Sunday, September 11, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Laurence Olivier

This is the seventh in my Getting Acquainted series, in which I watch three movies per month featuring cinematic luminaries whose work has thus far eluded me.

I'm an anal bastard.

As long as I have been doing series on my blog, I have never failed to meet one of my own deadlines. If I were watching one movie per week as part of a certain series, I never failed to do it. If I were watching three movies per month as part of a different series, I always pulled that off, too.

Until last month.

Last month, I was all scheduled to get in three movies featuring Laurence Olivier by the time the clock struck midnight on August 31st, until I made a blunder that cost me the deadline. I'd squirreled away two Olivier movies early in the month, and had the third scheduled to arrive around the 27th or 28th of August. Except The Boys from Brazil was not at the top of my Netflix queue, as I'd thought it was. I had rashly thrown Trollhunter up there, knowing at the time that Trollhunter hadn't been released on DVD yet, so there was no risk of it arriving before The Boys from Brazil. Except the potential shipping date of Boys landed right on the day Trollhunter was released, and so, I got Trollhunter instead of Boys.

I'd have still been able to work it out, possibly, if I'd gotten Trollhunter shipped back in last Monday's mail. But we couldn't finish it on Sunday night, and had to extend our viewing until Monday night. At this point, the earliest it would go out in the mail would be Tuesday, August 30th, and as fast as Netflix is, there would be no way they'd turn around the movie by the very next day. It defied the very laws of mail. So I knew at that point that the earliest I'd watch The Boys from Brazil would be Thursday, September 1st. And it ended up being a couple days later than that, once I'd missed the deadline.

I even considered watching a different Olivier film to satisfy my quota. I trolled around Netflix to try to find one of his movies available for instant viewing, and the only one I found (having sampled over ten titles) was a filmed version of a stage play -- and I just didn't think that qualified. One of the most startling realizations was how many of his films aren't even available on DVD from Netflix, most surprisingly, The Entertainer, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Making matters worse, I found Trollhunter to be sort of a disappointment.

O shame, o great shame. (Since Shakespearean language is relevant when you're talking about Olivier.)

But before we do finally talk about Olivier, I thought I should preface my comments with the following admission: I am not unacquainted with his work. In fact, before last month, I had already seen four movies in which Olivier appeared: Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Marathon Man and Clash of the Titans.

Why the heck did I choose him for this series, then? Mainly because at the time I saw these movies, I did not consciously realize I was looking at "the great Sir Laurence Olivier." For three of them, I was too young at the time I saw them to have a good appreciation of who Olivier was, and for Marathon Man, I was seeing a man already past his cinematic prime -- which of course doesn't make him any less chilling when he repeats "Is it safe? Is it safe?" while dentally torturing Dustin Hoffman.

So I wanted to see three Olivier movies that allowed me to appreciate him in all his greatness as I was watching them. And I'm glad to say I was not disappointed.

Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier). Watched: Wednesday, August 10th

The Olivier movie I was most certain I wanted to see was his version of Hamlet. Not only because Hamlet is possibly my favorite Shakespeare play (how original), and not only because I've already seen three other filmed versions of it, and not only because Olivier is the director of this film in addition to being its star, but also because it won best picture, and therefore would help me with my quest to eventually watch all the best picture winners. (Run-on sentence intentional.)

I was amazed at how engrossed I immediately became in Olivier's version. Not because I thought it would be a poor interpretation or something, but because I assumed that I identify with Hamlet as distilled through a modern sensibility. For example, my favorite filmed version of Hamlet is Michael Almereyda's 2000 version, which features Ethan Hawke as a modern day scion of a corporate magnate, in which the famous "To be or not to be" speech occurs in a video store. You can't get much more modern than that (even if video stores are now an endangered species). The other two versions I'd seen were made in the decade prior to that, Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version, so those also represent modern sensibilities in the sense that they were made in my lifetime.

