Much Ado About Nothing, Lionsgate, 2013
by James Glickman
Much Ado About Nothing,
dir. Joss Whedon, 2013, 108 minutes.
Joss Whedon’s recent Much Ado About Nothing embodies the question: can movies made from Shakespeare still find a wide audience? It has been a long trajectory since 1948 when Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet got seven nominations and three Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, to the late ‘90s when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet drew $150 million and Shakespeare in Love brought nearly $300 million to studio coffers. For many reasons, now art houses appear to be the only venues where paying customers can be drawn, or even not drawn at all, for Shakespeare, as Julie Taymor learned painfully with Helen Mirren as Prospera in her 2010 version of The Tempest, which drew a paltry US $278,000 in worldwide box office revenues. A classic example of ‘good Shakespeare,’ in that it preserved the language and honored the shape, if not always the gender, of the original characters, Taymor’s Tempest was, as one critic pointed out, “cinematically inert.”
It is only in cinemas that crowds are shrinking. Shakespeare’s dramas continue to enjoy undiminished popularity on stages all across the English-speaking world, and many highly accomplished cinematic versions are still being made through the generosity of PBS and the BBC – The Hollow Crown series covering Richard II and Henry’s IV and V as a recent example. The question remains, though, whether films of Shakespeare’s plays can continue to be made for broader audiences than those who tune into Elizabethan culture on TV. Movies used to be shaped almost entirely by North American receipts – if it played in Peoria, it was a success. Now, with two-thirds of box office receipts coming from abroad, it has to play in Beijing. Literature and humanities are famously in decline at increasingly market-sensitive universities, and if Macbeth has crept into America’s new “Common Core” curriculum, Shakespeare and all imaginative literature are being displaced by a new emphasis on non-fiction. Read Macbeth, and you can ‘check the Shakespeare box’ and leave the rest of his plays off the reading list.
True, it is possible to overestimate the need for a specially educated audience for Elizabethan drama. The population of London in Shakespeare’s time was a bit over 200,000 people, three-quarters of them illiterate. His audiences included as many as 15,000 a week, most of whom could neither read nor write, yet they obviously enjoyed many of his verbally intricate plays. America, too, has always been a popular place for Shakespeare, including in small frontier towns where the audience happily took him to heart – sometimes too much, as when back in the Old West one transported theatergoer rose from his seat and shot the actor playing Iago.
But Hollywood has now found itself imprisoned in a self-created jail: blockbuster or bust. Joss Whedon has recently done both, almost simultaneously. First, with 2012 ‘s The Avengers, he made a movie that, while presently in third place behind Titanic and Avatar, is one of the leading box office money-making movies of all time. During a contractually required break from editing The Avengers, Whedon went home to Santa Monica where, using his own house for the set, he filmed in twelve days his charming version of Much Ado About Nothing. His costs were so low, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe observed, “The total budget for the new film probably doesn’t equal one day of crafts services for the blockbuster.”
Hollywood’s blockbuster crisis has been much commented on, including by the director who many claim started the phenomenon with his Star Wars sagas. Even Steven Spielberg found it nearly impossible to finance his film on Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis, despite hiring himself as director and enlisting one of the leading living writers of dialogue in English, Tony Kushner, as screenwriter. What is now required to create a mega-hit is all-too familiar: cartoon sagas, computer-generated special effects, 3-D, conventional story arcs and language that will not baffle a thirteen-year-old, all while being easily translatable – and swiftly readable – in subtitles if it is not dubbed.
Shakespeare is an even tougher sell than Lincoln.
