That is, until he meets Thomas Kent. Thomas is an impressive actor, but with a slight twist: Thomas is actually Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Will and Viola immediately fall in love and now the words flow freely for Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it is a love that cannot be and must remain hidden. How long can the two lovers remain together before being found out?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Best Pictures with The Bard