What immediately struck me about Olivier's version was his attempt to make the play's themes more accessible to audiences who perhaps couldn't keep up with the language. This is not to say it is dumbed down -- not in the slightest. However, Olivier clearly considered the staging to help elucidate the meaning of the words. For example, during the aforementioned "To be or not to be" speech, Hamlet is fondling a dagger, and also standing near the edge of a precipice. Both of these choices underscore the idea that the speech concerns whether or not to commit suicide. Even though you'd think that idea would be clear enough with the opening six words of the speech, I'd venture that these unobtrusive staging choices help convey the meaning. There were several other examples, such as the moment when Hamlet has the chance to kill Claudius but decides to wait until a moment when Claudius is not in the midst of prayer, thereby reducing the likelihood that he will reach his heavenly reward. In other versions of the play, it was not so clear to me that he had passed up an opportunity to kill his deceitful, murderous uncle.

Another thing that really struck me was the chilling portrayal of Hamlet's father's ghost, who sets the plot in motion by telling Hamlet that he had been poisoned by his own brother. "Murder most foul" indeed. The apparition is dark and hazy and truly frightening in the midst of the fog that surrounds the Danish castle by night. But what truly chilled me was the voice of this apparition, who speaks in a deathly whisper that must have floored audiences in 1948. I guess I suspected a 1948 version of Hamlet to not really "go for it" in terms of being spooky ... although clearly there were plenty of indelible horror films that had been made prior to 1948.

As for Olivier's performance itself, well, it was of course masterful. Part of the reason I described him as making the words of the text more accessible was because his own emotional choices are also largely responsible for doing that. It's highly evident that he understands the Bard's words, and exactly what is at stake for his character at every moment of the text.

He also deserves credit for a smart adaptation that truncates parts of the text that aren't strictly necessary. Since this version still runs well over two hours, there's no doubt that most of it is still there, but if left to a full unabridged version, something like Branagh's bloated four-hour version is what results. I'm not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to immediately recognized which parts had been excised (although I was proud to say I did notice certain things), and whether the parts that were excised detract in some way from the essence of the play. I do know that the play felt clear and concise and a joy to watch. Olivier even gives considerable thought to the camerawork, as the camera moves in and out and around in ways that remind me a bit of what Welles so memorably accomplished in Citizen Kane earlier that decade. I figured Olivier to be an actor's director, but this film clearly demonstrates that filmmaking technique also interested him.

If I have one complaint about this Hamlet, it's that the finale was somewhat lacking in impact. One of Shakespeare's most famous finales is a bloodbath in which numerous people are poisoned and stabbed, and the full meaning of the word "tragedy" comes to bear. Curiously, however, I found Olivier's interpretation of this crucial scene to be somewhat limp. Sure, everything happens as written, but he fails to achieve the level of melodrama (in the original definition of that word) one would hope this scene would have. I may not be able to point to specifics, but that's the nature of calling something "limp" -- everything just seems to lack the energy you expect it to have.

However, I really don't want to criticize anything about Olivier's Hamlet. It's that good. One thing I do want to briefly discuss, however, is the effect you'd think this version would have had on subsequent versions, since this is sort of considered to be the definitive cinematic Hamlet. The reason I was as surprised and thrilled as I was by certain choices is that I have not seen many of those choices subsequently. There may be two reasons I haven't seen these choices repeated: 1) Future directors did not want to be accused of copying Olivier, so they went out of their way to make different choices that were not traceable to his choices; 2) Future directors actually considered some of Olivier's choices to be inferior, and therefore not worth repeating. It makes me wonder if future Hamlet interpreters specifically chose not to make manifest the meaning of the "To be or not to be" speech, because they felt that pantomiming suicidal gestures would be insulting the audience. Well, they certainly wouldn't be considered insulting if they were executed with the skill and finesse of a Laurence Olivier.

Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick). Watched: Saturday, August 14th

In the same way that watching Hamlet allowed me to kill two birds with one stone -- seeing an Olivier movie and seeing a best picture winner -- watching Spartacus allowed me to pull off the same feat. Not only did I get to see Olivier in a slightly different classical context than Shakespeare, but I got to see one of the few Stanley Kubrick movies that has thus far eluded me -- having only realized in the last year or two that Kubrick was actually the director for hire on this big studio project. (Don't tell me that Kubrick would have still gravitated toward a project like this if he were already in full control of his cinematic destiny.)

Olivier plays the villain role in Spartacus -- he's Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus, who seeks to crush the slave uprising led by the title character (Kirk Douglas). However, he's not just a malevolent figurehead -- he also falls in love with Spartacus' wife, Varinia (Jean Simmons, who also played Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet), longing to have her love him the way she loves Spartacus. Because it's Olivier playing this role, he gives it a dimension the character might not have otherwise had -- he appears to be trying to understand the very nature of love. However, that's just a small part of the third act. For the rest of the time, he's wrangling for power with other rival political figures in the Roman senate, and generally being oppressive.

I probably won't discuss Spartacus extensively here, in part because it didn't really make me think deeply. I don't mean for that to come across as a criticism of this film, because it's an epic whose massive scope is simply jaw-dropping at times. I thoroughly enjoyed it, all three hours and 16 minutes of it. I just feel like I enjoyed it on more of a surface level than a deep intellectual level. It's grand Hollywood pageantry with hissable villains and heroic heroes, and it's worth seeing as a superior example of a studio epic. It just doesn't inspire me to speak about it at length.

One thing I will say is that I enjoyed the wrangling of the Roman senators more than I enjoyed the much more straightforward heroic struggle of Spartacus and his men. The dialogue is truly juicy as a number of fine actors jockey for political advantage in the Roman senate, making and breaking allegiances with one another in a quest for power and to humiliate their foes. In addition to Olivier's strong work, there's Charles Laughton as Gracchus, very funny in his wry observations about motivations and the way things truly are, which cut to the heart of human nature. His character helps draw the distinction between the intelligent class of Romans who spend their days pontificating in the baths, and those who were raised as slaves, whose smarts are better characterized as street smarts. I also really enjoyed Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, who displays some of the whip-smart humor of Laughton in a role that is also not immediately what it seems. As the owner/proprietor of a compound where slaves are trained to be gladiators, he would seem to be an oppressor in the mold of Crassus, but he's more complicated than that, and his character goes on a very satisfying emotional journey (if you will) that pays off in the final act. He won a supporting actor Oscar for the role.

The Boys from Brazil (1978, Franklin J. Schaffner). Watched: Monday, September 5th

I had this film on my radar only because I saw that Olivier received an Oscar nomination for his work, which made it seem like an essential film from his canon. And I knew it was about hunting Nazis, a subject matter that you'd think would be the basis for more films -- what worse villains are there than Nazis? I'm glad I didn't know more, because The Boys from Brazil was full of surprises -- the kind of surprises I can't believe I've gone this long without having spoiled for me.

Even though the film is 33 years old, I'm going to give you a big SPOILER WARNING right now before I continue talking about it, because I know that my enjoyment of it was predicated largely on the fact that I didn't know where it was going. This is not to say I wouldn't have still loved the film if I'd known its secrets -- just that I was thrilled not to know them, and got a major chill to the spine when I figured them out just moments before they were revealed on screen. So, you can stop reading now if you haven't seen the film ... or choose to go on if you don't care about what I'm going to spoil.

Okay, so Olivier plays a career Nazi hunter, Ezra Lieberman, now in his old age -- at least in his mid-60s, though we're never given his exact age. He's living in an apartment Austria with his sister, having helped capture a number of prominent figures, but has been on a bit of a decline -- he actually stalls the landlord on paying his rent when we first meet him. Very soon he's contacted by another, much-younger Jew, an American named Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg! Credited as "Steven"!), who has tracked the infamous Nazi scientist Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) to Paraguay, where he has recorded a mysterious meeting between Mengele and a bunch of other wanted Nazis. Mengele has charged them to carry out the mission to kill 94 men -- living in different countries, and none of them Jews -- who will be turning age 65 in the next two years. This is all very mysterious, and when Kohler appears to be killed during one phone call with Lieberman, Lieberman sets aside his initial disinclination to become involved and starts digging into this strange plot.