It is possible to make movies that are good versions of Shakespeare but not very good movies, with Kenneth Branagh’s wan As You Like It an unhappy example. And it is possible to make good movies that are not very good Shakespeare. Ran, the Kirowsawa version of King Lear, and The Forbidden Planet, the sci fi version of The Tempest, are excellent films, but you won’t find the true star of Shakespearean tales – his language – anywhere in them. You can view a competently acted and skillfully directed Franco Zefferelli version of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, and very likely find it a decent movie, but Gibson is better at portraying hair-trigger rage than depicting a grief-stricken young man for whom violence does not come easily. (Gibson’s Hamlet kicks over Rosencrantz’s chair with him in it when he and Guildenstern are first summoned to pay their friendly visit.) An uninitiated moviegoer might well be mystified as to why the revenge tale is not over in the minutes following the ghost’s first appearance. Gertrude, played by Glenn Close, who is four years Mr. Gibson’s senior in real life, appears to be attracted to her son in ways that Freud never theorized about, with her new husband, Claudius, physically wrenching her out of an open-mouthed farewell kiss to her son. The film is energetic and entertaining, but Gibson resembles an outtake from Mad Max far more than the melancholy Danish prince. Decent filmmaker’s craft; mediocre Shakespeare.
All too easy, alas, is doing a bad movie on all counts, as Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame demonstrated in his recent Romeo and Juliet. Claiming that only those with expensive educations can follow the original language, he has replaced chunks of it with his own. Juliet’s nurse, for example, now offers, “I must say, you have good taste in men!”
On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh has managed to succeed not once but twice, with Much Ado and Henry V – both excellent movies and excellent Shakespeare – and then fail comprehensively with his ill-conceived musical version of Love’s Labor’s Lost. His Hamlet, in which he starred as well as directed, was brilliant Shakespeare, though at over four hours, it was never likely to put any casual moviegoers in a seat even with a hogshead of popcorn to accompany them. Like Joss Whedon, you could say Branagh is working on his own high-low strategy: After Marvel’s Thor, his most recent directing job is a version of the late Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. But this past summer, he also appeared for the first time in over a decade in the National Theatre’s Macbeth, a performance he will be taking to the New York stage next summer.
It is easy to see why Joss Whedon would be especially attracted to directing Much Ado About Nothing. The Cambridge scholar, Tony Tanner, wrote that it is “perhaps Shakespeare’s most perfectly constructed play, every part in its place, and working so smoothly and easily as to make the whole work seem like a piece of effortless, seamless spontaneity.” And while nearly all of it is written in prose, not the iambic pentameter of many of Shakespeare’s other plays, it involves a dynamic exchange between vivid and witty characters, making it all the more accessible to a general audience. It was popular in its own time, and has continued to be in the centuries since.
That does not mean that everything in the text translates well. Besides its plain first meaning, the title of Much Ado About Nothing had two other immediate meanings for an Elizabethan audience. The word ‘nothing’ was pronounced ‘noting,’ and during all of the play’s many comic and nearly tragic subplots, characters keep noting what others say – or mishearing what they say – as the engine of action. The second meaning of ‘noting’ is a slang word for women’s genitals. (Hamlet uses it to joke bitterly with Ophelia during the play-within-the-play, remarking that that’s a fair thing to lie between a maid’s legs. “What’s that, my lord?” she asks. “Nothing,” he replies.) Much Ado About Vaginas would probably not have been a popular title, but sexual anxiety is a notable preoccupation for all the major male characters. And contrary to its title’s plain meaning, the play is actually about a great deal: the tiniest of twists could have turned it as tragic as Romeo and Juliet or another play that hinged on sexual jealousy, Othello.
As a female character, Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice is second only to Rosalind in all of Shakespeare’s comedies. If she is “too wise to woo peaceably,” it may be because before the play begins, her less-than-mighty opposite, Benedict, has broken her heart. Whedon brings sexuality front and center as he begins his black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing with Benedict leaving their shared bed at dawn and Beatrice pretending sleep as he silently slips out the door. (This non-verbal modern addition has a lot more textual support than Branagh’s putting Hamlet and Ophelia in bed together in Hamlet.) Whedon also changes Conrade from a male into a female, converting nearly all of Conrade’s interactions with Don John into sex scenes.
