Monday, May 4, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Hamlet" (1948)

Laurence Olivier
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: May 4, 1948
Director: Laurence Olivier
Written By: William Shakespeare
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Laurie
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 155 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Laurence Olivier)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Costume Design (Black and White)

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actress (Jean Simmons)
-Best Director (Laurence Olivier)
-Best Original Score (Comedy or Drama)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Johnny Belinda
-The Red Shoes
-The Snake Pit
-The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

And the winner is...

As evident by a piece shared last week, William Shakespeare is no stranger to the Academy Awards. He has had three total Best Picture wins associated with his name. However, Hamlet is the only one to be directly adapted from his source material. This alone makes its legacy a little bit of conflicts for fans of the iconic drama, whose four hour running time was cut down to 155 minutes. As we'll get into, there were some glaring omissions that made it controversial at the time despite being part of Laurence Olivier's rise to popularity by turning in what is widely considered, for its time, the definitive cinematic version of this story.

As mentioned, there were some glaring errors to the iconic story. For starters, Olivier had the film focus more on the Oedipal complex of Hamlet, of whom he played. He also eliminated the subplot of various characters, most notably Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Olivier also felt the need to remove all political elements. The film's look, which is entirely done on sound stages, was influenced by film noir and German Expressionists. The film was shot through the deep photography technique that Orson Welles and William Wyler had popularized. While it was initially believed to be shot in black and white for artistic reasons, Olivier would later admit that he was having conflicts with Technicolor at the time.

The casting was also especially odd, as even Olivier didn't seem to want to initially do Hamlet. He became convinced when he saw that Welles had just done MacBeth and was preparing for Othello. Olivier wanted to imitate the success that he had previously had with a Danish play. Since he cast himself in the lead, he was able to get financing. Many women tried out for the role of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, but were reluctant because of the age. They finally went with Eileen Herlie, who was 11 years younger than her "son" played by Olivier. Olivier also provided the voice of Hamlet's father, who was heard through a tape recorder that was slowed down to give it a ghostly quality.

Even at the time of the film's release, there was controversy over the omissions. Despite acclaim, Shakespeare enthusiasts like Ethel Barrymore found the version to be problematic. However, it did win the Venice Film Festival's coveted Golden Lion, thus making it the only Best Picture winner to have that honor. The film would go on to influence future adaptations that not only included all of the characters, but changed who said the final lines based on the omission of a critical player. In the film's strangest but most enduring legacy, the performance of Morticia Addams from The Addams Family is based specifically on Jean Simmons' performance in Hamlet.

The film held a lot of honors at the Academy Awards. Beyond the Golden Lion, it was also the first non-American film to win Best Picture. It was also the first film in which an actor (in this case Olivier) directed himself to an acting win (the other being Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful). It was the fifth Best Picture winner to not have a screenplay nomination (the next would be The Sound of Music). In an odd moment, Ethel Barrymore presented the Best Picture category was noticeably shaken up its win. Olivier didn't actually attend the ceremony, as he was off doing a play at the time with Vivien Leigh.  

It seems impossible to judge the legacy that Hamlet has had on the long run. For starters, Shakespeare films have come in many forms, including Best Picture winners West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love. Olivier would go on to do several more adaptations and directing two of his own with Richard III and The Prince and the Showgirl. He had a long and storied career that paved the way for many other adaptations, the most noteworthy of which was Kenneth Branagh, whose Hamlet is considered to be the most accurate down to its four hour running time. All of these aspects make Olivier's Hamlet a little trickier to judge because the story has only been improved upon since. Also, the omissions keep purists from flocking to it. However, from a production standpoint, it is hard to deny its influence.

Hamlet seems like an odd Best Picture winner considering every other film that has one. While there have been several period pieces, there haven't been any as directly adapted from stage play material before. As a result of its many adaptations since, it is a film that is hard to judge for what it did impressively. However, Olivier proved to be a thespian actor who didn't give up and turned in the perfectly dramatic roles. In a small bit of irony, fellow Hamlet director Branagh would play Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn. While it may not be the most loved Best Picture winner, nor one of the most memorable, it was the first to achieve many things, of which it did with creative license. That alone makes it an odd yet standout winner.

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