Okay, here's the part I didn't know: Mengele has cloned Adolf Hitler -- 94 times -- and is trying to create the environmental conditions necessary for these youthful Hitler clones to rise up and assume rightful leadership of the Aryan race. He's killing the adoptive fathers of these boys because Hitler's own father died at age 65, when he was in his early teens. And that's not the only environmental detail he's trying to duplicate -- these couples were chosen to adopt the Hitler babies (quite unknowingly, of course) because the father was a civil servant some 20 years older than the mother.

This floored me. In fact, I almost wrote the following status update on Facebook: "I can't believe that a movie about cloning Adolf Hitler has existed for 33 years and I'm only just finding out about it." I didn't write the status update for two reasons, listed in order of importance: 1) I didn't want my Jewish Facebook friends to get the wrong idea, and 2) I didn't want to spoil the movie for those who hadn't seen it. (Yes, you'll be glad to know I consider not offending my friends to be more important than not ruining movies.)

What a high concept, right? I could never have guessed coming in that something so science fiction-oriented would exist in a movie about hunting Nazis. Yet the very unusual premise does not make the film hokey in any way. In fact, I found it chilling.

Part of the reason it was so chilling is that Gregory Peck gives his all as Mengele. Nice risk-taking by Peck, who has always appeared in sympathetic roles when I've seen him on screen. No role could be less sympathetic than a true believer Nazi with the scientific wherewithal to experiment on humans. We originally think he's only injecting dyes into the eyes of Paraguayan natives in order to give them Aryan blues, until we discover that his actual designs (and actual abilities) are far more advanced. Peck's Mengele is cruel and driven and awful, in all sorts of wonderful ways. He gives a speech at the end that is simply a transcendent portrayal of crazed Nazism -- and he believes every word of it. The only thing better is the listener's reaction to his speech, but that's one thing I won't spoil.

As good as Peck is, this movie belongs to Olivier. This role is completely different than the other two roles I saw last month, set in modern times and involving a character who's much funnier and more human-scaled than the other two. You'd think there could be some issues of sensitivity involved in the WASP-ish Olivier playing an elderly Austrian Jew, but Olivier immediately convinces us how dedicated he is to making the portrayal nuanced, rather than just a broad caricature of a kvetching old Jew. Olivier does kvetch, and it's incredibly funny -- but his character is also humanistic and shrewd and extraordinarily brave. But back to the funny. I never would have guessed that Olivier was capable of the type of comedic acting he displays in this film. He has numerous lines of dialogue in which he takes the piss out of himself in hilarious ways, the most memorable of which being when he considers the possibility of himself being cloned: "I vould tell them not to vaste zeir time." What's amazing is how well these humorous bits are incorporated into the film's extremely grave subject matter, making for an almost inimitable hybrid between comedy and drama. Oh, and his accent, which at first seems like it could be a distraction, is just a natural part of the character -- as with anything Olivier dedicates himself to, he gets it down perfectly.

I will reveal that the climax involves a showdown between Mengele and Lieberman, as a film like this should, and again this allows it to go outside the box in wonderful ways. A tete-a-tete between men of their advanced age, turning physical but not ridiculous? It happens, and it carries with it an incredible sense of catharsis. And it also gives us two great cinematic legends, in the end stages of their respective careers, showing us what the craft of acting is all about.

There's more I'm sure I could say about this terrific film -- like the perfect casting of the boy they got to play the Hitler clone -- but I'll wrap up in the interest of finally putting my Olivier post to bed.

Okay, for the rest of the year, I'm going with a theme in Getting Acquainted: All of the cinematic figures I'll be watching are associated with B movies (and in some cases, "B" would be generous). I've got 'em all lined up ... and will hopefully watch them by the deadline this time.

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