What makes Whedon’s version so successful is the naturalism with which the actors deliver their lines. Only one actor is classically trained – Reed Diamond who plays Don Pedro – but virtually all of them inhabit their roles with uninflected ease. This is despite the fact that two roles in particular present special challenges: the all-but-mustachio-twirling villainy of “the bastard Don John,” played with perfect deadpan by Sean Maher; and the self-important malapropisms of Dogberry, the constable, played hilariously by Nathan Fillion. Both parts are played with engaging skill and effectiveness that bear out Whedon’s aim, as he says in his director’s commentary on the newly released DVD, which is “to make a film that has the energy of a play.”
In Branagh’s classic version of Much Ado About Nothing, viewers sense from the start that the director was going to be playful, that we were not going to see some correct and scholarly pedigreed version of the comedy. The audience was immediately invited to be part of the game, to suspend disbelief and watch gifted actors apply their craft, beginning with the arrival of the powerful Italian aristocrat Don Pedro played by Denzel Washington – African-Americans being scarce on the ground amid the Italian aristocracy. Not all of Branagh’s improvisations were successful – Michael Keaton channeling Beetlejuice as Dogberry while galloping about the Tuscan countryside accompanied by Monte Python-esque coconuts for sound effects was a leaden piece of whimsy, and a grim-faced Keanu Reeves was permitted to commit to film a cartoonish performance of Don John that might embarrass even the most generous critic. But the film’s exuberance and sundrenched setting immerse the audience in ways that not even 3-D can always achieve. Perhaps one measure of the movie’s success is that the villa where it was filmed is still much in demand as a site for destination weddings.
But Whedon himself all but conceded the field to Branagh by making his in black-and-white, a technique that, brilliant clarity and the depth of field aside, does not create a visually enveloping world. His chiaroscuro, while interesting, holds you at a cool distance. Whedon said he was looking to create the sense of a noir ‘30s comedy, with the glamorous look of the Kennedy era and a subplot of a TV crime drama. Improbable as all that sounds, he succeeds – but, as he admits, he was also looking to “save a ton of money.” And he did. No colors, “no worries about an orange lawn mower off in the background,” and no costume budget: the male actors had to show up sporting their own best dress suit and the women wearing party dresses.
The only thing that was costly may have been the drinks budget. The play is filmed as one long party that stretches all night until dawn and into the next day, during which no one goes without a drink in hand for long. This stretching and compressing of time works to make the story simultaneously more dreamlike and more real, where we as viewers all begin to feel like inebriated party goers ourselves, not quite sure where we are and what time it is. A key to the intoxication is the delightful performance of Amy Aker as Beatrice. Balancing intelligence with charm, and with an expressive face as readable as if she had a thought-balloon bobbing above her head, Aker easily generates laughter with such famous lines as, “I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear he loves me,” yet still she still makes you feel her rage when she wishes, fiercely, to take revenge on Claudio for his false accusations, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”
Besides his enormous success with The Avengers, Whedon has a large and passionate fan base from his television productions, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. This Shakespeare venture has been a hit on the indie movie circuit and beloved of critics everywhere. Despite all these advantages, the box office for his version at $5 million remains less than a quarter of Branagh’s 1993 production.
Recently, Ralph Fiennes made a run at combining box office with Shakespeare by offering a challenging version of Coriolanus. It has a stellar cast, including himself in the title role, as well as Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain and Gerald Butler, but it made scarcely a million dollars, far short of its production costs. Clearly, producers and directors keep trying to reach that elusive large audience, yet before we can conclude that it is a fool’s venture for them to try, we might consider this. Shakespeare the professional dramatist and theater shareholder would have sympathized with Hollywood’s problem of getting bodies in seats. Macbeth + zombies might be all-but redundant, with its witches and bloody ghost of Banquo already present to thrill the masses, but the film world has still not given up on trying to find a popular audience. The producers of The King’s Speech are in the process of making a new Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. And Sir Kenneth Branagh, to use his still relatively new title, says if at all possible, he would like to do an IMAX version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
About the Author:
James Glickman is a novelist and short story writer who teaches Shakespeare at the Community College of Rhode Island. He is the author of Sounding the Waters.