Thursday, October 30, 2008

Brush up your Shakespeare, it's Shrewfest '08

Elizabeth Taylor looking bad ass and hot in Taming of the Shrew.

While discussing the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You, a friend of the blog recently pointed out that it was a modern adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. So I owe the idea for Shrewfest, entirely to Abbynormal and her magical video collection.

In 1929, shortly after the birth of talking pictures, director Sam Taylor adapated "The Taming of the Shrew" for film. There were two previous silent era versions of the play, but this one had the distinct advantage of having the premier married couple of motion pictures, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as its stars. Rumor has it that the declining relationship between the couple was responsible for added viciousness in the fight scenes.

Almost forty years later the play was again adapted by another great Shakesperean popularizer, Franco Zeffirelli and again it starred the premier married couple of motion pictures, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Again, the couple's marital ills came through on screen. (Taylor aznd Burton were divorced shortly after its release.) This 1967 version was the only one I'd ever seen until recently.

In between these two films Cole Porter made a musical adaptation Kiss Me Kate, which was set in a contemporary theater where the premier married couple of motion pictures are working out their marital difficulties onstage. I wondered if Cole Porter knew about the Fairbanks/Pickford film and if it inspired his version. Porter's musical is fairly insipid, the leads are annoying and yet, I found myself completely delighted by most of the musical numbers, especially those that featured the dancing talents of Ann Miller. I also loved "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and had it in my head for days after seeing the movie.

The final adaptation I watched for Shrewfest was Ten Things I Hate About You, (1999) starring the late Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, who were at the time anything but the premier married couple of motion pictures. Ledger is about as convincing as a high school student as Olivia Newton John is in Grease, but I'm willing to give that a pass as I've watched enough OC and Beverly Hills 90210. I know that high school students are supposed to look 26. The movie also stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt from one of my favorite sitcoms of all-time, Third Rock from the Sun. By setting Shakespeare's comedy in a modern high school, obviously, the writers took some major liberties with the story, yet it's really no worse than Kiss Me Kate.

Taming of the Shrew has as its conclusion, a scene which is pretty tough for most modern female audiences to stomach. In it the "tamed" shrew, lectures her sister and another disobedient wife about the importance of respecting her "master's" wishes and putting his needs before her own. Her monologue goes onto rationalize the paternalistic order of things by pointing out the softness of womens bodies in contrast to the hardness of men. It's ironic because she has spent the whole play thus far proving how tough women are, while most of the men in the play come off as buffoons, fools and scoundrels. There isn't a single reason for Katherina to submit to Petrucio's brutal humiliations other than love and there isn't a reason at all for her to love him, except that she does. Kiss Me Kate, made the lovers a divorced couple who reconcile after playing out their differences on stage. It's clear from the start that they still love on another and after a series of perfunctory misunderstandings they are reunited. Porter manages to make that monologue not about the shrew submitting her will, but returning to her true love, the theater. In the Zeferelli version it's all about chemistry. Burton and Taylor about burst into flames when they are alone together on screen. Zeferelli couches this in sumptuous production values and picturesque scenery, but the lesson is plain. Both the shrew and the tamer submit to their attraction for that which is wild and opposite in the other. Ten Things I hate About You translates the denoument into modern terms by having Kat read a mushy poem in front of class. By modernizing the play, the writers simply jettisoned those paternalistic lines and the story is not hurt a bit by it.

Ten Things owed as much to John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off as it does to Shakespeare. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I have a soft spot for Bueller from my youth. There are the inevitable teen tribal introductions, the coffee kids, the future MBA's, etc. Like a good Hughes movie, there are plenty of heart-warming daddy-daughter bonding scenes (I don't remember Katherina being exactly close to her dad in the play) and when Heath Ledger steals the school PA and sings a oldie the the heroine, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't Englebert Humperdinck. Because it's set in high school, the movie strings out the courtship of Petruchio and Kate (or Pat and Kat as the case may be) for the full length of the film. You can't have two high school kids getting married in the first twenty minutes of the movie. I really enjoyed Ten Things, largely because the young actors were all quite good, especially Julia Stiles who played Ophelia the following year in the modernization of Hamlet.


kda0121 said...

I thought Liz Taylor was at her absolute most beautiful around 1950 - 1951, when she made A Place in the Sun and Father of the Bride. However, I don't think Liz has ever looked more completely sensuous than in Taming of the Shrew. I agree, I can't understand her putting up with Petruchio, other than love; (or perhaps mutual lust). I have the Taylor/Burton version, but haven't viewed it for some time, so my memory of scenes is fuzzy. But I do remember the mood and tone of what I considered their joyous bickering of one another. I enjoyed it quite a lot and it was nice change to see a Shakespearian comedy. I also enjoyed Kiss Me Kate, since Cole Porter is one of my favorite composers and although I can't rate it as highly with the best of Astaire or Kelly, it's not bad. I've never had the opportunity to see the Pickford/Fairbanks version, which would be interesting.

Anne said...

With the pixellation in that Ann Miller clip, it kinda looks like she's having a wardrobe malfunction. How _does_ she tap dance in those heels, anyway? My goodness, what a gal!

I didn't realize Julia Stiles was in a version of Hamlet (with Ethan Hawke, oo yum). I'm going to have to watch that. At first I was confused because I thought somehow you meant "O," the high-school retelling of Othello she was in - say, is there a trend here? - but that's even more confusing since somehow I always get "O" confused with "Save the Last Dance."

Which just brings us to the desperate need for a YouTube Ann Miller-Julia Stiles dance-off. (My bet's on Ann Miller.)

Jennythenipper said...

KDA: I'd love to see the Pickford/Fairbanks version too.It's probably lost, though.

Hamlet 2000 is my favorite film version. I'm a huge Olivier fan, but still, Bill Murray as Polonius? How can you beat that? And I think Ethan Hawke as the poster child for 90s slacker really embodies Hamlet's dilemma perfectly. As I write this it's obvious that the year nine is going to have to have a Hamlet-o-rama.

I didn't realize Stiles was also in a version of Othello as well! Wow.

Sorry about the crappy quality of the Miller dance from Youtube. I love the idea of a Stiles/Miller dance off. There's no question that Miller would win.

kda0121 said...

I'm just not crazy about these modern day remakes of Shakespeare. I'm not a purist by any means; in fact my knowledge of the Bard is quite superficial. I suppose these newer versions of Will's works may expose today's generation to the classics and I don't won't to knock that. I just prefer the classical interpretations. I thought Kenneth Branagh made a very good version of Hamlet, updating things to the late 19th century. I know, that's still a far cry from the now generation, but for me it seemed a bold move.

Irena said...

I have not seen this post at the time when it appeared. I just have to pop in now and say a couple of words about my all time favorite "Taming of the Shrew" By Zeffirelli with R. Burton and E. Taylor. I think it is a masterpiece of a Shakespearean comedy on screen, it gives a modern cinematography to the story and at the same time preserves the atmosphere, frankly I can't stand watching Shakespeare plays presented with modern costumes and surroundings.
I was totally transfixed by Burton/Taylor duo and for me they are forever the ultimate shrew and the tamer.:)
I'd like to disagree with you that their marital problems find their way on screen. I had completely different impression, besides the movie was done on the peak of their marital life, in 1967. They got married in 1964 and divorced in 1974 (first time), five movies after "The Taming of the Shrew".