Adapting Shakespeare is an ultimate exercise in troubleshooting: more than any other source material, the works of Shakespeare are thrillingly theatrical and cinematic, but also a fount of problems. Where will a new adaptation fit in the play's rich tradition of theatrical and screen iterations? What new perspectives can the assembled talents bring to material already subject to endless scrutiny? Will the approach be naturalistic or expressionistic, traditional or avant garde, full-length or deeply cut?
In the same way, audiences well versed in Shakespeare will second-guess each choice, sifting through their own sets of problems in dealing with the source material and its interpretation. The 1965 film version of Othello—preserving Laurence Olivier's triumphant 1964 stage performance at the National Theatre—must be described as problematic, but so too is it a rewarding and important record of a historically important production. The play about a Moorish general who "loved not wisely but too well" gets its most complete cinematic adaptation in this only slightly-trimmed version.
Though the National Theatre production was directed by John Dexter and the film by Stuart Burge, Olivier was the production's prime mover, even in concept. Having played Iago (and preferring him to the title role), Olivier wasn't eager to play Othello, the last remaining major tragic role he hadn't yet essayed. Insisting that the play belonged to Iago, he offered, "If I take it on, I don't want a witty, Machiavellian Iago. I want a solid, honest-to-God N.C.O." He got one in Frank Finlay, whose restrained, coldly reasoning (and, inevitably, witty and Machiavellian) Iago proved minimalist for the stage but perfectly scaled on screen.
Goaded by Orson Welles' comment that "Larry's a natural tenor, and Othello's a natural baritone," Olivier took intensive vocal training to lower his voice by at least an octave. He also affected a semi-African accent and performed in blackface, which still raised eyebrows in 1964. With Dexter focused on the tragic flaw of pride, Olivier developed a relaxed, fluid body language for the Moor at the top of his game, inlcuding a self-satisfied strut. When Iago confronts Othello with his own capacity for "jealousy...the green-eyed monster" and humiliating cuckoldry, the Moor's well-dampened temper breaks through to pinched nerves and, eventually, eye-crossing madness.
At least on screen, Olivier overplays some of Othello's rages, with dance-like gestures that border on racist caricature. But it's difficult to separate these flourishes from the long-standing Shakesperean tradition of presentational acting. Most of Olivier's performance is brilliantly calibrated. With help of costume and camera placement, but mostly by virtue of body language, Olivier makes himself appear larger and more intimidating than Finlay, though they're the same size. Olivier's undeniable vocal power and attention to psychological detail have led many (including John Steinbeck) to declare his Othello definitive. Franco Zeffirelli rightly described Olivier's Othello as "an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last three centuries."
The film itself is, for the most part, the National Theatre production (splitting hairs a bit, Olivier called it "not a photographed stage performance...[but] a film of a performance"). The entire stage cast participates—Olivier and Finlay both earned Oscar nominations, as did Joyce Redman (an ideal Emilia) and a 31-year-old Maggie Smith (Desdemona). Also on hand is Derek Jacobi as Cassio; though he declaims more loudly than necessary in his screen debut, his vigorous performance is otherwise spot-on (the film was also Michael Gambon's screen debut, but good luck spotting him in a walk-on).
Burge's primary cinematic flourish is the use of a split diopter to capture an Iago aside with Desdemona and Cassio in deep focus behind him, or Othello in the foreground as he listens in to Cassio and Iago; the Cinemascope cinematography is by Geoffrey Unsworth (Becket, Superman). The simple, representative settings and dusky cyclorama constitute a blown-up version of the stage set. William Kellner's deep-shaded art direction, so dominated by browns, adds to the play's claustophobia but also to the film's airless quality. Costume designer Jocelyn Herbert contributes a lone yellow cloak that, when removed by Iago at the play's turning point, reveals a jet-black tunic representing Othello's shadow self.
Now that the culture has all-but-categorically forsaken white actors in dark-skinned roles (and for good reason), the 1965 Othello certainly can be discomfiting. Nevertheless, Olivier's work retains the ability to astonish. Whether taken as a cultural relic or the definitive screen treatment, Othello demands to be seen for Olivier's bravura, high-wire performance.
Though available as a separate title, the DVD debut of the long-out-of-print Othello should be picked up as part of Warner's The Shakespeare Collection. Priced as low as $40 online for four films on five discs, The Shakespeare Collection adds to Othello a two-disc special edition of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Max Reinhardt's 1935 Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and George Cukor's 1936 Romeo and Juliet, all on DVD for the first time. Purchased separately (and all of the films are worthy), the discs would set you back about $60.
Othello has been handled with care. The newly remastered transfer is excellent (so good it reveals every imperfection of Olivier's makeup!), and the mono soundtrack is crisp and clear. The disc also includes two vintage extras: the 1965 featurette "Olivier Talks About Othello" (4:50) and a shortened form of the same featurette that served as the "Theatrical Trailer" (4:01). Both feature Olivier from London's Shepperton Studios, specifically a personal-study set that he cheekily mocks. From "his" desk, Olivier explains the film's concept ("Our aim is to create the atmosphere and feeling of live theatre..."), and comments on the main roles and the character of the film.
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